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!)

Surely there are more feminisms they’re modeling for us — have I missed anything?

40 Responses to “Five feminisms from women’s football”

  1. Didion Says:

    Be sure to check out the Rachel Maddow interview with the US team, in which she not only asks the right questions, but reveals how much she’s drooling over the team the same way we all are:

    And Jon Stewart tries to do a Wambach:

  2. servetus Says:

    it’s a problem for a woman to confess to weighing 150 lbs given the weights of male athletes? Letterman is such a d***.

    In positive news, the UWGB women’s basketball coach got a huge raise this week.

    • Didion Says:

      I’ve been trying to think about the last time I saw any woman talk about her weight in terms of an actual number on TV — female athlete or not — and I can’t come up with one. It’s not the specific number (she’s 5’9″! she’s a world-class athlete! it’s amazing she doesn’t weigh more than 150!). I think it’s like the old days when women didn’t tell their age. SICK.

  3. JE Says:

    I love how Brandi Chastain ripping her shirt off made people freak out, and perhaps still makes the Establishment a little nervous. It reveals so much.

    And on that note, there is the story that Sepp Blatter, the asshole in charge of Fifa, wanted skimpy uniforms to “help” the Women’s World Cup.

    Very happy that was loudly shouted down.

    No, you can’t let them rip their shirts off, but it’d be great to see more skin.


    Overall, the feeling you get watching so many of the women of those teams: happy being who they are. And really happy to be playing soccer. Who cares about appearance or body stuff or “femininity” when there’s a chance you can get the ball in the back of the net.

    • Didion Says:

      Whoa! How did I miss this debate? You people are turning me into an almost-regular reader of the Guardian — they seem to break all manner of stories that I don’t see in my regular newspaper reading.

      I really wish someone could tell me why Brandi Chastain’s shirt-ripper was (and is?) such a problem. Seems like a FIFA/women’s football president’s dream come true. Is it the sports bra rather than a bikini top?

      And to remain on the most shallow subject of all time, I’m a big fan of Alex Morgan’s neon-orange sports bra, which glowed underneath her white uniform.

      • JE Says:

        The best I can guess is that it’s because Chastain did it herself. It was what men used to do. It’s disallowed in the men’s game now as well–one of the Spanish players got a yellow card for shirt-ripping in the final last year after they’d won–though I’m not sure when it was outlawed for the men. I’d really like to know if it was outlawed after Chastain did it. So it was a bit of a macho gesture for Chastain. Too “masculine,” perhaps.

        Whereas skimpy uniforms puts women’s bodies on a platter for the enjoyment of the audience. It makes them passive in showing their skin.

      • Didion Says:

        Brilliant response. She’d gone off-script. And scripts are only written by Fifa execs and TV news people.

        She did a pretty great job of commenting during this past WWC — and didn’t she look terrific!

  4. tam Says:

    Thanks for this post, particularly for the Maddow interview. I couldn’t quite watch Letterman; he makes me cringe.

    Something else worth noting: The finals was the most tweeted event in the history of Twitter!

    I wish there is a way to find out the response to Japan’s winning team back in their home country. I’m sure there are celebrations, but I wonder if they are being interviewed on TV. And how are they coming across…. are they accepted as successful footballers?

    • Didion Says:

      I know what you mean. The best I can do is re-post a friend’s Facebook status from a few days ago (a friend who lives & works in Kitakyūshū): “My co-worker said he is getting tired of his Japanese wife crying, she is still so happy when she sees the highlights on TV. I see on the news all of Japan is shedding tears at the miracle.”

  5. JE Says:

    Just found this. Silliness.–women-s-world-cup-soccer-team

    Yes, I still can’t get over the WWC.

    • Didion Says:

      Great video! And speaking of not getting over things, I just saw the Wambach/Solo/Rapinoe team, DC’s MagicJack, play the Boston Breakers on Saturday night. Wambach got a beautiful floating cross from Megan Rapinoe just like in that WWC Brazil match, and headed it into the goal beautifully:

      …and then she did it a second time later in the half.

      On the other hand, the NY Times story of two days ago about women’s professional soccer salaries is discouraging to say the least. The best players make do with salaries of ca. $25K; some merely get a couple of hundred dollars per game.

  6. […] course, alongside my posts calling for more real noses, unusual mouths, and real female athletes’ bodies, this one is hopelessly idealistic. But who knows? Maybe in another year or two another fat actress […]

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  8. JE Says:

    A curiosity on the issue of not announcing a woman’s weight:

    Here is the current roster of the Men’s National Team (which lists the height and weight of each player):

    The official Olympic roster of the Women’s National Team lists the height but not the weight of each player.

    The USA Soccer page also has the rosters of men’s and women’s youth teams (under-23 down to under-15). The weight of all the men and boys are listed, but for none of the women or girls.


    Other sports have women in weight classes (martial arts, weightlifting, boxing), and those women don’t seem to have a problem with it. It’s sports, the weight of a player is relevant. So if it’s relevant for male soccer players, why not for the women?

    • JE Says:

      Okay, I noticed that the US Soccer website asks for feedback/questions/concerns, so I asked them about this.

      I mentioned the weight classes in other sports, Solo’s pronouncement on Letterman.

      And I said that not giving the women’s weight seems to institutionalize the notion that women should be ashamed of their weight, whatever it is.

      • Didion Says:

        Silly woman, don’t you know that their weight is classified? Because if the rest of us learn that this group of some of the fittest, strongest women in the world weigh, say, 140, we will FREAK OUT and stop feeling so bad and stop reading about how One Celebrity weighs 95 pounds and Another Celebrity weighs 97 pounds and thinking “shit, well why don’t I weigh only 97 pounds?,” and we’ll start wondering why we don’t know how much a 6’5″ basketball star weighs and Serena Williams weighs. And then we will RISE UP and take over the world with our big fat thighs.

      • servetus Says:

        And yet again, I ask myself how we got to a world in which 140 pounds is considered disgustingly obese.

      • Didion Says:

        Especially because the last I heard, the average weight for a woman of 5’4″ in the US was 154.

      • JE Says:

        Heard back from US Soccer. “Your question is a very good one, and one that we have been considering for quite some time.” A bit of a non-response, but I guess they don’t really have an answer. It’s nice to hear they’ve been wrestling with the issue.

        And they gave me a phone number in case I wanted to talk to someone about it. Not sure I’ll call. I am notoriously clumsy talking on the phone and tend to panic. But if you can think of a few good questions that really need to be asked, I might call.

      • Didion Says:

        Maybe you don’t have a question but merely a statement: “I am calling to express my strong request that US Soccer cease its discriminatory practice of treating male and female athletes differently when you list men’s weights but not women’s. This practice signals that women athletes should be embarrassed about their weight and must keep it secret. I strongly urge US Soccer to change this practice and treat its athletes equally.”

        Can you post the phone number? I’m thinking now that I’d like to try to call.

      • JE Says:

        I emailed the # to you.

  9. servetus Says:

    I’m probably regressing the discussion here, but is there some reason for discussing any soccer player’s weight? I know that there’s some reason in sports like boxing, in terms of making fights fair. But they’re not grouping people in soccer teams by weight, are they?

    I’m seriously asking this totally naively. You know how little I know about sports.

    • Didion Says:

      Nope — I think they list it, like a player’s height (which in soccer often doesn’t matter a whole lot) to give a clear idea of different matchups. I haven’t watched huge amounts of soccer but occasionally a commentator will say something about how a player has bulked up or lost weight and what that means for their play in a certain position and/or against a defender (of a different weight).

      It’s ultimately not an issue that matters a whole lot. No one is sitting around anxiously waiting to find out how much Abby Wambach weighs — at least I don’t think so. I’m more interested in the simple issue of parity, and what the absence of this information in the women’s case says about what weight #s are supposed to mean to all the rest of us.

    • JE Says:

      I’ve wondered about that too (also wondered why post the weight of the men). It is a contact sport, they definitely crash into each other, though it’s not like linebackers in American football. If two people are running side by side trying for the ball, it makes a difference if the person who bumps into you weights 135 or 155.

      Perhaps if I call I’ll suggest they either add the weight of the women or cut the weight of the men. It’s true we don’t need a number, for either men or women. If a player is 5’6″ or 5’10” or 6’2″, one glance at his or her build will give you an idea of what it’d feel like if the person crashed into you while you were both going for the ball.

      I just checked the page for the German national team: no height or weight for either men or women on the official roster.

      • servetus Says:

        Interesting. After living in Germany for many years, while I’d say the emphasis on weight as aspect of appearance is growing to be more similar, I’d say also that the Germans I know have less interest in the number than in the fitness level question, i.e., when people talk about their hopes to lose weight, they don’t say, I need to lose weight to get to my ideal weight, but rather that they need to lose because they feel like excess weight is interfering with daily activities.

      • JE Says:

        Interesting, the idea of it being more about fitness. For the last few minutes I’ve been wondering if the convention of posting weights for men is connected to earlier periods when a serious athlete packing 200 pounds of solid muscle was something a little unusual. Weight=strength, thus something for the team to brag about. But now with the women, they don’t know quite what to do.

        I hasten to add that my knowledge of early to mid-20th-century conventions and public opinion (or even the size of athletes and regular people) is close to absolute zero.

        In Homer’s Odyssey (ahh . . . something I know about), Athena sometimes gives Odysseus a make-over to impress the people he’s meeting. Homer always says she makes him taller and thicker–i.e., stronger. When he finally gets home, Athena gives Penelope a make-over before one of their meetings. She makes Penelope thicker too–which always confuses the hell out of my students.

      • servetus Says:

        There’s also a class issue at work in discussions of weight, methinks, although it’s hard to parse: in Germany, soccer (Fußball) was traditionally, until the 1960s at least, and maybe longer, seen as a working class sport. I don’t think it’s so much seen that way now, although most of the players are not from upper social echelons — their parents tend to be working class or even immigrants. My impression in the U.S. is that soccer is coded as an upper middle class sport.

        It’s been years since I’ve read the Odyssey — probably twenty 🙂

      • Didion Says:

        I’m not sure it’s coded quite so considering how important football is to immigrant populations. Every time I’ve watched the World Cup the most distinctive aspect for me has been driving through the city and observing all the ethnic groups proudly flying flags, wearing jerseys, crowding bars and cafes, etc.

        Also let’s not forget that since the 1970s kids of all classes have learned to play from the time they’re little. Don’t get me wrong: plenty of upper middle class (snooty educated types) watch it and play recreationally, perhaps because it’s coded as a thinking man’s football or something — but I think it’s grown to have a popularity that isn’t easily categorized.

      • servetus Says:

        OK, but are immigrant populations in the U.S. cheering for the U.S. national team? I don’t know, I’m just curious. When I go out to the Mexican restaurant on Sunday morning where nobody speaks English, they’re all cheering for Latin American teams. Whereas the people I know who *play* organized team soccer in the U.S. (or their kids play) are mostly in the white middle class. I guess I was speaking in the context of the U.S. / Germany comparison, and you’re right that the U.S. has a much higher percentage of immigrants doing anything.

      • Didion Says:

        Honestly, I couldn’t tell you who plays — but the guys who play in the field across the street from us are Slavic and Central American. Don’t know about the kids’ teams here.

        I wonder if it’s likewise hard to parse re: team loyalties. An immigrant might have a favorite club team from his/her home nation as well as a loyalty to the national team, but you might also develop one for the local pro team if you’ve got one nearby (as tickets are still relatively affordable). For snooty educated upper middle-class types, I wonder if many people watch the World Cup and develop strong feelings not for the US national team but for some of the underdog teams — Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Japan, etc. Dunno. I rooted for Spain during the last men’s World Cup but primarily for the US during the women’s World Cup… not that I think I’m representative of any particular group, but it was a notable divide.

      • Didion Says:

        The Makeovers of Ancient Greece: the new course you can teach as the designated humanities requirement of a cosmetology/ television communication degree.

        I must admit, when Hope Solo announced her weight on David Letterman it was rather jolting — you just don’t hear women do this on a regular basis. But I also remember hearing about the actress Kate Bosworth, who bulked up during the filming of the vexingly ambivalent film Blue Crush (about a surfing star in training). She gained something like 20 pounds of muscle for the part because the surfing training was just so rigorous. Needless to say she looked fucking amazing.

      • JE Says:

        Men bulk up for roles often (Edward Norton for American History X comes to mind immediately, since he’s usually a bit of a geeky type).

        Is it just me, or does it seem that when men bulk up, it’s about strength and muscle, but when women do it, as much as most of us admire their build, their weight–the number–is still somehow an issue, though it would never be for men. You just never hear of a woman’s weight listed if it’s over about 125. There was that movie about female bodybuilders that featured one who had massive and fantastically developed muscles. She lost. Not “feminine” enough.

        It reminds me of an old Dave Barry joke:

        “To figure out whether you are overweight, determine your sex and locate your correct scientific weight on this table:

        Male: 155 pounds
        Female: 115 pounds
        Child: 60 pounds.”

        We’re just stuck in this rut that women should be petite. A neighbor of mine once said she wanted to lose some weight, and since I run a lot, she wanted my opinion on how many miles a day she could run before she started developing big muscles.

        I was confused. In my mind, muscles are great. Muscles mean you’re faster and stronger. But for her, big thighs were bad, even if they were muscular thighs.

      • JE Says:

        On the question of who’s playing, if you look on the youth team rosters at US Soccer, the girls’ names sound mostly white. Curiously, the U-17 team has 4 girls with the first name “Morgan.” The boys’ teams have a healthier mix of Latino names. That might be reflective of some girls in some cultures not being encouraged as much (or actively discouraged)?

        All of the players on the youth teams look affiliated with soccer clubs: F.C. Stars of Mass, San Diego Surf. That’s going to cost money: for coaches, uniforms, travel to matches, etc. Some places probably have scholarships for those who can’t afford it, but it’s going to be fairly middle class, I’d guess.

      • Didion Says:

        Now, is it just me, or does “Morgan” sound a little too much like the name of someone’s dog? But then I should never second-guess child naming patterns.

      • servetus Says:

        I had five Megans in one class this spring (and two of them on Deans’ List).

      • Didion Says:

        It’s always something with those white middle class kids, isn’t it? I had a spate of Old Testament names last year — Rachels, Rebeccas, etc. Ten years ago it was nothing but Nicoles. Always a smattering of Courtneys. Now I see Madison is one of the top 10 most popular girls’ names of 2012. Ugh.

  10. servetus Says:

    Yeah, I guess it’s my perception that immigrants play informally and white middle class kids play organized. Not least because my BF from college has been a soccer mom for years, and it really does kind of require not just a lot of disposable income, but also a lot of unpaid labor / time — moms ferrying kids here and there at inconvenient times, etc.

    But I’m only speaking anecdotally.

    Oh, and I only care about the German national team. Because I decided to learn to love soccer when I was living there. And because I always liked Jürgen Klinsmann and hated Lothar Matthäus.

    • Didion Says:

      This is true! The stereotype of the soccer mom is tried and true for the upper middle class. But honestly, I have no idea; after all, Latino names can mean upper middle class/white, too. (My lesson after living in TX for a while.) Maybe it’s mostly my wishful thinking that leads me to believe there’s a wide social diversity in US soccer playing/fandom — after all, what made it so appealing in the 70s was that all those Latinos and Asian immigrants were already so good at the sport, and white kids had to catch up.

      • servetus Says:

        I feel like your general point is probably true, because in general (if you’re not playing league soccer, etc.) soccer is friendlier to the short, skinny kid than any other sport commonly played in the U.S.

        I guess part of what I was thinking, and the reason I started this thread in the first place, was that stating weight or not stating it could be related to class issues just because league soccer, which did appear to be middle class to me, appeared to me feed the national teams in the U.S. Maybe class (or immigrant background) issues don’t intersect with stating weight or weight awareness to the extent that I thought.

  11. […] next person when it comes to watching media with a queer eye — when I sang the praises of the feminist potential of the Women’s World Cup last summer, it was partly because “whether or not they’re gay (and open about it), many […]

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