It’s finals season, and you know what that means: it’s the perfect time of year to return to our favourite simple pleasures and comforting pieces of media. When so much of my day is spent engrossed in academic writing, finding opportunities to take mental breaks can be a lifeline. As goofy as it sounds, children’s media can be particularly helpful, because it is a complete change of pace from the expectations of adult/academic life. I find that the simplicity of children’s media can be its greatest strength, revealing profound lessons and truths in a simple, comforting package. Lately, my comfort food of choice has been a junior graphic novel by Misty Wilson called Play Like a Girl.

Play Like a Girl is a memoir, capturing the author’s real experiences playing tackle football in the seventh grade. It explores topics like adolescence, gender expression, and friendship, as our protagonist, Misty, tries to fit in while pursuing a dream which challenges the expectations of those around her. As I explore some of the reasons that Play Like a Girl resonates with me, hopefully it encourages you to look back on some pieces of children’s media, whether past or present, that have shaped you. They matter, and they can continue to shape us, if we let them.

Strict Gender Expectations Limit Us

The central theme of Play Like a Girl, whether it is exploring friendship, football, or the growing pains of junior high, is Misty’s struggle with what it means to be a girl. She receives pushback in all directions for her decision to play football, one of the most masculinized sports. Her family, friends, and even her own teammates emphasize to her just how unwelcome she is within that space because of her gender and the expectations that accompany it. There is a conflict between how she feels about herself and her identity and the narratives about gender that she is being forced to confront.

Who decides what a girl can look like?

One chapter in the book follows Misty on a trip to the mall. Tired of receiving mean comments about her style and feeling like she doesn’t truly “fit in” with the popular girls, she attempts to make herself over with the help of a couple other girls in her grade. Misty has little interest in makeup and she dresses in a casual, sporty way, but her peers have proven to her that her more masculine gender presentation is “weird” and that in order to belong she must fit narrow expectations of feminine beauty. Girlhood, desirability, belonging and femininity have been made one and the same. However, she spends the rest of the novel feeling uncomfortable with these changes, slowly learning to embrace the diversity of her gender expression and to find friends who welcome that diversity.

Feminine ideals made Misty feel that she had to hide parts of herself

Narrow gender expectations dictate how Misty can dress, what activities she can take part in, and how she feels about herself and her place within the world. Her story forces us to consider how we have defined acceptable girlhood and how strict gender policing prevents us from living in our fullness. These narratives of acceptable gender performance and presentation are shown to us at extremely young ages, effectively shaping our experience and understanding of girlhood. So, what does it mean to be a girl? Misty proves that it means whatever we want it to mean, and that we should allow ourselves the grace to explore and experiment with our identity and expression. She doesn’t sacrifice her girlhood by entering masculinized sport spaces, because we never have to be only one thing. We are so much more than the limits and labels imposed on us. Her experience with girlhood, though challenging, is self-defined and authentic. Even as an adult, I struggle with my relationship to womanhood. Stories, such as this, which demonstrate this struggle are really powerful, modelling both the conflict and the beauty that can come with learning to embrace one’s gender expression. 

Meaningful Friendships are Powerful Tools for Creating Change

When it comes to confronting stereotypes about gender or tackling any other social issue, we can never do it alone. We depend on the support and courage of others. As Misty faces hostility from most people in her life, including some of her own teammates, she draws motivation from the few teammates who take the time to teach her new skills and stand up for her when it matters most. Though she understands internally that she is meant to play football, in standing up for her, her teammates solidify and validate her sense of belonging within the team and within the sport.

Friendship is a meaningful form of allyship

Misty’s struggle for belonging also applies to her female friendships. Her foray into tackle football reveals which of her friends truly value and encourage her to express her fullest self and which of them are uncomfortable with her new interests. We are at our best when we are able to exist in our wholeness. Part of growing up and working through our adolescence is realizing which environments allow that and bring that out in us. As someone who challenges a lot of expectations, Misty has a harder time finding these sorts of spaces. But once she does, it just clicks. She has a realization that belonging isn’t something that she needs to actively pursue with the intensity that she thought she did. The right people for us embrace us fully and encourage our growth. It’s a nice reminder that there is a space for everyone and that we should be trying to find those spaces, rather than molding ourselves to fit into spaces that are inauthentic to us. Only when we are able to show up honestly in the world can we begin to embody the change that it truly needs.

Modern Girls’ Media Gives Me Hope

Girls’ media, like Play Like a Girl, is one of the first and most influential places that narratives surrounding gender, race, sexuality, etc. are explored for young people. It fills me with so much joy and hope that young people today are given the opportunity to explore gender diversity in the media that is targeted at them. If it’s having such a profound impact on me, I can’t imagine the kind of power and positive impact that it could have in the life of a young person. We deserve this kind of media, media that is honest and that challenges the narrow ideals we place on children and on ourselves. It matters. It changes lives. It gives me so much hope, and I hope reading this gives you some, too. 

Thanks so much for reading! Please take care of yourselves this finals season. And never be afraid to embrace your simple pleasures, no matter how trivial or childish they seem to others.

Image Credits: Misty and David Wilson & Harper Collins Publishers

About the Author

Hi! I’m Brynn, and I’m super excited to be writing on the blogs committee this year. I am a third-year Women’s and Gender Studies student with interests in film, feminism, theatre and social justice. Blog writing provides me with the perfect opportunity to combine all of these passions. I hope you will join me on my blog journey!