Voice vs. Athletic Ability:

A New York Times review of a PBS program on Annie Oakley -- generally quite a positive review -- begins:

Plenty of women accomplished plenty of things in the first century or so of United States history, so it's a little dismaying to think that the country's first female superstar was famous not for her voice or her musicianship or her brain, but for her ability to shoot firearms accurately....

Even if her particular talent is not to your liking, it would be difficult to watch this program and not be awed by the woman's life....

Why exactly should it be dismaying to think that the country's first female superstar was famous not for singing ability (one form of trainable physical talent) but for athletic ability (another form of trainable physical talent)? It seems to me that, if anything, female success in a traditionally masculine field (sports generally, and target-shooting in particular) would help advance respect for women and equality for women more than female success in a less traditionally masculine field (singing).

Moreover, even if one opposes private gun ownership for self-defense, Oakley wasn't famous for that -- she was famous for marksmanship, which was then and now a sport (today, an Olympic sport).

Now naturally the author of the article is entitled to dislike marksmanship as a sport, and to find everything having to do with guns to be icky (even when the only thing being damaged is targets). But it does seem to be telling that the dislike of guns among some, dislike that would lead to two mentions in the first two paragraphs of the review (and "a little dismay[]" that a woman superstar would excel at sports rather than at singing), extends to sporting use of guns as well as to military, defending, and hunting uses.

Do you think NOW will issue a press release about this sexist remark in the NYT of all places. I mean really who are they to judge what is dismaying for a woman to do. I don't think soooooooooooooooo. Now if Jerry Falwell had said this maybe they would.
5.8.2006 2:04pm
Lovely "which of these things is not like the others" question...

I don't think that the reviewer means "athletic ability" in its traditional sense.

Marksmanship isn't really much like other "athletic" skills that we think of. It's not strength, like hitting home runs. It's not really even the same kind of skill as taking a precise shot in hockey or making a precise baseball pitch. It's more like precise manipulation of a tool.

I think that the reviewer means that good marksmanship is dissimilar because either (1) it's somehow anti-"feminine" or (2) the admiration marksmanship inspires isn't as universal as that inspired by voice, musicianship or intelligence.

I think that #2 is closer to the point that the reviewer sought to make, but if one does not choose one's words carefully in this context, there are bound to be undertones of #1 perceived.
5.8.2006 3:00pm
methinks the gun crowd is a bit oversensitive this afternoon.
5.8.2006 3:01pm
Chimaxx (mail):
I think Eugene is overreacting. It *is* at first blush surprising that the first female superstar during an era when sex roles were more stringently and norrowly defined would be known for her skill at something that would have been condisered firmly in the male realm at the time. (But a little greater reflection would suggest that that was probably why, for two reasons--1. there were lots of well-known female singers but only one well-known female marksman; 2. she excelled at something people at the time didn't expect women as a group to have interest in at all, giving her a certain sideshow appeal.

However, even if you find a negative slant against guns in the first quoted passage, it's a stretch to read it into the second. All it's saying is "Hey, I know all you folks who are into female marksmanship are already on board, but even if the idea of watching marksmen on TV sounds more boring to you than watching paint dry to Philip Glass's Music in Twelve Parts, you still may find a lot to interest you in this biography."

Or maybe that's just my bias. I have no opposition to private gun ownership, but if someone invited me to attend a marksmanship contest as a spectator, I'd be asking "Uh, isn't there some Philip Glass paint-drying thing at the local gallery this weekend that we could go to instead?"
5.8.2006 3:27pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Chimaxx: Of course it's surprising "that the first female superstar during an era when sex roles were more stringently and norrowly defined would be known for her skill at something that would have been condisered firmly in the male realm at the time." Yet shouldn't that be an occasion for pleasant surprise, rather than even "a little dismay[]"? (My post was indeed about the dismay, not about the surprise.)

Also, is it really likely that, in context (following the "a little dismaying" comment), "not to your liking" would simply refer to people's being bored, rather than disturbed or disapproving? I suppose it's possible -- it just doesn't seem likely to me. (Recall that the review isn't for a marksmanship contest, but for a television biography of a target-shooter.)
5.8.2006 3:46pm
I don't think that "dismaying" can reasonably be interpreted as "dismaying because it's likely to be boring". "Dismaying because all right-thinking people abhor guns" seems much much more plausible.
5.8.2006 3:55pm
Alex R:
I'm mystified to see EV insinuate that there was some kind of anti-gun message in the review...

This seems to me more like garden-variety "high culture" versus "low culture" snobbery: music and intellectual pursuits are high culture, sports -- especially "exhibition" sports rather than organized competition -- are low culture.

If Annie Oakley had been a juggler instead of a sharpshooter, you could have written exactly the same review with a few minor substitutions.

(And yes, I am aware that there are organized shooting competitions, but Annie Oakley fame resulted from her exhibitions, not from her success in organized competition.)
5.8.2006 4:07pm
Jhare (mail):
I think that it's more that "the ability to shoot firearms accurately" is seen as trivial, rather than abhorrent.

To me it would read much the same if the skill were shooting marbles accurately.
5.8.2006 4:09pm
Glenn W Bowen (mail):

Marksmanship isn't really much like other "athletic" skills that we think of. It's not strength, like hitting home runs. It's not really even the same kind of skill as taking a precise shot in hockey or making a precise baseball pitch. It's more like precise manipulation of a tool.

baseball, hockey, lacross, etc are sports performed with tools- bats, sticks. by the above definition, I suppose the shotput and discus throw ought be relegated to the less politically correct as PBS does the use of firearms. and BTW hitting homeruns doesn't require strength beyond the norm.

shooting, and these other sports, are hand-to-eye physical.

a 1000 yard target bull is 36" in diameter and appears to the eye to be this size= " . " at range, yet an accomplished shooter will place ten shots out of ten on it, using metallic, not telescopic sites.

what can be inferred from PBS's intro is that they consider shooting firearms to be something less than correct for a woman, or for that matter, anyone, to engage in.

the actual question might be, "why do we pay for this under penalty of law?"
5.8.2006 4:11pm
Glenn W Bowen (mail):
and there's this- if they feel the need to apologize before they even get the show off the ground, to hell with them.
5.8.2006 4:21pm
Andy Freeman (mail):
> Marksmanship isn't really much like other "athletic" skills that we think of.

And neither is singing or playing a musical instrument, the other two listed "acceptable/expected" areas of expertise for women. Playing music, like marksmanship, even involves skillful manipulation of tools.
5.8.2006 4:44pm
Jhare (mail):
Rightly or wrongly, society does not view all trainable physical talents equally. Pavarotti singing "Nessun Dorma" is far more likely to impress the NYT - and probably most people - than me tossing chocolate Easter eggs into a Dixie cup is.

It does not necessarily mean that the NYT is opposed to my egg tossing. But if an egg tosser were the first ___________ superstar, over those who excel in more 'impressive' areas, it might be 'dismaying'
5.8.2006 4:57pm
Porkchop (mail):
I suspect that part of Annie Oakley's appeal as a superstar was that she was good at something that women not only generally didn't do, but that women, even on the frontier, were not expected to do, and especially were not expected to do well. It was, to some extent, probably considered "cute" for this slip of a girl to do something so uncharacteristically challenging.

I agree with Eugene, though, that the use of the term "dismay" is troubling. It is a paradoxical sort of modern political correctness that would relegate women "superstars" to traditional women's pursuits, apparently because involvement with firearms is even less politically correct than gender inequity. Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Johnny Cash could have collaborated on a musical called, "Annie, Get Your Gun Don't Take Your Guns to Town."

PS. My daughter boxes and loves to shoot automatic weapons during ROTC FTX's -- I wonder what kind of "dismay" she might engender up among the sophisticates in the "big city." ;-)
5.8.2006 6:20pm
Chimaxx (mail):
I agree that "dismay" is a problematic word here (though in common usage, it has lost much of the negative sonnotation it once had and is often used interchangably with "surprise"), and I probably bent too far in the other direction in my reaction to your posting.

And even though dismay is perhaps too strong a word, since the NEXT female superstar after Annie Oakley was probably Mary Pickford, and since Annie Oakley was a contemporary of Jane Addams, dismay is certainly not an uncalled-for reaction. Comparing annie Oakley with Mary Pickford one thinks "what a cultural reversal!" and comparing her with Jane Addams one is dismayed once again by a culture that celebrates sports stars over those who make a real difference in people's lives.

In other words, the possibilities for dismay cut in so many directions that seeing them as revelatory of some anti-gun bias seems to be a willful over-reading of the text that says more about the reader than the writer or the text.

Even if the dismay is over target-shooting, nothing about that is revelatory of any deep-seated anti-gun bias. You don't have to be anti-gun to think that the sort of quail-in-a-barrel shooting fest our VP enjoyed a few weeks ago is stupid, cruel and unsporting, or that target shooting as a sport for its own sake is kinda silly and boring, and to thus be shocked and dismayed that there was ever a target-shooting superstar in this country of either gender. (Can anyone name three other American superstars in target shooting--which by definition means someone that even people who don't engage in the sport themselves would know the name of?)
5.8.2006 6:47pm
tioedong (mail) (www):
Annie OakleyPeople who live in modern cities forget the poverty of pioneer families.
Oakley learned to shoot to hunt to supply food for her family, not as a sport.
5.8.2006 10:40pm
Watching a good shooting match is much better than golf or Wimbleton even. And what makes someone think that women did not know or were not expected to know how to use firearms during that time. Sounds like "Arming of America" propaganda to me. And really why is this person not saying what a great female role model she was for women rights in a time when no one even knew what that meant. She was a early star that helped lead to the modern day womens movement.
5.8.2006 10:52pm
Glenn W Bowen (mail):
just watched the show- they hit the points that later in her life, Annie (I call her Annie) taught women to shoot and use firearms for self-protection.

they treated her well, despite (or not) the introduction discussed in these comments.

a good show.
5.8.2006 10:57pm
hey (mail):
The author's dismay, beyond political bias, seems also to portray a functional ignorance of life in 19th century America. To belittle the utility of accurate shooting during that time, especially for a farm/frontier family, and particularly for women, shows a lack of comprehension. He is likely aware of these things, but his awareness is obviously not colouring his discussion of this period. It is about as useful an analysis as wondering
5.8.2006 11:38pm
hey (mail):
... why so many whales were being killed, why so many kitschy tourist spots were viewed as critical economic hot spots, etc. A writing ignoramus. (as I am incapable of typing on a laptop!)
5.8.2006 11:39pm
december (mail):
Maybe the reviewer's "dismay" comments were in the nature of a mandatory disclaimer -- reaffirming that he is opposed to guns. Otherwise Times readers might suspect him to be not one of us.
5.9.2006 2:28am
TDPerkins (mail):
[Rude post deleted by Eugene Volokh. No, it's not consistent with our comments policy to call other commenters "idiots." We're happy with substantive arguments on whatever side (I actually agreed with TDPerkins' substantive argument). We have no interest in publishing people's personal insults of other commenters.]
5.9.2006 10:44am
TDPerkins (mail):
"I think Eugene is overreacting."

Chimaxx has that right in this case.

Eugene Volokh wrote:

"I actually agreed with TDPerkins' substantive argument"

Then I really think you could have showed it best by keeping it. What degrades discourse the more, calling a spade a spade, or suffering fools with the default appearance of gladness?

The Net does not show a pained wince.

To reiterate that substantive argument:

To roughly duplicate the sport of riflery, especially in the standing and kneeling positions, hold about 8 pounds at arms-length repetively for 100 tries, attempting to keep your arm pointing within a few arc-seconds of the target for several seconds while gradually flexing your index finger, and this while you are punched in the shoulder with a few thousand foot pounds of force at the end of each try.

In saying that unlike golf or baseball, that riflery isn't much of a sport because it is more like tool use, I'm suppose that without my adjectives the worth of TO comments are clear.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, &pfpp
5.9.2006 4:25pm