Sunday, December 23, 2007

Book Review: Higher Goals by Nancy Theberge

Higher GoalsHigher Goals: Women's Ice Hockey and the Politics of Gender is a book that looks at the inner workings of a women's hockey team through the lens of gender politics in sport. The author, Nancy Theberge, spent a few seasons with one of the top senior women's teams in Ontario in the early 1990's.

Academia, especially in the humanities, has always been plagued by the need to ram the often inexplicable sludge of life into neatly arranged and labeled explanations. The most recent and well-received ideas of the day are either revered or questioned by subsequent authors who then add their two cents. For sure, many of those attempts are downright intriguing and very plausible.

My criticism is that they often seem to conveniently ignore details that would cast their renderings of the world into a less convincing narrative. While mere hints that lend credence to their hoped for conclusions are given far too much weight.

This book mostly avoids that because it isn't overly ambitious in terms of advancing new theories. It mainly alludes to pre-existing literature within the field of sports psychology and gender studies and examines whether the author's case study of women's hockey fits within those frameworks.

I won't go into too many details of the intellectual minutiae presented in the book. It isn't so heavy going that the average person can't get their head around the concepts and interpretations. There is really only one chapter where the soup of scholarly double-speak gets thick enough to warrant a re-reading or three.

And isn't it always when attempts to re-order standard notions come up against universally held truisms that the most intricate and extensive verbal gymnastics are necessary?

Here, the belief held by essentially everyone in the world that men are physically stronger isn't so much challenged as cast into a different light. That this obvious and considerable difference in strength is the basis for men's higher level of sports competition and increased attention from spectators is because we choose to emphasize those aspects as the most worthy.

In other words, if people didn't only "celebrate the advantages men enjoy," and instead considered the attributes that favour women, such as "agility and long-term endurance" (this according to the book, though no evidence is given), things could be different (just to be clear, this is mainly the author referencing various writers in the same field.)

There are other situations in the book where meaning is squeezed out of unremarkable or pedestrian occurrences that really deserve no such significance. In discussing the structure of the team, the author examines the supposed irony of women who are defying stereotypes yet still play under a management structure dominated by men.

Many of the husbands and boyfriends of the players accompany the team on road trips and when the bus breaks down on one excursion, the men take it upon themselves to move the equipment to a replacement vehicle. This is kind of framed as "these independent, athletic women who play a violent, tough sport are still held captive by the standard societal stereotypes of male/female roles."

Maybe the husbands and boyfriends didn't want them to expend undue energy before the game? On the other hand, how would it have been spun if it was assumed the women should do the lifting? Definitely an interesting anecdote worthy of inclusion in a book that is concerned with such relations but hard to believe that it's so meaningful.

It's not too difficult to accept the basic assumption that all relationships are based on power and inevitably one side will possess or exert the most influence. There are a lot of thought provoking ideas here that you may or may not agree with but they are never presented in a shrill or insistent way. I won't risk bastardizing or simplifying other concepts in the book to the point of being unfair to Theberge.

The best parts of the book are in the player interviews and the simple observations where insight is provided into women's hockey. Each chapter covers a specific topic and some of the most intriguing include the prevalence and acceptance of lesbians on the team and within the sport in general, interaction within the locker room and physicality in women's hockey (incidental hitting as well as the allowed variety which existed in certain senior leagues before 1990.)

There is an analysis of a wide range of different situations on and off the ice and regarding the make-up of the team, its management and the world of women's hockey in general. This is very often looked at through the filter of how the women's game compares to the men's version.

The writing goes beyond the pedantic and mind-numbing academic style that is present in similar works, rendering them almost unreadable in many cases. While it is still a detached, almost clinical take on its subject compared to non-fiction solely intended for entertainment purposes, it somehow manages to remain interesting and compelling most of the time.

A slightly annoying aspect of the book is that it only uses pseudonyms, though this is no doubt accepted protocol for such studies and probably increased the likelihood of candour from those participating. Relatively short in length, the content presented is packed with detail representative of the efforts of two seasons of watching and interviewing.

Does it transcend the specialist audience it is aimed at (i.e. students or other academics) enough to make this a book hockey fans in general may enjoy reading? Somewhat, I would say.

This definitely won't appeal to most fans looking to pass the time with a light and entertaining read. Within the world of hockey fandom, the women's game receives short shrift and this is at least an introduction to the motivations of the players and some of the obstacles they face.

And for someone specifically interested in sports psychology and/or sociology, parents of young girls looking to get involved in the game or those who don't mind wading through some heavier passages, it well might be an enjoyable experience.

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