Posted Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012, at 10:44 AM
Photograph by Mike Coppola/Getty Images.
Is “throwing like a girl” a real thing? This week, the Washington Post launched a full investigation into the gender divide between how men and women hurl objects into the air using only their hands. Reporter Tamar Haspel concludes that girls do, in fact, throw uniquely like girls, and boys like boys, across cultures, at just about every age. Due to biological imperative and cultural conditioning, Haspel reports, boys throw faster, farther, and, you know, manlier than girls do. While girls tend to favor “a slow, weak, forearm motion, with a short step on the same side as the throwing hand,” boys are partial to “a skillful overhand throw” consisting of a full-body step, rotation, and whip.
Haspel cites research by University of North Texas professor Jerry Thomas that found “the overhand throwing gap, beginning at 4 years of age, is three times the difference of any other motor task.” And the gap just gets bigger as girls and boys become women and men. By age 15, Thomas says, nearly every boy "throws better than the best girl.” His research shows that nurture does play a role—in many cultures, boys are more likely to be trained in throwing than girls are, essentially from birth. But among “aboriginal Australian children, who grow up in a culture where both men and women hunt, and both sexes throw from childhood,” while the gap in both throwing technique and projectile velocity might be smaller, it's still significant.
Thomas theorizes that men benefit from an evolutionary rotational superiority, one that he “bets” goes as deep as “the nervous system.” He imagines a bygone era where “men threw rocks, and, if you could throw well, you got the women.” Meanwhile, while female gatherers were waiting around for the human slingshot of their dreams, they may have been forced to “throw while holding a baby.”
For most modern humans, however, it is very rarely necessary to throw anything, ever. Natural selection does not account for why “You throw like a girl!” remains such a stinging indictment in this post-stoning age. Haspel admits that “it’s not difficult to avoid situations in which throwing is required,” and she’s “managed to do it successfully my entire adult life.” But she’s still haunted by that one time she failed to underhand-toss a wayward ball back over a fence and into the hands of a group of fifth graders. Everybody saw!
There’s no reason Haspel’s failure to launch should be a source of lifelong humiliation—outside the professional baseball diamond, throwing stuff does not constitute a serious life skill. But throwing remains an area of male superiority, and so it has taken on an outsized social status, from the schoolyard to the cubicle trashcan. Most prominent professional sports and recess-period feats of strength were designed by and for men, and are predicated on the idea that throwing harder, farther, and faster is better. (Mercifully, this gender divide is reversed in college, where frat boys are forced to adopt that weak-forearm motion to lob ping pong balls into red Solo cups weighted with High Life.)
And when male sports are adapted to suit female throwing capabilities—the WNBA’s abbreviated three-point line, for example—the female version is rarely granted the same social capital and cultural investment as the male version. Megan Greenwell, incoming senior editor at ESPN the Magazine, tells me that because female basketball players can't rely so much on "brute strength" to get the ball in the basket, women's games tend to involve "more passing and more short-range jump shooting, which can make it a more elegant game, in a way,” compared to the typical NBA dunk-fest. (Greenwell, for the record “can throw,” thanks to early lessons from a friend. “Curveballs, too.”) But most people don't want to go to women's basketball games, largely because women are playing in them—we have been well-trained to value sports that show-off the male anatomy.
This double standard persists off the court, too. It’s no longer necessary for a man to stone a wild animal and drag it back to the cave to get laid. But for some desk jockeys, throwing stuff is still a way to get a woman's attention. A few years ago, I launched my own tongue-in-cheek investigation into throwing things as a form of gender-based hazing. When New York Jets players set their sights on Mexican sports reporter Ines Sainz, their suite of sideline sexual harassment included throwing footballs in her general direction. Indeed, female sports reporters have a storied history of dodging projectiles in the workplace—Paola Boivin was struck in the head by a sweaty jock strap in 1987; Kristin Huckshorn was targeted by a wad of tape in 1994. I spoke with one law enforcement official whose co-worker used gummi bears as target practice at her cleavage, and unearthed a sexual harassment suit where a Virginia boss got sued after (among other offenses) standing over a female employee and attempting to “drop paperclips down her shirt when she was bent over using the fax machine.” (Several times, he succeeded. Good throw!)
Two can play this game, of course. Women may lack the pivoting speed and lengthy wingspan of men, but it doesn't take much natural ability to learn to pass objects in the social situations that require it. At the conclusion of her piece, Haspel takes an overhand throwing lesson from Jenny Allard, coach of the Harvard women’s softball team. By the end of their session, she’s able to move a ball 60 feet, clear from home plate to first base. Since then, “I have been practicing,” Haspel says. “And although I’m not breaking any records, for the first time in my life, I can throw a ball with something resembling confidence. And how many girls can say that?”
Finally, Haspel can heave an object an arbitrary distance. Not to discount those who take joy in throwing stuff—games and sports are designed to be fun and exhilarating, and gaining a new skill always feels good—but being able to “throw with confidence” has less to do with speed and distance than it does escaping a lifetime of social razzing over nonessential biological differences. So while Haspel's hitting the diamond, I'll be working on the problem from the other end. The next time you need me to pass you some spherical office supply, don’t ask me to toss it to you, then ridicule me when I can’t rocket it into the palm of your hand. Just walk over here! I am literally sitting five feet away.