Trudeau calling female Olympians 'girls' highlights 'broader problem' in sports
Members of Canada's Women's Rugby Sevens team led by captain Jen Kish, left, pose for a photo before an announcement by Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and Rugby Canada in Toronto on Tuesday, July 26, 2016, to introduce the players to represent Team Canada at this year's Rio Olympics (THE CANADIAN PRESS / Chris Young)
Published Wednesday, August 17, 2016 4:53PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, August 18, 2016 10:38AM EDT
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was so excited about the Olympics earlier this week, he told reporters in Corner Brook, N.L., that he'd stayed up late the previous night to watch Canadian Andre De Grasse win a bronze medal in the fan-favourite 100-metre sprint.
"It is 2016 so it means that our girls are doing extraordinarily well," Trudeau said, invoking his oft-cited reason for appointing a gender-equitable cabinet. "We've got a great Olympic team and all of Canada is incredibly behind them."
"Because it's 2015," which Trudeau used after last fall's cabinet swearing-in, is a pithy line. It's a simple call to get with the times that encapsulates a much broader problem of lingering sexism, which Trudeau uses as shorthand for his drive to give women equal emphasis in his government. But while Trudeau may have thought he was playing to that brand, in this case he walked into a faux pas for a lot of feminists: referring to fully formed adult Olympians as children.
"It's part of a broader problem" in the world of sports, said Kathryn Trevenen, acting director of the University of Ottawa's Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies. "The idea that men are serious, they pursue business and sport; girls are just having fun. I think that language is directly related to [how] women are always seen as less serious and less significant."
Trudeau's slip is hardly an example that shocks with its sexism, particularly in an Olympic season that has seen a Canadian commentator say Eugenie Bouchard isn't a serious competitor because she likes to do interviews, or an American commentator who suggested a female swimmer's coach-husband is responsible for her success. Certainly not everyone would agree with the concern, given the abundance of women using hashtags like #girlpower and #girlbosses on social media (even CTVNews.ca used the "Girl power" headline to refer to the Olympic team's strong performance). But it's a throwback to a time when "girls" was used more commonly in a demeaning way when referring to women, says Ann Decter, director of advocacy and public policy at YWCA Canada.
"It's sort of harmless as a passing comment, and in a way it [also] echoes back to a time when talking about women as girls was really part of a whole stronger, sexist society, which is why we don't do it," she said in an interview with CTVNews.ca.
"You can hear it if you do the opposite gender - if you say the 'girls' Olympic team' and the 'boys' Olympic team.' You can really hear it on the men's side. People would never say that. Nobody's going to say André De Grasse is a boy," she said of the sprinter, who at 21 is several years younger than the vast majority of Canada's female medallists.
A spokesman for Trudeau declined to comment, saying only, "We’re very proud of all our athletes."
Most athletes over 20
Even if one is relying simply on the athletes' ages, the use of "girls" is all wrong. While 16-year-old Penny Oleksiak and Taylor Ruck caught the country's attention early in the games, making a splash on the podium after taking bronze in the 4x100-metre and 4x200-metre relays, they're the only two medallists who are under 18. The other 30-odd Canadian women on the podium are 18 or older, with half 25 or older.
"It makes us seem younger and not as important. Because if you're a girl, you don't have any power, you're still a little kid," said Annamay Pierse, a former Olympian and world-record holder in the 200-metre breast stroke.
When you think of a girl, "you're not thinking of someone who's amazing and strong and powerful and successful," she said, noting that girls can be all those things - but the word still denotes children.
It's not easy to speak out against sexist language. Those who do are often told to relax, or that it's just a word and doesn't matter. More and more, female athletes and sports fans are pushing back against that.
Last week, Pierse found herself in a public debate with former Olympic rower Adam Kreek, who criticized Canadian tennis player Eugenie Bouchard after her loss at the Olympics for spending too much time on social media. Kreek referred to Bouchard trying out new hairstyles on social media, saying she was pursuing beauty and fashion. He later doubled-down on Twitter in a debate with Pierse and other female Olympians.
"I said that I [don't] know if she is more interested in sport or building a brand. Both are viable," Kreek tweeted, before later apologizing for his comments – after Canadian kayaker Adam Van Koeverden, who also competed at Rio, blogged about the dust-up.
Pierse says she had a lot of positive response to pushing back against Kreek, but she was also advised to hold back.
"I was actually told, that's enough, you've kind of said your piece. And I did think about that for a minute and thought, okay well, maybe I have said enough." After thinking about it some more, however, Pierse said she realized, "I definitely haven't. Because if I stop talking about it, who else is going to talk about it?
"We need to change the language. The same as you do in other injustices in standing up for what's right."
‘Language absolutely matters’
One sports-related language issue that particularly irks Pierse is that women's events at the Olympics are constantly referred to as such - rather than just by the name of the sport.
"It's oh, she won the women's 100-metre dash, she won the women's 100-metre freestyle... You don't hear Usain Bolt [being told] he won the men's 100-metre dash."
Trevenen says language has a concrete impact, especially in a sports world that's been - inadvertently or not - dismissive of women's accomplishments.
"Language absolutely matters and it reflects the culture," Trevenen said. "It's all part of a problem with sexism and the Olympics, so we need to be attentive to all the different pieces of it."
Decter and Trevenen both praise Trudeau's work on women's issues and emphasize his government's support for feminist issues. They're just hoping he updates his language.
"It's actually okay if we make mistakes and people let us know what those mistakes are, because we will do better in the future," Trevenen said.
After all, as Trudeau might say, it is 2016.