Power Puff: Dynamics of power in gender imitation

Power Puff Used under Creative Commons License
Power Puff
Used under Creative Commons License

Katelyn Lamb, Content Editor

   Each year, SNU proudly opens its fields for a student-government sponsored event called Powder Puff. You are probably familiar with this game, but, in case you’re not, here’s a general overview. Girls are paired off by grade (Freshman/Junior versus Sophomore/Senior) into two teams. The teams then compete in a gentler version of football while wearing trendy matching t-shirts. Meanwhile, a group of boys act as “cheerleaders,” dressed in ridiculous versions of typical cheer uniforms and relying on far too many spread eagles and hip thrusts to entertain onlookers.

   Now, before you assume I am simply a bitter cynic who hates fun, let me admit something. Powder Puff games can be amusing. There is something fun and entertaining about the “sport.” However, what concerns me is not that a school is providing amusing activities for its students; my concern lies in why this activity is so hilarious to many of my peers.

   On one level, we can enjoy Powder Puff as a recreational pastime, nothing more than a funny few hours of role reversal. However, as university students and as people who profess Christ, I believe we are called to examine things on a deeper level than our own amusement.

   It seems to me that at the root of Powder Puff’s appeal is imitation. We laugh and enjoy the game because boys are behaving in ways stereotypically associated with girls and vice versa. Our male peers wearing short skirts, tossing their buzz cuts and jumping around enthusiastically is only humorous because it is abnormal. If we saw men exhibiting that same behavior on an average day, think how different our response would be. If you walked into the Commons and saw your male friend seriously wearing a pleated skirt and belly shirt, what would your reaction be?

   However, because these male cheerleaders are, for the purpose of the event, imitating women, their behavior becomes amusing. While the same goes for girls at Powder Puff, the imitation is less pronounced because there is less farce and exaggeration on the girls’ part. Although the girls playing football (of which I have been one) are still imitating the typical behavior of the opposite sex, they do so in a more mellow way.

   Interestingly, we can look at this difference between the men and women’s gender imitation in Powder Puff as a result of power dynamics. The male cheerleaders, likely unconsciously, are mocking the very stereotypes a historically patriarchal culture has led women into. The archetype of the female cheerleader and all the generalizations that are associated with it (beauty, ignorance, peppiness, etc.) is, at some level, the result of male power. Traditionally, men have valued these characteristics in women to some degree, leading many (not all, mind you) girls to strive, even unintentionally, to behave in a particular way. In many ways, female gender has been constructed by men, making a woman’s gendered behavior something she has little to no control over.

   Therefore, if we examine Powder Puff on a more critical level, when boys “cheer” at the game, they are really mocking the roles they have constrained females to. This is another exhibition of power on the part of males and is, to some extent, a sign of authority. Only the group (men) who constructed this expected female identity have the power to mock it, to act it out in farce, while keeping their separate male identity in tact.

   The role of power can also be seen in the girls’ modeling of male behavior. In my experience playing Powder Puff, girls are encouraged to act tough and “manly,” even if just for funny event advertisements and hype. However, what is missing from the women’s imitation of male football players is the level of caricature. Girl players do not wear outrageous costumes, act out in humorous but sexually founded ways or even receive much of the audience’s amusement.

   This distinction between the boys and girls is fascinating because it once again highlights the difference in power. Women who are imitating men by playing a particular sport do not have the freedom or power to mock the opposite sex like the men behaving as women do. Players, even though they are engaged in the same kind of gender imitation as the cheerleaders, are more restricted and subdued, whether by “choice” or because onlookers would not be entertained by a farcity of the male sex. Our preference for seeing typical feminine roles imitated over typical male roles reflects, even unknowingly, a privileging of men over women.

   I know that is a lot of analysis for a school event. Feel free to completely disregard my thoughts. I know I am speaking in very broad, general terms and it is difficult to encourage critical thinking without appearing bitter or unkind. Please know my purpose was not to dissuade people from attending (or even enjoying) this event, nor was it to disrespect my peers who do choose to participate in it. I only hope to create a more thoughtful dialogue surrounding the activities we, as an educated Christian community, engage in. Maybe this year, while you’re watching your friends score points and do high kicks, you will think a bit more deeply about the messages we are conveying.

  1. Great article, Katelyn. I thought this was an insightful analysis of a problematic, if beloved, SNU tradition.

  2. I could not help but think these same thoughts as I was attending the event this past week. I am not sure if that was the original intention during the creation of Powder Puff, but it certainly has escalated to this point of degradation.

    Even though this is not addressing your entire argument, I think it would be worth discussing with SGA to consider alternatives for the cheerleaders or how the game is presented for next year. Do you think that would be a step in the right direction or is there a more adequate one? Should we scrap the event entirely? Does softball marathon have this same function? I am interested in continuing this dialogue as well.

  3. I think beginning this discussion with the people behind the event would be a good start. Before we could do anything like scrapping the event entirely, we need people to recognize the potentially damaging subtext behind these activities. So awareness has to come first, otherwise the change is superficial and not transformative. I believe continuing the dialogue would be the first priority.

    As far as softball marathon goes, I’m not sure if it has quite the same impact as Powder Puff. In some ways, it is a similar concept but it seems to contain less farce, making it less harmful. Still, though, it does practice a lot of that gender reversal and imitation which has the potential to be degrading.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  4. Thanks for being willing to write about this (potentially controversial?) topic. I’m curious: does this same analysis and problem apply to other gender reversal scenarios, like some past skits at events like Southern Nazarene Live for example?

    I ask because you write, “We laugh and enjoy the game because boys are behaving in ways stereotypically associated with girls and vice versa” (which would seem to apply in that scenario). Later on, though, you note, “what is missing from the women’s imitation of male football players is the level of caricature.”

    So, more broadly, is there less of a problem if men and women are still enacting stereotypes of each other, but are doing it to the same degree/extent?

  5. Thanks for your comment, Brad! I think this issue definitely applies to other events at SNU (Who’s the Man, for instance) as well as circumstances/activities in our broader church and secular culture.

    What I was pointing out in your quote was that there is a difference in the degree to which each gender imitates each other. I was not attempting to make a value statement about this distinction but was simply noting it. I am not sure if an equal amount of gender imitation would be the solution. I do believe that the fact that men are seemingly given more reign to enact women’s roles is a sign of a continued imbalance in power, freedom and respect. Still, even if women could/did imitate men to the same degree that they are imitated, a lack of esteem and the problem of stereotyping remain. So while enacting gender stereotypes to the same extent may appear to be progress (as in women are invited to imitate in equal measure), I would not deem it a loving, gracious solution. It would be a step, but I think better alternatives exist. Thanks for your dialogue!