I think I’m breaking a few of my own rules for our women’s football kōrero in writing this post. Ignoring what the Twitter trolls say tops that list, closely followed by allowing behaviours driven by a toxic, if fragile, masculinity to influence the direction of the kōrero. Knocking out a post before I’ve knocked back my first cup of tea for the day is another somewhat crucial rule – but then, to my mind, doing anything before a morning cuppa should be illegal.
Yet rules are made to be broken, especially when events conspire to help you get your point across. And honestly, the Twitter storm where (to be kind) an armchair critic felt the need to inform Matildas forward Hayley Raso (who recently re-signed with the Brisbane Roar for the 2018/2018 W-League season) that when she wears her trademark bow in her hair she shouldn’t be “taken seriously as a prof. adult football player” perfectly illuminates what it can be like as a woman playing football. What, exactly, are the terms by which we are allowed to partake in the sport? Any, apparently, that don’t contravene dearly held bastions of masculinity.
Loath as I am to admit it, in a neighbourly way of course, the Matildas are the team of the moment in our neck of international football. Sixth in the FIFA rankings, this week they beat Brazil (starring Marta) for the third time in a few months, wide forward Sam Kerr is odds on to be nominated for, no less win, the Ballon d’Or. They’re playing attractive, exciting football, and as the Guardian’s David Squires suggests, are Australia’s best international sports team at the moment.
Comments like this Twitter user’s, while seemingly innocuous and stupid, illuminate what it can be like – and feel like – playing football as a woman. Remember, it was only a few years ago that Sepp Blatter was spouting tripe like female footballers should wear tighter, shorter shorts “to create a more feminine aesthetic” (read: appeal to creeps who have no cause to engage with female athletes unless it’s to ogle at them).
Within the Laws of the Game, women can wear whatever they damn well please – but as they choose to, not as dictated to them by a man. Would I wear a bow in my hair when playing? Being a right klutz when it comes to this sort of thing, probably not. But that’s my choice and, for those players who opt to wear one, it’s entirely theirs too.
As Tegan’s post alluded to earlier this week, as sport and football as we presently recognise them developed as cultural phenomena and practices coded in explicitly male terms. Here we see those terms enacted to belittle a professional female athlete. The message this sends is that football is a realm only for a certain type of person. Again and again, as has been the case for as long as football has been played the implication for women is that it is not a sport for you.
It’s easy enough to say that we should just ignore stupid comments like these and get on with the game. Not directed at you? Don’t respond to it, just keep your head down and get on with things. It’s not a big deal, don’t dignify it with a response, just focus on you. But football’s a team sport – if your teammate is down, you grip them up. Likewise, women’s football is stronger when we support and defend each other.
By allowing sentiments like those implied in the tweet to go unchallenged, we allow them to take root. By ignoring and minimising the power dynamic at play in comments like these, they reaffirm the dominant cultural narratives which influence how women’s football, women’s sport and women are perceived. It serves to remind girls and women that, no matter how accomplished they are at what they do, they will ultimately be reduced to and judged by their appearances alone.
They don’t just affect the professional football sphere. It filters down to the grassroots game. We don’t know what kids see and hear of incidents like these. What of the girls who want to play football but love to get dressed up too? Are we telling them that football isn’t for them? And the boys whose teammates would be those girls? They’re being told that those girls aren’t worthy, equal teammates, or people worth being taken seriously.
A bow in the hair mightn’t be my cup of tea, but then again neither is being turned inside out time and time again by the footballer wearing it. And the element of this scenario worthy of attention ain’t what’s holding back the footballer’s hair.
Waiheke Islander currently in exile in Wellington. Supporter of Nottingham Forest and England, through thick and thin (there's been plenty of that). As a player is somewhat averse to the offside rule.