The 2018 FIFA World Cup has been a tournament of firsts for women in football. For a sport which has been traditionally male dominated on the field, in the stands and in the studios, many have argued that it seems a new era of female participation and inclusion is on the horizon. On the surface this seems to be the case, but until the inherently masculine values that are associated with football are challenged, women can never be truly included in the sport and all it encompasses.
A 700% increase
To start with, it is important to emphasise that the changes we are currently witnessing in both men’s and women’s football are definitely positive.
Support for women’s football itself has become increasingly popular, with wider coverage of matches, and attendance rapidly rising. In 2017, more than 35,000 fans attended the Women’s’ FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium; a 700% increase since 2013. Internationally, there has been progress in accepting that women can watch, understand and enjoy football to the same degree as men. Iran even broke tradition last week by allowing women to enter their football stadiums for the first time to watch their country play Portugal in the World Cup.
Women had previously worn fake beards to disguise themselves for entry.
Additionally, women have been given more screen time appearing as panellists and commentators during the BBC’s world cup coverage. Vicki Sparks was labelled a ‘history maker’ by Women in Football as she became the first woman to live commentate a World Cup match in the UK during the Portugal v Morocco fixture. A few other examples of the increasing opportunities for women in reporting football include Eniola Aluko, England International and Juventus player who has been a pundit in the studio; Gabby Logan who has been reporting for the BBC; and Jacqui Oatley, who became the first female Match of the Day commentator. This marks a clear progression from women being employed to satisfy the gaze of male viewers, to employing them based upon their expertise and experience.
It was just six years ago that Andy Gray and Richard Keys, Sky Sports’s star commentators, were dismissed for their inappropriate, sexist and grotesque comments to women in the studio, and about a female linesman.
Support seemed to be evident as tweets included: ‘to those criticising female commentators at the World Cup, was football coming home before female commentators? I think not’ . ‘The most amazing thing about the debate around female commentators at the World Cup is how truly dreadful the majority of men are without receiving any criticism whatsoever’ . ‘I think the issue with female commentators is that people generally hate change, because I can’t conceive why or how they shouldn’t exist’ .
However, this is just a start. What we have witnessed this World Cup is only an ostensible lowering of the gender barriers that women who play, watch, or report football deal with. Jason Cundy was called out for claiming that he preferred male commentators because women’s voices were too high pitched for football. Other tweets claimed, ‘female commentator on the BBC confirms to me that the world we now live in is completely fucked’ , ‘the BBC pissing off 99% of football fans by employing a female commentator with the most grating voice, just to tick another PC box. Completely ruins it. Feels like i’m watching ice skating’ .
Football has a unique ability to bring people together, whether that be on a global, national or local level. Plenty of women are already very involved in football, but there is much more to be done to ensure they don’t face unnecessary exclusions or barriers.
Social media is also riddled with examples of tweets and comments which ridicule female football fans. The BBC highlighted how many posts are suggesting that women ‘don’t really understand football and that they are watching the World Cup only to impress their boyfriends, to seek attention, or to check out handsome and muscular footballers’.
Whilst this BBC article is reflecting that football is still inherently sexist, it does however include the quote, ‘if you’re feeling conflicted when you see a woman on TV talking about football’ with a suggested course of action. This quote has good intentions as it attempts to quell any doubts male fans may have of listening to female coverage. However, by suggesting that it might be a reasonable response to feel conflicted when seeing women talk about football, it is in itself replicating the ideas that put up barriers for female involvement.
Core masculine values
These examples reflect not only a lack of respect from male-dominated fan bases towards women, but also show how football has in many ways become a toxic means through which men attempt to reinforce their masculinity. In the same way that drinking beer can be seen as a trait which is supposed to reflect someone’s masculinity, Mens Studies’ Scholars have argued that ‘the hierarchical and highly competitive world of football is one of the key sites for the construction and reproduction of masculinity today’. Even the rhetoric used in football commentary of ‘dominating’ and ‘controlling’ opponents, and criticizing players for falling over too easily or not playing through intense injuries reflects core masculine values which are a symptom of toxic masculinity.
Football is even recognised by the police as a fuel for violent behaviour. Police Departments have been warned to be prepared for increased cases of domestic violence on nights when England play in the world cup, with both England wins and losses leading to spikes of domestic abuse in the past.
The association between masculinity and football is not a new concept. An article published in the New Left Project highlights how sports scholars have even argued that the entire existence of professional sport was a response to female challenges to male dominated societies at the end of the 19th century. It has been claimed that ‘sport was a male-created homosocial cultural sphere that provided men with psychological separation from the perceived feminization of society, while also acting as dramatic symbolic proof of the natural superiority of men over women’.
‘The hottest fans of the World Cup’
It becomes increasingly hard to claim that football is something that all women can comfortably become involved in, as female football fans are either ridiculed for not understanding the game, or overly sexualized. A cartoon published in China suggested that female football fans not only were incapable of understanding the game, but that they should instead online shop whilst their male partners watched. This was followed on Tuesday by Getty Images, who posted an article titled ‘the hottest fans of the World Cup’. The post included photos of young women only and was eventually removed by the site. It seems when women transcend into the masculine environment of football stadiums, it becomes acceptable to view their purpose entirely as being attractive to men.
As football holds a special place in the hearts of both men and women in this country, surely it is time it became something which women felt equally as included and involved in. Yes, it is men who are playing in the World Cup and who play in the Premier League, but that doesn’t mean that men should watch men’s football and women should watch women’s football.
It also does not mean that women are not equally capable of analysing and reporting on matches. It also doesn’t mean that women who attend men’s football matches are doing so to pleasure men in any way. Millions of women enjoy and engage with football for their own rights, so it is about time people realize that football should not be made into a masculine environment, but one where cultures and genders come together to enjoy sport.