Today, The Washington Post ran a column praising 17-year-old Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin as a tenacious athlete. In fact, you could describe columinist Sally Jenkins’ piece as gushing. So it’s unfortunate in an otherwise awe-filled piece that Jenkins’ made a poor choice of words (emphasis mine):
This was her first Olympic gold medal attempt in a grueling program of seven planned events — and on top of that, she had had to swim a semifinal heat in the 200 freestyle less than 15 minutes earlier. But with about 25 meters to go in the backstroke, a mean girl took possession of her.
Whoa, hold up. Why does winning have anything to do with being a “mean girl”?
“Mean girl,” of course, is a phrase that became a cultural reference from the Lindsay Lohan film “Mean Girls” about bitchy high school girls who conspire to make each other’s lives miserable. That movie is based on a non-fiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriend, And Other Realities of Adolescence, by Rosalind Wiseman.
But Jenkins didn’t mean that Missy Franklin lords over the Plastics’ lunch table and hisses “Gretchen, stop trying to make fetch happen!” All she meant was that outside the pool, Franklin is a 17-year-old teen who is into Justin Bieber and has “Teen Vogue skin and a spasmodic giggle” — and while competing, as Jenkins put it in a colorful figure of speech, “Missy Franklin will knife you in the pool.” Franklin’s win reduced one of her competitors to tears. Yet she did this by being a fierce competitor, not by being mean.
So why not say ”fierce competitor”? She could have even said “a woman possessed,” which alludes to the same thing without a judgment. The connotation of “mean girl” is that something about competition makes the swimmer mean, or that competition between young women has to be mean (which, as the Williams sisters prove when they compete against each other is totally untrue), or even that a person who is sweet cannot also be competitive/mean. It’s frustrating Jenkins brought up the young swimmer’s gender in a way that carries those connotations. Comments like that aren’t made about men. Michael Phelps wouldn’t get called a “mean boy” for his competitive streak.
It’s awesome that Missy Franklin is a kickass athlete. But let’s try to keep our commentary about her gender neutral.