The TV trope of girls beating boys in sports

I don’t know if this trope has actually made it to TVTropes (I’m not sure what name to use to search for it), but if not it should be there.

My eight-year-old daughter was watching the Disney Channel at our hotel this past weekend (we don’t have cable or satellite at home, so she jumped at the opportunity). I was half-watching out of the corner of my eye until this scene caught my interest.

A spunky girl of around 13 or 14, who appeared to be ever-so-slightly nonwhite, challenged a much taller white boy (who was said to be on the basketball team) to a pickup one-on-one game of hoops.

I immediately said to my wife, “I’ll give you 100 to 1 if you want to bet on this boy winning.” She just kind of rolled her eyes and gritted her teeth, because on the one hand she knew I was absolutely right that there was no chance of that happening, but would basically prefer I not point out such things.

Hopefully I don’t need to even bother stating the result.

So how long has this been not just a trope, but essentially an ironclad rule in TV entertainment, especially that directed at kids? And what is the cultural significance of this trope? How does it affect viewers? Does it inspire girls to get cocky and try this challenge IRL, leading to crushing disappointment? (The Williams sisters thought they could beat male pros until they found one, ranked something like 247th in the world, to play them—and he beat them handily.)

I mean, I get that the trope is created by people who mean well. And I strongly support girls’ sports: I have coached both my daughters to play tennis, and my elder daughter is currently a rising star on her high school team as a sophomore (in fact, that was the main purpose of our road trip, to go see her play in the last meet of the season).

But is this really the best way to go? Will it last indefinitely, or is it just a sort of intermediary stage in the culture?

I think this is just the fact that stories are biased toward underdogs.

No one tells stories about the traditionally dominant competitor who as expected continues to be dominant. They tell stories about the plucky underdog who through grit and determination and societally approved-of mores wins a surprise upset.

Think of every sports movie ever. Whether or not the protagonist is male or female, the protagonist is the underdog.

When you have a girl and a boy engaging in athletic competition, traditionally, the girl is going to be the underdog.

if its Disney theres usually a bit more to it …. like the boy was involved in some sort of low level bullying and the like ala girls cant play or your too small or something like that and she tried and lost so she trained a month for a rematch ……….

Bonus points if the story was allegedly biographical

but I do know girls that can beat guys at sports tho and were on the male sports team in a meaningful position so its not entirely bunk ……

You go, girl!

I can think of one exception off the top of my head: the first episode of Nickelodeon’s Zoey 101, where the girls almost beat the boys. It did end up with, IIRC, two of the girls being allowed to play on the school’s boys’ basketball team.

As for whether or not this is a “passing fad,” I expect this to be around for a long time - especially on shows targeted at girls. Keep in mind that, at “pre-puberty” levels, girls and boys do tend to play most sports at about the same level, so it’s not that farfetched.

What would you rather have? Stories that reinforced male dominance and traditional gender roles? Believe me, we have plenty of those already. Plenty.

Sometimes Disney doesn’t have to make it up.

Right On Track tells of girl drag racers who beat the guys. Turns out, when she grew up, Erica Enders became a two-time Pro Stock champion.

It’s Disney. That means two things -
[ul][li]They want to communicate to children, in this case girls in particular, that “you can achieve anything if you just believe in yourself”. That’s not entirely true - there are an almost infinite number of things you can’t do no matter how hard you believe - but it isn’t a bad myth to push. Believing in yourself is also a prerequisite to achieving things that you can do. Believing in yourself is a necessary but not sufficient condition to achieving anything at all.[/ul][/li][ul][li]It’s entertainment. The story of the plucky underdog who works hard and overcomes the odds isn’t much fun if the plucky underdog gets creamed. Rocky wouldn’t have won many Oscars if he had gotten knocked senseless in the first round. [/ul]If the coach says “someday, when the team is up against it, and the breaks are beating the boys, go out there and win one for the Gipper”, and they lose 56-0, it isn’t all that much fun.[/li]

Up until about age 13 yes, often girls are equal to or even better than boys in sports. One of the hockey teams my son played against had some outstanding girls on it. They dropped off about age 14.

You should watch “Opie’s Girlfriend” on the Andy Griffith Show.

In it, Opie gets beat by a girl in football. Opie gets pissed, and proceeds to push the girl. Girl in turn gives Opie a black eye.

Towards the end of the episode, when they’re doing their “Moral of The Story” routine, as soft inspirational music plays in the background. Girl asks Helen: “Why are boys such jerks?” Helen’s response [paraphrasing]: “Well, men have been our providers and protectors for so long, they’re not used to girls being better at these sorts of things. And it makes them feel bad. So maybe it’s better if we don’t try to beat them at these sorts of things”

In the last cut away, it shows girl letting Opie win at football, and Helen letting Andy win at bowling. And all is right with the universe.


Yep, I thought of that episode when searching for a name for the trope. (TV Tropes didn’t seem to have an individual episode page for it.)

I coached a girls soccer team starting in kindergarten and stopped in grade 4 when my daughter quit. We destroyed all teams including the boys teams we scrimmaged. And the Chipmunks were absolutely pulling away from the boy’s teams in 3rd and 4th grade. Other coaches and parents would ask about the team’s secret, I would point to my daughter playing in a skirt and chasing butterflies and say, “That one’s mine. I haven’t a clue.” But in reality, the secret was that out of the 9 on the team I had 3 girls who had at least 2 older sisters and another 4 or 5 who had an older sister. Oh, and I would say that >two-thirds of the team had at least one mom who was an active runner or played soccer/softball/volleyball currently.

Having sport-loving women around is a good thing! Of which jackasses like Alessandro Strumia (CERN and STEM for women in the recent news) will never understand the implications for women and other underrepresented groups across many industries!

Aha, that’s it—thanks!

Historically, we have, yes. But it’s not really allowed these days, not in these direct kinds of contests.

But you ask what I’d rather have. How about a positive story of a girl enjoying basketball against other girls, and leave it at that? Because honestly, the logic of this kind of story is actually harmful to girls’ sports. If girls are just as good or better than boys, the school doesn’t need to have separate girls’ and boys’ teams. Just have an open team for all the best players, regardless of gender. But of course in reality this would shut out all but a small percentage of girls from competition. They, not the boys, are the ones who need the gender divisions to protect them.

BTW, the boy in question did not look at all prepubescent. He didn’t exactly look like a swarthy 25 year old or anything, but he definitely had the height and musculature of a postpubescent teenage male athlete.

But Rocky actually lost that fight. I actually don’t think the movie wins the Oscar if he wins—and note that the sequels did not.

Sure, I agree wholeheartedly with that. But as strongly as I support my daughter in tennis, I know she’d get creamed if she took on anyone on the boy’s team, and I don’t think it does her any favors to pretend otherwise. (To be clear, I’m not saying these TV shows should portray boy-girl sports duels and show the boy winning. Just don’t show this kind of matchup at all, would be my preference.)

I was on the basketball team in high school. A girl I knew was the captain of her basketball team at a different school. Man, could she shoot. She would routinely beat boys (me included) at H-O-R-S-E. She was really quick and an excellent ball-handler too. She would shoot from anywhere on the floor in games with remarkable success. It was really something to watch. I never played her one-on-one, though. It would probably have seemed like a silly idea when you have nearly a foot on someone.

Now that I think about it, I can’t be be entirely sure that she wasn’t ever-so-slightly nonwhite. Maybe I should dig out some old photos and take a look at the roots of her hair with a magnifying glass.

Anyway, it’s showbiz. It shouldn’t bother you any more than talking animals or 110 pound women kicking the shit out of linebacker-sized men.

That last one bothers me too. The talking animals, even my youngest daughter understands is “just pretend”. The petite woman kicking ass? I don’t think she understands this is pretend, at all.

It’s called American history. Where does Disney get off giving girls aspirations?

I missed this detail the first time:

But that was precisely the scenario in this Disney show.

Yup. That was the theme of Annie Get Your Gun as well.

Well, there was “Bend it like Beckham”, about a girls soccer team, and actually quite a good movie.