Last night, on American Ninja Warrior, Kacy Catanzaro became that person for a lot of women, myself included. She proved that the impossible dream was possible. On what could easily be dismissed as a cheesy summer reality TV show, she became the first woman ever - on either the American or Japanese versions - to complete the second round and qualify for Mount Midoriyama.
If you are not familiar with the show, let me catch you up: that's a really, really, really big deal. On American Ninja Warrior some of the best athletes and competitors attempt some pretty gruelling obstacle-course style challenges. There are qualifying rounds, then finals, and if you're good - like, superhuman GOOD - you go to Mount Midoriyama. Nobody has ever completed the third round and made it to the top in the 5 seasons of the American version of the show that originated in Japan. Few Japanese have made it to the top. It may provide eye-candy style summer entertainment for viewers, but this is an intense and elite athletic competition.
It's the only show I watch live, putting up with the commercials, sitting in suspense on the edge of my couch. It was worth it to witness history being made. Knowing that Mat also watches the show, I texted him when she did it: "it's a good thing you can't see me right now, because I am crying." I wasn't sure why it was such an emotional moment for me. For her? Sure. Obvious. It was the culmination of years of training and three years of trying and not qualifying on the show. But why was *I* so invested in her accomplishment?
Before her run began, I told Mat "...a win is good for all women. It helps when you see someone representing you be able to do something. Then it stops being a big deal and people start to accept that women can do it, and attitudes change. Kinda like how now it's normal for women to lift, when it used to be odd or unusual."
In her pre-interview, Kacy said pretty much the same thing: "I feel like getting to the top of the warped wall and hitting the buzzer has kind of been almost like this impossible dream for women, and it's been amazing to prove that wrong. I know that there are so many amazing women out there, and I think they just kinda needed that extra push to say 'hey, someone else has done it, I know that can do it, too' and I'm glad I can be that person."
The announcers summed it up even more succinctly, when she became the first woman to conquer the Warped Wall: "she changed our view of what women can do."
To believe, you have to be able to visualize it. And when there haven't been external images to support what you think or hope or believe in theory, it leaves room for a seed of doubt. Can women actually do it? Now we know. Yep. They can. In the same way thatwomen can do push-ups, and pull-ups, even if there aren't proportionately the same numbers as men or the odds aren't in our favour.
And that's one of the great things about American Ninja Warrior. Women haven't been excluded from trying. Competitors recognize other athletes and welcome their attempts. That women are less represented on the show is more likely because fewer try out than men. Each year, those numbers have risen, and as more women show up to try it, the odds increased that one of them would make it. I am sure that many of the women who stood in lines to try and qualify for the show did it because they saw other women do the same thing the year before. While lots of little boys watch this show and aspire to be like their heroes (as one kid excitedly told me in a class visit), now the girls who watch have someone to look up to as well.
Seeing yourself represented is crucial to feeling connected. When most picture book illustrations show white kids by default, and other races only if the story is specifically about colour or culture, that creates a disconnect for everyone. We inadvertently teach that white is the norm, and everything else is "other." The impact of fatness not being represented in the media comes through loud and clear on this blog. When the fat girl typically plays the sidekick, the funny friend, the desperate butt of the joke, fat girls everywhere internalize that message. Even with all the Melissa McCarthy films and shows lately, she is still playing the can't-get-a-date, gotta-be-crude-to-get-attention, gee-isn't-it-funny-when-she-tries-to-hit-on-men characters. Where are the roles where the fat girl finds a love interest? When her TV show, Mike and Molly, first came out there was quite an uproar over people not wanting to have to watch two fatties kiss. The fact that it was so abnormal to see fat people in love, living their lives, doing anything at all ... while still being fat ... shone a bright light on how invisible we've been, and why it's important to show all kinds of people, with traits that different groups identify with. Representation in media makes an impact. Even when that representation is based on skill, and not on bias.
Women on American Ninja Warrior don't fall into that invisible category anymore. Kacy is an elite athlete, a nationally ranked competitive gymnast. She has trained and conditioned herself to do things most of us could never do (or would never do, without that same level of conditioning). That's not the point. I'm not pretending that "if she can do it, I can do it." What got me last night, watching her hit the buzzer and be one of only seven to even finish the course - the top 15 move on to Mount Midoriyama but only 7 actually finished it, and she did - what got me was that she did something that many equally strong, equally trained, equally conditioned men could not do.
She made it much more difficult for women to say "can't" with credibility.
She made it possible to envision completing that course, and as more women visualize it, more women will do it.
She made what used to seem an impossible dream, possible.
Because she made it.