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To Be A Girl About It

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Changing the conversation around Morgan Rielly, sexism, and what it means to “be a girl about it”

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Our anger about what Morgan Rielly said isn’t just about Morgan Rielly.

Rielly’s comment that he is "not here to be a girl about it" was small, yes, but it’s part of a whole barrage of small things that indicate a pattern of belief in sports culture and society more generally: that women are weak, wimpy, unserious, and inferior. "Like a girl" is an example of a microaggressiona small and often unintentional remark that nonetheless contributes to further marginalize an already marginalized group. Sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia and other oppressions are not just reinforced through outright discrimination but also through these smaller things that many of us pass off as "casual" or "no big deal."

On Friday, the microaggressions went beyond what Rielly said. In his postgame remarks, Leafs interim coach Peter Horachek praised Rielly’s ability to move on from his remarks and other "difficult situations", saying, "That’s a special trait." No big deal, right? Just standard coach talk? Consider, though, that Rielly is praised for his ability to "move on," something that women who were hurt by his remarks were told to do. Rielly gets to be "special" for recognizing what he did was wrong and making an apology, something that should be a basic part of having offended anyone. And let’s not forget: "moving on" and "overcoming adversity" are often coded ways to say "this person did a terrible thing once, but now we don’t talk about it any more because they’re so good at sports." We’ve seen this narrative of "overcoming adversity" and "moving on" applied to Tyler Seguin’s homophobic tweet, Tampa Bay 2014 draft pick Anthony DeAngelo’s slurs against teammates, and Semyon Varlamov’s alleged abuse - all because they later did some good hockey things.

Horachek also called Rielly a "quality person" in his postgame remarks, highlighting how great and nice of a human being he believes Rielly to be. Several journalists and many fans rushed to make similar observations. However, it is important in this case to make a distinction between what deejay and video blogger Jay Smooth calls the "what they did" conversation, and the "what they are" conversation. The "what they did" conversation focuses on a person’s words or actions, the context for what happened, and the impact that it had. Conversely, the "what they are" conversation, to quote Smooth, "uses what they did and what they said to draw conclusions about what kind of person they are." The problem with the "what they are" conversation, Smooth argues, is that it takes the focus away from the concrete discussions of what happened and the people that were hurt, to hypothetical and speculative discussions of a person’s intentions and the essence of their character (i.e. this person is racist/sexist/homophobic). The "what they did" conversation holds people accountable for what they did. The "what they are" conversation usually devolves into conjecture about whether someone is a good person or not, and typically goes nowhere until people move on to the next thing. The "what they are" conversation will always be conjecture; "what they are" cannot be proven.

In this case, we have seen few (if any) efforts to lampoon Rielly’s character and we have yet to see any attempts to run him out of town. Many are and were upset, of course, but taking offense to Rielly’s words is not an attack on Rielly himself. Instead, the backlash against his comment has mostly paled in comparison to the backlash against the backlash.  It seems as if many had moved on before it even began and were deeply uncomfortable with the idea that some people couldn’t just dismiss it outright. Instead of the masses suggesting that Rielly is misogynistic, the "what they are" conversation has tended to centre around Rielly’s good character, which has been repeatedly evoked to not only argue that he cannot possibly be sexist, but by extension, that his words should be less impactful. Him being young or a hockey player or lacking in a liberal arts education have all been used to imply he could not possibly know better, and thus, that he should be held less accountable. In sum, the "what they are" conversation has superseded the "what they did" conversation.

The fact of the matter is that not intending to be sexist does not, and should not, give someone carte blanche to make a comment rooted in sexist ideologies. Subjugation from a nice person who didn’t mean it is still, nonetheless, subjugation. Rielly may not have intended to perpetuate the idea that women are weak, averse to hard work or not competitively-minded, but that does not mean that his comment was okay to say in the first place. Sexism is harmful, whether it comes from someone who is "truly" sexist or not. We are much more concerned about what Rielly said than whether or not he should be labelled as sexist.

Meanwhile, the people who were hurt by the comment are accused of "piling on," being "too sensitive," and feeding the "outrage machine." Rielly, somehow, became the victim of the "social justice warriors" and was lauded for having overcome adversity. The adversity that women must overcome on a daily basis (particularly women who are marginalized in multiple ways), and how microaggressions such as these contribute to that, was not generally a part of the conversation. Nor did anyone seem to have learned anything about discussing anger and systemic issues from last week, when those who were hurt by Jamie Benn’s remarks were dismissed for similar reasons. Or from the discussion before that, or the one before that, or…

This reframing of the discussion to focus on Rielly’s feelings and intentions does us all a disservice, as it has tended to individualize what is truly a systemic issue. Sexism, rather than being discussed as a pervasive problem occurring at all levels of society - in institutions, language, culture, interpersonally as well as intrapersonally - becomes a term that can only be applied to an individual with evil intentions. Or worse, the cultural pervasiveness of sexism - within locker room culture in particular - is used to defend the use of such language. Those making this argument need to realize that this is the problem, not the defence. Perhaps Rielly did "just" use a colloquialism found in dressing rooms everywhere, but that does not mean that the conversation ends there, nor should it. Challenging the culture of sexism and homophobia (which are very often intertwined) in locker rooms, which is central to the mission of groups such as the You Can Play Project, is vital. But further, this pervasiveness - the fact that "being a girl" is so synonymous with being weak and a cry-baby in the lexicon of sports and elsewhere that it is said without thought to broader implications - is the real issue behind all of the reaction.

While we appreciate Rielly’s apology, we do not agree that this is a case closed and that we all just need to move on and get back to the important things (presumably, men’s hockey). For those of us who have no choice but to "be a girl" about everything - because, well, we are girls - we can’t just "move on" from the society in which remarks like these make sense and are perpetuated. While Rielly and others need to be held accountable for their actions and to learn to be better next time, we are painfully aware that this insult to girls and women everywhere is a drop in an ocean. Recognizing that remarks like this matter - and working to end the culture that produces them - would be one less drop in that ocean.

We hope that the discussion following this post will be enriching and respectful. As such, the comments on this article will be heavily moderated. Asking questions in good faith and carefully considering the responses of others are encouraged. What isn't encouraged is derailing of the sort that was present in the EOTP post on this topic. Any posts suggesting that women are naturally inferior athletes, or discussions that are similarly off-topic and disrespectful, will be deleted.