The Timko Sisters: Come Back to the Five and Dime, Billie Jean, Billie Jean


…cuz we need you.

On May 1, a pair of tennis-playing girls—sisters Karli and Tonya Timko—won the won the boys AA Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League doubles title.
Let me take that back: They didn’t just win. They freakin’ dominated. As singles players on the boys team, they rolled over their opponents all year, dropping only two sets between the two of them. When the season came to a close and titles were on the line, the sisters teamed up as double partners again and hammered their finals opponents, Tin Chu and Drew Gallatin of Thomas Jefferson High, by a total of 6-2, 6-1.

According to their own statements in the press, the sisters, who play for Chartiers-Houston high, have been playing on the boys’ tennis team because there haven’t been enough girls to field a girls’ squad. That dismal state of affairs is a worthy enough topic for conversation, but let’s save that for another time. What I want to take a look at is the media coverage of the sisters’ victory.

To start: It’d be nice if we were all past that goofy-yet-horrifying, patronizing coverage women’s sports were afforded—the rare times they were covered at all—in the early to middle parts of the 20th century. Check out this old newsreel covering the women’s baseball league that inspired the movie A League of Their Own to see what I mean:

Seen from a 21st century perspective, the exaggerated sexism of that newsreel pretty much speaks for itself. It’s just so stupid and silly, you don’t really need to point out the fact that it’s gruesomely misogynist. I mean, showing the pitcher fixing her pigtail braids before taking the mound? Whatever. And, after seeing that poor woman sliding into home while wearing a skirt, all the announcer can say is, “Better a bruise than long pants, eh, girls?” Really? It’s like watching Mad Men. Watching that footage, you almost have to breath a giant sigh of relief—Thank god at least that’s over.

Um, except it’s not. Although it’s not so overt, much of the coverage of the Timkos’ domination echoes that kind of archaic perspective, right down to certain detailed fixations. Note, for instance, the lede of the Yahoo Sports article (written by Steve Brenner) covering the girls’ match:

One of this year’s AA boys’ tennis doubles champions in western Pennsylvania wears pigtails and a skirt.

Wait…pigtails? Skirts? Weren’t those centerpieces of that newsreel? The one from, like, 70 years ago? The one that we now use as an object lesson on how shitty women were treated? The one that’s not supposed to remind us of how things are now but of how bad things used to be?

To be fair, this Brenner guy does a decent job describing the Timkos’ playing styles and their interesting pedigree (they come from a family of great athletes, and Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton is their aunt). But damn, this guy’s got a fixation on the hair and clothes: “Their opponents generally were aware of their rankings and didn’t seem particularly embarrassed about losing to girls,” Brenner notes, “though it didn’t help when Tanya wore bows, pigtails and a skirt on the court.”

First of all, again with the pigtails and skirts! Second, so are we to take this as an indication that the guys would have taken it better if Tanya had butched out?

There’s more here. Brenner makes sure we know that this whole story is definitely NOT about feminism, when he dismissively brings it up in the last few lines of his story:

And that whole ‘Battle of the Sexes’ thing?
‘We don’t really care,’ Karli said. ‘We just go out there and play our games. We’re in this for us. We’re not doing it for anyone else. … We don’t care if they’re boys or girls. We just want to win.”

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette echoes the sentiment with Mike White’s feminism-phobic lede:

Karli and Tanya Timko don’t look at themselves as trailblazers or trend-setters. ‘It’s not like we’re fighting for women’s rights,’ Karli said.
No, these sisters see themselves as simply two tennis players who were looking for some competition. All the boys in WPIAL Class AA happened to get in the way.

So, is anyone else weirded out by this? Does it remind anyone else of the whole “post-feminism” meme that wormed its way through the media during the 2008 presidential campaigns? The whole, Hilary-Clinton’s-candidacy-proves-we-are-beyond-feminism thing? Wouldn’t you think that if we were indeed post-feminist, there would be no need to fetishize these young ladies and their pigtails and skirts? No need to mention the sex of any of the participants?

On the other hand, regarding Karli Timko’s statement—maybe we are post-feminist, in the sense that a lot of strong, smart, bad-ass young girls don’t want anything to do with feminism anymore. They don’t want to be trailblazers. They just want to play tennis. Which is OK, too. Isn’t it?

There’s a lot to untangle here. Thoughts?

Oh, and just for kicks, here’s some less depressing newsreel footage, of the 1929 Wightmen Cup battle between the US and Britain. Enjoy!

by Jonanna Widner
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