Women? In Sports? Do Me a Favour…

Posted: January 28, 2011 by ifyoutoleratethis45 in Culture and Society, Feminism, Football, Sport
Tags: , , , ,

Florence Grindall is a sports enthusiast and member of the Huddersfield Feminst Collective

Although the recent comments made by two male Sky commentators regarding a female assistant referee were entirely obnoxious, they have offered up an opportunity to debate sexism within sport.  This is an under explored topic, presumably owing to the absence of a female presence within many sports spaces.  Andy Gray and Richard Keys were penalized after they questioned the competence of Sian Massey based solely on her gender; according to the two of them it is impossible for a woman to sufficiently appreciate the offside rule.  Cue former Sky presenter, and daughter of Liverpool manager Kenny Daglish, Kelly Cates to tweet,

“Phew am exhausted. Just read about something called ‘the offside rule’. Too much for my tiny brain. Must be damaged from nail polish fumes.” 

In fact, the pair seemed quite perturbed that a woman had entered the male football sanctum, and Gray has been fired after further footage of sexist behavior towards a female colleague came to light. There are only three female officials at the top level and the cynical sexism of Gray and Keys may indicate why.  Football clubs lack women in other authoritative capacities too; only five of the 20 Premier League clubs have female directors, and there are no female managers in the men’s game. West-Ham vice-chairman Karren Brady has spoken out against the sexism that exists in football, to which Keys and Gray responded,

 ‘See charming Karren Brady this morning complaining about sexism?’

 ‘yeah. Do me a favour, love.’

Even if women retreat to ‘women’s’ football their opportunities are limited as football at club level in this country is sorely underdeveloped.   Amazing then that at the last women’s World Cup in 2007 the England team reached the quarter finals (losing to the US in front of nearly 30,000 people, other matches achieved crowds of over 50,000).  While the women played they earned around £40 a day, compared to the £million contracts of their male counterparts who also reached the quarters in 2006.  The women’s England team was also quite successful when they reached the final of the UEFA Championship (or Euro 2009 as the kids say) losing to Germany 2-6.  The team has also qualified for this year’s World Cup.  Although these achievements were acknowledged they were generally hidden in the corner of newspaper pages or webpages saturated with news on the men’s domestic game. 

Sport remains male-dominated, women are ignored or derided, and as a result girls are put off taking up a sport at any level.  It’s not just footie were the achievements of women are ignored, in 2008 the England Women’s Cricket team held on to their Ashes title, and won the World Cup, and won the Twenty20 World Cup.  Captain Charlotte Edwards was awarded an MBE but there was little media coverage and most people remain unaware of the English success.  In fact, in what seems like a doubly cruel twist of fate, news that the women’s team has just lost this year’s Ashes will most certainly be pushed off the front pages by news of Keys and Gray sexism. 

It does seem that the best chance a woman has of getting her picture into the sports pages is to be the sex kitten girlfriend of an established male athlete; women wearing low cut tops at tournaments can just wait for the cameramen to find them/incessantly pan the camera over them.  Two years ago in July the British pair of Jo Jackson and Rebecca Adlington won medals in the 400 metre freestyle in the World Swimming Championships, The Metro offered them a small story at the bottom of the page, but gave pride of place to a story on Lewis Hamilton illustrated with a large picture of his pop star girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger.  And when Andies Murray and Roddick battled through the Wimbledon semi-final the London Lite paper offered a Battle of the Babes, dedicating a half page to a contest over which of their girlfriends was the most attractive.  Lovely. 

And female athletes who strive for years to achieve sporting excellence can rely on their talent being overlooked, as spectators, commentators, and journalists are blinded by their beauty.  The All England Club (where Wimbledon tennis lives) admitted to putting more attractive players on the center court, Spokesman Johnny Perkins said at the time ‘Good looks are a factor’.  And a couple of certain Sky commentators may be aggrieved to learn that tennis commentators often get away with demeaning women by repeatedly reducing them to their looks from describing matches as ‘very watchable’ (wink wink), to discussions over how to pronounce a foreign player’s name, ‘I just call her hot’. 

It may seem surprising then that many successful professional female athletes would actively seek the sex object role.  But in an environment where women are only acknowledged if they are photogenic it actually isn’t that surprising.  Fans of tennis will be hard pushed to Google a female tennis player without finding a naked, sexy, or bikini shot of her.  Former number one Ana Ivanovic seems to have topless photos floating around just about everywhere, whilst Maria Sharapova has earned most of her $millions off court from numerous endorsements not least her Sports Illustrated swim suit special. 

And everything Venus Williams has worn in the past two years is essentially unattractive underwear worn in public that she hopes will ‘bring sexy back to tennis’.  Why it is that tennis needs to be sexy remains undisclosed.  A new sport that has emerged in the US is already plenty sexy; Lingerie Football League.  Apparently it’s similar to regular American Football; only with lingerie clad beauties running around, and more girl on girl action.  But I confess I haven’t seen a match.  

Then there’s beach volleyball where female players are required to wear bikinis while the men play in shorts and t-shirts.   Although often criticized the dress code is accepted as it supposedly raises the profile of the game (for that I’d read encourages men to ogle women while they play professional sport).  Head of Fifa, Seb Blatter, has suggested that something similar (tighter shorts) would work for women’s football. 

This is the Seb Blatter who recently suggested that gay football fans considering travelling to Qatar to watch the World Cup in 2022, where homosexuality is illegal, should just refrain from having sex whilst abroad.  The celebration of female sex appeal in sport not only insults professional athletes male and female, demeans and dehumanizes women, but also excludes female and gay spectators. 

As with other areas of society the struggles of women intersects with that of sexuality, and occasionally broader questions on gender.  Last year South African runner Caster Semenya returned after a year’s absence from her sport.  A few hours before her World Championship 800 meter final the world’s media, was informed that after the race the then 18 year old would undergo gender testing.  This testing was not to determine malicious fraud of a man masquerading as a woman but to satisfy suggestions that she might not be, biologically, entirely female.  This raises many questions about what it means to be a real woman, and our fixed ideas of the gender dichotomy; male and female.    For Caster Semenya, her career may have been over due to a condition she was born with as natural as being born male or female.

Women in sport must prove their strength physically and mentally in their chosen field, whilst maintaining a sense of femininity.  To do otherwise would be to risk derision because they look ‘mannish’ or too masculine, or like a lesbian.  Perhaps this is why female athletes continue to pose for Maxim or Playboy; to prove they are real, sexy, heterosexual women- everything that sport demands of a woman. 

Perhaps it also explains why US Open tennis champ Kim Clijsters would want to be turned into a Barbie doll.  The doll itself seems an idealized version of Clijsters, her muscular legs have been thinned for example*, her naturally dark blonde hair lightened, and the fierce competitor has been reduced to a child’s toy.  And her heterosexuality is established by every woman’s perfect accessory; a child- her daughter Jada has also become a doll.  If even the most successful female athletes are being, in this case literally, reduce to objects it feels as though we have a long way to go to eradicate sexism in sport. 

There are some positive signs for the future; certainly public opinion does seem to condemn the attitudes of Gray and Keys.  But it seems a hollow victory to celebrate.   On the surface the expansion of other sports seem to increase the opportunities for women.  Cycling events in the next Olympics will have changed as they create parity for male and female competitors.  Although much of story was that the men’s events had been reduce as a result.  And women will be able to box in the 2012 Olympics.  Unfortunately, they will have to compete in one of only three weight categories meaning some will have to gain or lose 15lbs to compete, something no professional male boxer would ever consider. 

Women’s participation in sport remains woefully lower than men’s meaning they lose out on the fun and excitement of sporting events, the personal development and sense of achievement sport can bring, and of course exercise, a healthy body, and a healthier attitude towards their bodies.  Sport remains male dominated due to the way professional female athletes are dehumanized and judged on their looks not talent, while male sporting excellence steals all the headlines.  If, as a young girl, the only sports related women you see are in sexy photo shoots or as a glamorous WAG cheering on her partner there is little encouraging you to pick up a cricket bat.  Unless we challenge the sporting status quo we will not achieve the equality for men and women all sane people must seek, and we will lose so many opportunities to witness the excellence our sportswomen have to offer. 

*Just for the record, I DO NOT believe that thinner legs look more ideal than muscular legs, but Mattel apparently do.


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