Vice Sports published a piece in honour of Hayley Wickenheiser’s retirement titled, “Hayley Wickenheiser Didn’t Let Sexism Impede Her GOAT Career.” The first time I read the title, it irked me the wrong way because, while it pats Wick on the back for “having thick skin,” it backhands other women for basically not, in Sheryl Sandberg’s words, leaning in hard enough. But I let it go. Then I saw the article circulated again on Twitter and I couldn’t keep quiet this time.
The Vice article starts by retelling how Wickenheiser was cut from a boys team at a young age explicitly because of her gender. She could have hung up her skates that very day, but she persisted becoming the name and face of women’s hockey as we know it. Her story is meant to inspire us, and it should. But we need to be careful about how we write about systemic oppression. To say that she didn’t let sexism beat her implies that many women do let it defeat them. This is not to say that strength of will doesn’t play a role in our individual lives but individual merit does not overturn sexism, which means that it is not a solution that can be applied to the group at large. For example, if we applied determination and strength of will to illness as a solution, I think most would balk at the suggestion. Again, these traits can play a role but no doctor in his right mind is prescribing “thick skin” as a tried and true cure against illness. If it cannot be applied as a solution for the group then it is not a solution.
The way the title is written also erases patriarchal oppression from the story. It centers Wickenheiser in the narrative (which it should) but unintentionally writes out discrimination as something that is at play throughout her career. If we were to re-write the title as “Sexism Was Unsuccessful in Trying to Impede Hayley Wickenheiser’s GOAT Career,” or “Hayley Wickenheiser Achieves GOAT Career In Spite of Sexism” it animates sexism as something that is active in the story, rather than a passive participant. Alternatively, if we were to write a headline like “Jonathan Toews: A Beneficiary of Sexism in Hockey” (nothing against Toews personally) it does a lot to highlight that which manages to remain invisible.
The narratives that encourage women to “lean in,” or drawing from Megyn Kelly’s new autobiography,”settle for more” (#whitefeminism) give the illusion that the only thing holding women back are women themselves. News Flash: women are not both the oppressor and liberator. It also accepts that sexism is just part of the game, so if you’re going to do anything in hockey just dig your heels in. It is a less offensive version of Donald Trump Jr’s statement that women who can’t handle sexual harassment in the workplace should just quit. We have passively accepted the existence of sexism when we should be fighting it at every opportunity. I think the point of the Vice article is to inspire women and give Wickenheiser the respect she deserves; however, it is written with a tacit acceptance that the road for female hockey players is tougher.
The way we write about sexism, racism, and heterosexism (homophobia), can either expose oppression for what it is or we can give privilege and entitlement a pass. Someone got Wickenheiser’s spot on that minor hockey team because he was a boy, not because he was the best. We understand that is implied in the story but it is time we make these privileges explicit.
This is a call for a collective “write-in”. Let’s aim to write-in privilege, entitlement, and oppression. Let’s write-out stories about “thick skin” and willpower if and when there is an “ism” at play. Wickenheiser’s story is very much the exception to the rule. Let us be inspired by her leadership but call a spade a spade. Words matter, use them wisely.