Five feminisms from women’s football
21 July 2011
1. In the very popularity of the tournament, Women’s World Cup athletes challenged the received wisdom that viewers don’t want to watch women’s sports on TV unless those athletes were in bikinis. This is very good news, particularly considering that the Badminton World Federation has demanded absurd uniform changes from female badminton players for next year’s Olympics to boost TV viewership. In fact, I kept thinking that the US team’s uniforms had been designed so its players could not tear off their tops in Brandi Chastain style. (Tell me again, why was that a problem back in ’99?)
2. Women’s World Cup athletes demonstrate that a wide range of women’s body shapes and sizes can achieve international renown for their athletic prowess. And in showing many different women’s body shapes, these athletes help to challenge prevailing and punitive notions that to be feminine women must appear anorexic and with very slight frames. Just take a look at Hope Solo, the 5’9” keeper for the US team, who appeared Monday night on Late Show With David Letterman (uch: how does that man sleep at night?). Solo has remarkably broad shoulders, which were only highlighted by the strappy sundress she wore; those shoulders combine with her classic beauty and surprisingly high-pitched voice to make for a not-easily definable femininity.
So just imagine how much more indefinable she became when she talked about her weight. Letterman asked Solo how she incurred such a serious shoulder injury that she required surgery a few years ago. She responded frankly: “You have a 150-pound body landing, day in and day out, probably 50 times a day, you’re eventually going to ruin something on your body.”
Letterman didn’t know how to respond: “Yeah. Wow, umm…” — as if she’s talked about her excrement or body hair. Solo just laughed. “Yes! I just — I, as a woman — just gave all you guys my weight! On television! I did, and I’m proud of it!” I can’t believe I think this is a big deal, but it is.
3. The Women’s World Cup showed us that these women aren’t just great at passing, ball handling, dramatic corner kicks and headers into the goal, but also at fierce aggression. They threw elbows and knees at one another, hurled themselves at the ball, and got injured. If the typical TV stereotype is for women to hurt one another with words or passive aggression, soccer shows that open aggression is kind of refreshing.
4. In contrast to much men’s football worldwide, women’s teams are oriented to being teams, fostering teamwork, and eschewing the monomaniacal celebrity culture that accompanies both international and club play for men. It’s meaningful to all of us to see women team players hugging one another, generously giving one another credit for great plays or assists, and expressing love for their friends on the team. It’s very meaningful to me to see that affection — and meaningful for girls everywhere. They’re oriented to each other, not to men or some male coach/father figure.
In a piece called “Football’s Fairer Sex?” ESPN writer Will Tidey goes further to delineate differences between men’s and women’s football. He explains that women fake far fewer injuries (“diving”), recover more quickly from real injuries, and in general seem to play with less cynicism. He concludes with admiration for Homare Sawa, who was named the tournament’s best player yet denied that she deserved special attention.“The team played so much of a part in me winning these awards that I can’t really take any personal pride in receiving them,” she said. Tidey is right: there’s just less bullshit on the women’s pitch. (I know, there are exceptions, like when Erika of Brazil faked an injury to give her team a breather. Just remember how rare that was.)
5. Whether or not they’re gay (and open about it), many female players have embraced butch haircuts or personal styles that signify at least tomboyness if not queerness — and this is good both for gay rights and for helping to blur a gay/straight binary. Even better that all of them feel complete comfort in touching one another, hugging, and goofing around both on & off the pitch. It’s good for women everywhere to have prominent women in the media who challenge the super-feminine, pornified model of appearing in ways that seem designed to please Charlie Sheen. Let’s face it: there are a lot of ways to be gorgeous. More important, there are a lot of paths to personal appearance that make us feel comfortable in our own skin, and I like it that Amy LePeilbet (below, left) and others are showing us how. (Gorgeous!)