Sarah Louisa Phythian-Adams argues that the irrational focus on the ‘Wives and Girlfriends’ of footballers during the World Cup demonstrates a wider dismissal of women’s sporting prowess and of women’s role in society in general.
I have a question for you: Who reading this will, however begrudgingly, admit that they’re glad the World Cup is over? And hands up if it’s because of a growing discontentment about women’s role in it?
My hand is up, but I admit that I watched the events unfolding in gagged disaffection.
The title, ‘The World Cup’ is where it starts, because for the majority of people I spoke to – men and women alike – it was THE World Cup. Of course it was, as ever, the world represented by that glorious 49% of it, the half that matters.
Because even in my most generous evaluation of football, it is still a multi-billion industry that effectively marginalises women. Women aren’t players in the much televised and hyped ‘World Cup’ of flag waving and office sweeps; nor are they in the visible high profile roles – women generally aren’t Coaches, Managers, FIFA Executives or Referees… They are of course free to adorn the arms of the players, but only if they’re very, very special. Only the cream of the crop of women, only those that have trained the hardest: tanned, waxed, surgically enhanced and dieted, are good enough to be one of the official FIFA World Cup Team Wives And Girlfriends (WAGs).
And do you feel in any way helpless when these stylised images of action go-getting men and their trophy shop-till-you-drop WAGs take over the TV and media? Are you concerned, as I, that the next generation of girls and boys are being subtly indoctrinated into what it means to be a part of world sporting culture – as defined by THE World Cup.
Are you touched and saddened by the image of Victoria Beckham, desperately competing to be the best WAG of all? That a woman who was a part of one of the biggest-selling music groups of all time, has numerous Platinum selling disks to her name and a host of other number ones, has been reduced to this WAGs sport. Dare you imagine what could be, if women with the tenacity and drive Victoria Beckham obviously has to compete, put their minds to ‘winning’ in other avenues? What would happen if they competed on the wider stage, WITH men, instead of merely FOR men’s attention? And what would it take to make this happen?
But you’ve heard this before, the cry of radical feminism – to stop competing with each other for men’s sexual attention and unite to overthrow a system which is inherently biased toward men; that while women are slapping themselves up and clothes horsing to man-shopping victory, men will continue to dominate the public arena, the world stage of politics, economy, art, science and of course, sport.
But instead we are sucked into debating the relative vices of the WAGS, rather than examining the broader social issues at work in creating these curious creatures of scorn.
You couldn’t ask for a better example of this than of the reaction of Cheryl Tweedy (co-member of the ‘girl band’ ‘Girls Aloud’ and official World Cup WAG). Perhaps picking up on the mumblings of dismay of women who weren’t quite sure why, but didn’t have a good feeling about the new media revelation of ‘WAGs’, her knee jerk reaction was to distance herself from them. Completely missing the point, I fear, she was disgusted not by the media pigeonholing of these women and the society that had bred them, but that she felt their incessant shopping was distasteful because they were ‘sponging’ from their husbands!
And during the media storm surrounding ‘THE World Cup’, there was much talk of the manly heroes of our land and their glamorous WAGs, but little on issues such as the anticipated trafficking of women and children as prostitutes into Germany, specifically to meet the needs of the influx of male football fans.
But I’m just a spoil sport: literally. That’s what I get when I open my mouth and ask questions about men’s sport. Because this IS men’s sport, even if it supports the livelihood of some women, this was a sporting event of men, by men, for men that women were permitted to watch.
The big question we need to be asking here is not whether I’m a kill-joy woman moaning about something men love, but whether this routine focus on heroic men and their glamorous WAGs in football and other popular male dominated sports, has an impact on our culture and hence the economic and social value given to women. Especially when added to the range of other cultural factors pushing and pulling women in the media today – from the bump and grind images of purportedly ’empowered’ women on MTV and in so-called ‘Lads Mags’ back to football and the notion of being ‘a footballers wife’.
In the absence of actual hard facts and research into the subject, you can only ask draw conclusions based on your own observations.
My re-evaluation of male dominated sport came about when I worked for a large Blue chip company and overheard male colleagues’ conversation flowing easily from bullish sport to basically sexist comradary.
An intra-office football match was all that was required to fuel the fires of sexual segregation in the workplace. Five aside – and in order to be PC (their words, not mine), rules were drawn up requiring each team to have at least one ‘girl’ and for every extra ‘girl’ you fielded, you got an extra free goal. Plus if that wasn’t incentive enough, if a ‘girl’ scored, it was worth two goals!
What vexed me most was the reaction from colleagues of ‘that sounds fair’. I was forced to point out that a statement such as: ‘five aside mixed teams with each team consisting of at least two male and two female players’ would be an acceptable attempt at creating a more level playing field, whereas the former is merely, overly contrived tokenism.
Football wasn’t the only intrusion of sport machismo into the office. The intra-office Golf tournament was even more insidious, where traditionally, two-man teams were created by pairing a junior and a senior office member. No attention was paid to the contentious history of gender politics in the sport – that in some parts of the country women have only recently been permitted to use certain golf courses; nor was any attention paid to the distinct lack of females in their senior management. Because of this, I recall only one female team entering and the male management concluding that perhaps the ‘ladies’ just weren’t bothered.
Although this is one anecdote, I fear it is one of the multitude of instances where our acceptance of male dominated sport bleeds into our everyday lives. And in our (not too insignificant) sector of the economy, do I think this affected the way women were treated in the office? You bet I did. While the blokes were busy slapping each other on the back, lauding one another for being ‘team players’, and reinforcing male dominated in-groups, women were expected to stand on the sidelines and cheer them on.
While I’m certainly not suggesting banning sports that are currently male dominated, I would like to see a shift in the language used (and hence, I hope, perception). Some readers may remember when ‘Tennis’ and ‘Women’s Tennis’ existed. And how hard the simple recognition of ‘Men’s Tennis’ and ‘Women’s Tennis’ came. As ever, we are indebted to a few strong female athletes, like Billie Jean King, for fighting the ‘battle of the sexes’ and winning greater financial equality and respect for their sport.
How sad then, that in the year 2006 we have read about the same squabbles over the value of Women’s Tennis at Wimbledon. How sad that in the same year, we’ve found a new media label for women in the sporting world (WAGs) and interestingly, in the same year, we hear that Miss World is making its way back to terrestrial TV. Now there’s a real competition for girls!
What if instead, we recognised that we are all creatures of competition and that world-wide sporting events have an impact on the cultural architecture of our nations. What if we lobbied for equality of coverage – forcing broadcasting companies to match every hour of men’s sport with one of women’s? Would the media be reporting back on the HABs (Husbands And Boyfriends)? And what would they report – how many pounds the striker’s boyfriend lost on some new fatkins diet, or if his peck implants had really given him the glamorous curves he craved? And why does it sound so ridiculous when we invert the situation between men and women?
Probably for the same reason ‘Miss World’ is making a return and why my 11 year old Niece now sports false nails and aspires to be one of the WAGs. From looking at the popular media, it would seem we’d prefer to revel in the competition of women in the arena of WAGs glamour, rather than demanding an outlet for that competition on the sports field – in line with men.
It is also hard not to notice that in the world of sports, where women’s competitions are valued (for example Athletics, Tennis or Showjumping) the focus is more on our sporting heros, rather than bleeding into some contrived Pseudo Miss World competition for their WAGs (or HABs!)
The saddest thing in writing this, is that I know the England flags, and no doubt the media furore surrounding our brave football boys and their WAGs, will be back again in two years time for THE European Championships, but will the same flags be out for the FIFA’s Women’s World Cup next year and will it gain the same media coverage? Well, I doubt it, considering that the 2003 Tournament slipped by with barely the final making it to Terrestrial TV.
I also wonder at the curious timing of the women’s tournament – that perhaps it is run the year after THE World Cup so that the media aren’t obliged to give it equal coverage?
The real question remaining is how long we are going to accept these impositions on women’s arena of competition? And when THE World Cup rolls around again, are we going to accept the media’s relegation of women’s sporting profile to the shopping aisles and the beauty parlour?