rethink this: let us discuss Jessica Dweck’s entry on XX

Mackenzie McCollum on the court (image courtesy of ESPN)

Several weeks ago my friend Emily posted an interesting video from ESPN on facebook (watch it here at this link). The video highlights high school volleyball player Mackenzie McCollum and the discrimination she faced as a pregnant teen. According to ESPN McCollum was a starter on the volleyball squad and was the team’s star setter. But this all changed when everyone found out McCollum was pregnant (including her coaches, teammates, and the school principal) and McCollum sat on the bench for most of the remaining season, despite the fact that McCollum’s doctor wrote two notes to the school and coaches stating that she could play volleyball at this stage in her pregnancy. Moreover, the video notes that McCollum’s coach betrayed her by making her pregnancy known to her teammates who then spread the news around school, resulting in stares and whispers in class and in the halls. McCollum and her mother are considering suing the school and coaches for discrimination and would refer to Title IX to bolster their case.

I didn’t think much else about this story until I read Jessica Dweck’s entry at XX about McCollum titled, “Leaking Amniotic Fluid All Over Title IX.” As you can probably tell from the title, Dweck isn’t a fan of McCollum and her mother suing the school and coaches for discrimination or using Title IX in their case. Dweck’s position counters many news items and reporters who are highlighting McCollum’s case as a feminist cause. I’d like to take this opportunity to examine Dweck’s discussion of pregnant teenagers and sports and why she believes McCollum’s case makes a mockery of Title IX and feminism.

Why are we confusing McCollum with Spears? (image courtesy of justjared)

Dweck starts her entry with the assertion that “In the age of Juno and Jamie Lynn Spears, it is apparently quite shocking to some teen girls that getting knocked up in high school has negative consequences beyond stretching out their favorite knit blouse.” From the get go Dweck’s attitude towards pregnant teenage girls is one of condescension, assuming that teenage girls blindly mimic and model themselves after representations of teenagers in film and celebrity teen girls. If Dweck had taken the time to either watch the ESPN report or other news stories she would have read/seen McCollum talk about how hard it was for her to tell her mom about her pregnancy and the difficulties she faced returning to school once everyone found out. Obviously the hip manner that pregnancy may be dealt with in Juno or in the case of Jamie Lynn Spears does not necessarily reflect girls’ actual experiences, something McCollum knows first hand and Dweck refuses to acknowledge. Moreover, Dweck’s tone resembles the moral panic that caused multiple news media outlets to report on a pregnancy pact at high school in Gloucester, Mass. Simply because indie darling Ellen Page earned praise and award nominations for Juno doesn’t mean life is any bit easier for actual pregnant teens or that teen girls are lining up to get knocked up to be like their favorite characters or stars.

Then there are these two quotes about teen pregnancy and sports:

“It’s true that the goal of Title IX was to prevent schools from making assumptions about women’s “innate” aptitude for certain academic subjects or athletic activities, but barring pregnant people from playing a rough, physically demanding sport is not based on a patriarchal fantasy of keeping women barefoot by the hearth. It’s just common sense and a reasonable response to the realities of biology.”

“The volleyball coach was merely playing on the defensive and taking the same precaution that any reasonably prudent doctor would have prescribed had he actually seen McCollum in action, diving uterus-first onto the gymnasium floor and having hard leather balls continually hurled at her abdomen.” Let’s discuss this . . .

Does any girl think teen pregnancy will be like the indie flick Juno? I think not. (image courtesy of

First off it is my understanding that Title IX was designed with the following in mind: “The law states: ‘No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance'” (courtesy of wikipedia). McCollum was treated differently because she was a pregnant, a condition or biological occurrence that is associated with sex (yes sexual acts, but also in terms of sex organs and reproductive capabilities). Also if Dweck wants to discuss the “realities of biology” I’d recommend reading some Judith Butler, who notes that the way we discuss biology and biological sex characteristics is all tangled up in ideological notions of gender identity and “proper” gender roles.

Also while I agree that precautions should be taken to ensure a pregnant teenager’s health and safety on the court or the field, it is quite obvious that Dweck has a limited understanding of volleyball as a sport in general and the position of setter specifically. Volleyball can be a rough sport and for most of the players on the court there is a fair amount of digging (retrieving a spiked ball) that can involve diving onto hard gymnasium floors. But that isn’t the case for McCollum’s position as setter. The setter’s primary job on the court is to get to the net and be ready to set the ball to her five other teammates, a motion that involves standing with bent knees – not diving on the floor. More than likely McCollum’s doctor understood the different positions on the court, which is why he wrote not one but two letters to the school suggesting that McCollum was in perfect health to play volleyball at that stage in her pregnancy.

McCollum setting the ball (image courtesy of ESPN)

Beyond Dweck’s condescension and misunderstanding of sports – what kills me is her final sentence: “While some have hailed this as a victory for feminism and civil rights, it is certainly a defeat for teenage girls, who should learn that high-risk behavior and stupid decisions have consequences that you can’t always self-righteously sue your way out of” (emphasis added). Translation: girls should know better (remember the feminine constraints . . . er I mean ideals . . . of purity and innocence) and keep their legs shut, otherwise they get what’s coming to them.

Obviously McCollum can’t sue her way out of being pregnant or eventually birthing a child – those are the consequences she will deal with. But being betrayed by her coach, the gossip amongst her teammates, and the isolation she felt at school – those aren’t consequences but rather discriminatory actions based on traditional notions of gender conformity and girlhood. As a feminist concerned with how girls are treated and discussed in media and society in general, I’m personally appalled by this anti-feminist stances towards pregnant teens. What pregnant teens need is greater support from their communities, families, and friends, not an adult feminist judging them or their actions from on high. It’s as McCollum’s mother notes, yes her daughter’s life will change but it doesn’t have to end just because she’s pregnant.

~ by actyourage09 on December 29, 2009.

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