Post 361.

Basketballers like Kobe Bryant become larger than life icons even for those who don’t  follow the sport or its athletes. At school, Ziya had an assignment on basketball requiring her to draw a court, map the positions, and profile a player. She got in the car talking about Kobe Bryant. I was certain that she had no idea who he was, but he was a name that she sensed was popular among the children, so she had a personality to describe that carried pop cultural cool.

Does it have to be a male player, I asked. No, it doesn’t, she responded tentatively, like thought of any other kind never occurred to her. Will any of the children focus on women basketballers, I ventured. No, she said, definitively, as if horrified. I think you should focus on players in the WNBA, I volleyed back, launching, as feminist mothers do, into a whole explanation of why.

I’m always concerned about androcentrism – or male-centredness – in children’s hidden curriculum. For the little class gazette which Zi and her classmates started, we had repeated conversations about why the sports section shouldn’t only focus on men’s football leagues. Your whole editorial team, both boys and girls, should make reporting inclusive and fair, and not let women in sports be less visible or valued, I’d encourage her.

In an age with Serena Williams, Simone Biles, and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, news about women in sport reports on athletic excellence, worth knowing by all. That boys don’t instinctively know this and that girls have to be pressed into even raising it tells us much about gender socialisation and its early normalising of gender inequality.

Tears burst out at my suggestion of profiling a woman basketball player. Kobe Bryant, she insisted, everyone else will be doing players like him. You can’t have a class where no students choose any women at all, I persisted. Why does it have to be me, she wailed. You have a responsibility, I said, we all do.

After so many readings of ‘Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls’, where she could see how so many women scientists, architects, inventors, athletes and activists are never taught to us, appear to not have made the vastly significant impacts they did, and seem to never have existed at all, this was a moment bringing home how knowledge matters.

Tears and quarrelling from the backseat. The teacher wouldn’t allow it. No other children would have women players. No one would know her player. Everyone would say she is weird. They would make fun of her. She was terrified of being different and not fitting in.

You’re a lioness, not a sheep, I said. I’m an amoeba floating in the ocean, she grumped, a reference to a different rant I have about being too passive, becoming dominated and bullied, and understanding her capacity to control what happens to her.  Every time she protested, I made baa-ing sounds. I said all I am hearing is sheep. You are a lioness. Roar. The baa-ing made her laugh despite her hysterics.

At home, we looked up women basketball players. Just look, I said, then you can do Kobe Bryant, it’s fine. As we searched, she discovered how many of these women have amazing stories, how they are as ambitious about winning as they are about being team players, and how many won Olympic gold medals. One of them is only five feet six inches and her team boasted about her playing like she’s 6’5. Ziya’s tiny and that caught her eye. It was like a world of inconceivable achievement opened up for the first time.

Then, as a cool evening breeze circled around us, she quietly chose a player and copied her biography. No fuss. No self-doubt. No fear about being weird. I’m proud of you, I said.

We have a similar struggle with adult media. It shows why norms are so hard to change, why those pursuing change are derided for being the odd and difficult ones, why girls are so likely to conform and boys so likely to consider gender equality a struggle which isn’t theirs, for nowhere are men under-represented in sports, politics or business nor is their over-representation even noticed.

Some may think that nine years old is too young to confront these issues, but these issues are already socialising children before they have the capacity to recognise they should resist. In the end, it wasn’t Kobe. It was Dawn Staley. Zi coolly finished her homework like a small, tentative roar.