Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Wimbledon: Lessons in Parenting, Sexism, and Torment

Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were delicate, but Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”
Genesis 29:16-18

In the NRSV, Leah’s eyes are called lovely, but the Hebrew is uncertain. In the Common English Bible they translate it as “delicate,” with a note that maybe she had poor eyesight. The New English Bible says that her eyes were “dull.” But there was no doubt about Rachel, she was beautiful and graceful.

Jacob fell in love with Rachel as soon as he saw her. He struck a deal with her father, Laban, and agreed to work for him for seven years in return for permission to marry her. But Laban, trying to be a good father, did not want his older daughter embarrassed by having her younger sister married first, so Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Leah. And he made Jacob work an additional seven years for Rachel. So Jacob had two wives and “he loved Rachel more than Leah.”

I thought about Rachel and Leah when I read the story of BBC radio announcer John Inverdale’s comments about Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli.

In the introduction to Bartoli’s final match against Sabine Lisicki, who was favored, Inverdale asked the audience, "Do you think Bartoli's dad told her when she was little 'You're never going to be a looker? You'll never be a Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight'."

If I can speak for the dads out there, the answer is, “No, I don’t think Marion Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little that she was never going to be a looker.”

When she was asked about the remarks at a press briefing after the match, Bartoli seemed unfazed. "It doesn't matter, honestly. I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact," she said. Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No. I'm sorry. But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes."

The next day she took “being a good sport” to intergalactic levels when she suggested that Inverdale might revise his remarks if he saw her at the champions dinner. “I invite him to come to see me in my dress and high heels tonight at the tournament ball,” she said. “It could change his mind.”

But seriously. This is very bad.

There are at least two things going on here.

The first is sexism. Women are always judged by their appearance. Women are always judged by their appearance. It makes no difference if you are a Wimbledon champion or Secretary of State. And the comments can get ugly in a hurry. It is boorish at best, but it often descends into a form of bullying. On Twitter, the first reactions to Inverdale’s comments were critical, but there was soon another wave of vulgarity and sexual slurs.

The sexism is important and we should not dismiss it lightly, but there is something else going on here. The truth is that we find it very difficult to get beyond our fixation with appearances. It is worse with women, much worse, but it is true with men also.

When psychologists show us pictures of people we don’t know and ask us to imagine the characteristics of those people, we imagine that the attractive people are friendlier and have more integrity than those who are less attractive. We are more likely to vote for attractive candidates and hire attractive workers.

Our prejudice in this regard is never harmless and we will probably never get over it. But if we are aware of our tendency we may be able to mitigate it. And at a deeper level, there may be lessons we can learn.

In Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem about the Civil War, he portrays Abraham Lincoln in the telegraph office of the War Department waiting for word on the Battle of Antietam, reflecting on the will of God, the suffering of war, and freeing the slaves. In Benet’s telling, Lincoln sees his strength as the ability to wait patiently and to persevere as history unfolds.

That is my only virtue as I see it,
Ability to wait and hold my own
And keep my own resolves once they are made
In spite of what the smarter people say.
I can’t be smart the way that they are smart.
I’ve known that since I was an ugly child.
It teaches you–to be an ugly child.

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