- Pretty Tough Sports and the Promotion of Female Empowerment in Young Adult Sports Fiction
Following different girl athletes at Beachwood Academy, a private school in Malibu, California, the Pretty Tough young adult series traces the obstacles that teenaged girls confront in their sporting and personal lives. While each of the six novels focuses on one or two protagonists, the series features a recurring cast of characters, including Martie, the athletic director, and various student athletes. Not only does this structure enhance a sense of female community organized around sports, but the series consistently depicts girls’ sports participation in ways that counter stereotypes about their lack of athletic ability or interest in sports. On the face of it, the Pretty Tough series signals an important return to the progressive elements of early twentieth-century girls’ sports fiction that resisted restrictions on women’s physicality by emphasizing female bonding and camaraderie.
Although scholars of young adult literature have paid little attention to girls’ sports stories, some recent sociological research has begun to redress this deficiency, tracking an increase in the number of contemporary titles about girl athletes. The 2013 study of Erin Whiteside et al., for example, attends to the pervasiveness of “girl power” rhetoric that has accompanied the identification of a cultural crisis in “girlhood subjectivity” since the 1990s; the authors expose the flimsiness of the façade of “empowerment” that has been used to market girl sports series such as Dairy Queen and Pretty Tough (Whiteside). This essay contributes to this emerging scholarly discourse on girls’ sports fiction by investigating in detail the Pretty Tough book series and its construction of the young female athlete. It argues that while the series departs in significant ways from most representations of female athletes in young adult fiction, these advances are undercut by postfeminist framings that render athleticism a positive identity limited [End Page 23] to privileged groups while failing to challenge masculine sports hegemony. Such framings make questionable the series’ purported goal of empowering girls by increasing their sports participation.
Among young people, sports fiction is the third most popular genre for male and female readers combined (Crowe 6). Its popularity is not surprising, given the major role of sports in U.S. culture and the participation of millions of adolescents in competitive sports around the country. Due to the passage in 1972 of Title IX, the law that forbade sex discrimination at any educational institution accepting federal dollars, in 2013 girls made up almost forty-two percent of all high school sports participants (“High School Sports”). Despite this, Chris Crowe observes the paucity of sports literature written for young women (62), attributing the lack to publishers’ stereotypical perception that girls are not that interested in sports (66).
Pretty Tough Sports LLC has emerged to exploit the absence of girls in young adult sports fiction. According to its web page, Pretty Tough is a “premier brand and media property” launched by Jane Schonberger and Alex Morency that provides “high-quality, specialty content, products and services for active girls worldwide,” blending “positive messages” with “entertaining” products in order “to empower girls and support their competitive endeavors.” It works with various organizations to promote “sports and healthy lifestyles to young women” and to inspire girls “to achieve their goals, whatever they may be” (“Vital Stats”). Chief among its products is the Pretty Tough book series, published via Penguin Razorbill. The series, written by Liz Tigelaar and Keri Mikulski under the pseudonym Nicole Leigh Shepherd, is marketed toward girls twelve and over and is the basis for the Pretty Tough drama series, currently streaming on Hulu.com.
The language of Pretty Tough’s marketing positions its book series as part of a broader tradition of feminist sports activism that has fought for access to sports as a means for women and girls to achieve social parity. Alluding to research documenting the benefits of girls’ participation in sports—including enhanced self-esteem, academic achievement, and lower rates of depression, cancer, and pregnancy (“Her Life” 3–4)—its focus on girls’ empowerment draws from an understanding of sport as male cultural preserve and female sports participation as “a form of resistance” disturbing “male supremacy...