Powder Puff: Not Just Fun and Games

At GDS, there is a long-standing tradition of having the girls of the school play each other in a game of flag football while the boys stand on the sidelines to coach or cheer. While this has been a GDS custom for a very long time, it isn’t unique to our school. All over the country, high schools have taken part in these games of girls’ flag football, often called “Powder Puff.” The tradition is often seen as a way to promote grade bonding and foster inter-grade competition and spirit in a fun and safe environment. While it may seem that girls’ flag football is all fun and games, a closer look reveals that this tradition is rooted in sexism and enforces gender stereotypes that run much deeper than just a game of football.

For many students in the GDS community, flag football is a thrilling, entertaining, and enjoyable game to kick the year off right. Sophomore Marleigh Ausbrook, who played flag football for two years in a row, said, “I could see how it could be problematic but as long as it is just fun and playful, it’s fine.”

Ninth Grade Dean Abe Pachikara sees many benefits in the flag football tradition. While he does not think that the game corresponds with the values that we hold as a school, he said he thinks it promotes grade bonding.

“The idea of playing football as a kind of bonding ritual across classes is a good idea,” he said.

Pachikara said he thinks that the game itself provides a good opportunity for interaction between grades as well as an opportunity for people who are new to the community to meet fellow students in a competitive yet fun environment.

Still, the game remains steeped in sexist conventions. Years ago, GDS stopped calling the girls’ flag football game “Powderpuff” as that name carries heavily sexist connotations. The term comes from the plush material used to apply cosmetics to one’s face and implies that a woman’s place is not on the field but rather in front of the vanity, touching up her makeup.

Though putting an end to the tradition’s sexist name was a step in the right direction, changing the name of the game did not have any effect on how sexist the game itself actually is. Flag football makes a spectacle of girls playing a sport that is supposedly meant for men. There is an underlying tone to the game that says that watching it is supposed to be amusing because girls aren’t expected to know how to play flag football.

While there have been many suggestions about how to remedy the sexism ingrained in girls’ flag football, the solution is not as straightforward as it seems. One suggestion is to allow anybody to play. This would, in theory, remove the gendered undercurrents of the game. However, this solution is inherently flawed. A big part of the girls’ flag football tradition is allowing girls to shine in an athletic setting while getting cheered on by their peers. Should the game be opened up to participants of all genders, it is likely that male players would dominate the game.

Junior Talia Rodriguez explained, “Yes, it would be nice if it wasn’t just a girl thing, but also then you’re playing with boys and then boys aren’t going to respect you when you play.”

This feeling of empowerment that the girls who participate in flag football get to experience when playing is one that would be taken away by including both genders. This, in itself, shows a much deeper issue rooted in the athletics culture in the GDS community as well as the GDS community in general.

Boys dominating the athletic field is a common trope at GDS. “Flag football is kind of an on the surface way to express the issue, but I think the issues of sexism are much more grounded in our athletics program then we realize” said Rodriguez. This sentiment proves itself time and time again when it comes to support at sports games. While playing on the women’s basketball team, Rodriguez observed that men’s basketball received much more support than the women’s team did. While comparing the two teams, Rodriguez noticed that the bleachers would be filled for the men’s team and be practically empty for the women’s team when they were playing the same schools. This undertone of athletic sexism is prevalent in our community and yet seems to go practically untouched by the students and faculty at this school.

Girls’ flag football is a complex and nuanced issue. It is a tradition that is loved and enjoyed by the school community but also one mired in sexism and misogyny. The solution is not to make flag football co-ed or to abandon the custom all together. Instead, we must change the way that the GDS community views athletics as a whole, and contribute to the larger conversation about the way that our society views athletics. Only then will we be able to fully reflect on this game and the changes that we can make to move GDS further in the right direction.

By Maya Stutman-Shaw’ 22