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Blame it All on an Uneven Pitch: Thoughts About Sexism and Homophobia in Football

April 8, 2011

(strong language warning)

As much as we would love to believe it, the world of football is not an isolated one. Politics, economics, religion, and other aspects of social activity are integrated into the game with ease – and vice versa. While a lack of women does not necessarily mean the presence of sexism, a lack of discussion re: sexism-related topics doesn’t mean that some aspects of the sport aren’t problematic. I’ll attempt to address a few of them.

The first problematic viewpoint of football is that of the “stereotypical” American. To these people, football (or rather, soccer) is a game played by women. It’s 90 minutes of girly-looking men running around a field and falling over. The tackles in this imagined sport are “nothing”, the injuries are slight, and the players simply skip around for a while, then go and attend to their perfectly coiffed hair in order to make it more perfect. It assumes that because these players are, perhaps, more feminine (read: European?) than the stereotypical “strong, macho” American athlete, they are inherently worth less. Football also becomes a less worthwhile sport in the process due to its association with femininity. What is this insinuating about female athletes and the worth of masculinity compared with femininity? Nothing good, certainly.

The second problematic viewpoint is the opposite of the first: that football is a manly man’s sport. It’s full of hard tackles, masculinity, and endurance. Any weakness — such as the protestation of bad, injury-inducing tackles — is frowned upon. The players shouldn’t whine, complain, or cry not because it can be irritating in the context of the game, but because these actions are “girly” of them. In this situation, players with feminine characteristics are excluded from the “proper” world of football with scorn. They are mocked for these characteristics. In fact, both of these viewpoints inherently associate “feminine” qualities with “bad” qualities and “masculine” with “good”, insinuating that women are inferior to men. (Taking it all a step further: what constitutes “masculine” and “feminine” in the end? Gender is, after all, a social construct and what is considered “masculine” in one culture may be the complete opposite in another.)

While both of the viewpoints depicted here have their adherents, they are quite radical. Not everyone will fall fully into a specific category of fans. Even if you don’t subscribe to either one of them, though, many of the most popular insults within the sport are sexist. “Pussy”, “c*nt”, and “bitch” are all often used to convey hatred towards a player or a group of people. It’s no coincidence that these terms are all feminine in nature. Once again, we return to the notion of associating “female” with “bad”. In searching for essays on oppressive language, I discovered a short blog post on the usage of the word “retard” with an excellent, concise conclusion:

When you use a word that describes a person or group of people (like fat, girl, pussy, gay, and yes, retarded) as an insult, you are making a judgement about that person (or group of people). You are declaring them “lesser than.”

At this point, I should note that this article is not for the sole purpose of finger-pointing or lecturing. Everyone is guilty in some aspect — myself included. I used to be able to count all of the swear words that I had used in my lifetime (yes, my entire life) on one hand. Things changed when firstly, I moved to Chicago, and secondly, when I became a sports fan. Now I use language that would have made little ol’ Wisconsinite me blush and, up until a few months ago, I called certain players that I didn’t like a “diving little bitch” …until I realized exactly how sexist it was. I generally use “diving little shit” now, which is possibly more satisfying — though I do encourage everyone else to be more creative when making the switch.

Learning to recognize oppressive language is an on-going process, even for the most conscientious, and it may take a while to pay close attention to the language you are using. I am, however, encouraging different language — not milder language. Be creative! For example, if a player complains to the referee entirely too much for your liking, instead of saying “Wow, what a whiny bitch! What are you, a girl?”, you can say “Wow, what an annoying little shit! Fuck off!”. It’s fun for the entire family.

Most of the ideas and practices mentioned in this article aren’t used by bad people, necessarily. Sexism is simply ingrained into most societies’ collective thoughts, actions, and turns of speech. It’s only natural (and unfortunate) that it presents itself in football as well.

On a whole, I’ve resigned myself to having my motives questioned as a football fan, and I know that many other female fans face the same problem. Yes, I really do enjoy watching the sport, and no, I don’t actually pay attention to the good-looking men as much as you would think — but what would it matter if I did, as long as I also supported the team? Even if I did objectify the players, it doesn’t translate into the reinforcement of a set of problematic societal codes. Some men objectify women (whether in commercials, as athletes, on television, etc) and then expect the women they see in real life to dress and act a certain way. They whistle at women on the streets and flirt with them in bars when not welcome, simply because this objectification is okay by society’s standards, and also encouraged by the media. “Objectify”, “object”; the treatment of women as objects. The act of female fans being attracted to male athletes for aesthetic reasons may also be called “objectification” and can be criticized, but it is far from the same situation.

As a football fan, this gender gap is alarmingly large. I was once discussing Arsenal FC with a table full of male fans. I had already established myself as a fellow fan with a decent amount of knowledge — or so I thought — but even so, at one point in the conversation one of them turned to me and asked me if I knew who Thierry Henry was. Thierry Henry. This is not to criticize the guy himself; I’m sure he meant it kindly since he was establishing the background for an anecdote, but to this day it frustrates and annoys me every time I think about it. Would he have asked another male fan this same question? No, of course not.

Yet another problem with sexism is that it and homophobia go hand in hand. Society often associates “gay” with “girl”. Both are bad, bad qualities, and as we have learned, there’s absolutely no place for “bad” characteristics in football, right? You know, characteristics such as cheating and anger management issues? Right. We (meaning: Western societies, mostly) also wrongly believe that we have “dealt with” sexism. After all, women are able to vote and have most of the same opportunities as men. It is the 21st century; you would think that equality has a mostly steady hold on society.

Think again. With disparate wages, stereotyping, victim blaming, assault, and a host of other societal issues still firmly in place, this is surely not the case. You only need to look to the trending topics on Twitter for a blatant example of sexism. Sexism is still an institutionalized force (meaning: part and parcel of a well-established social system) and we cannot make major inroads on homophobic behavior until we break the connection between “female” and “bad” or the association between “gay” and “female”. Or the association between “gay” and “wrong”, of course, but that could be (and probably is) a book by itself.

What I’m suggesting isn’t anything drastic. I’m simply requesting that you, the reader, be more aware of what you’re reading, saying, and typing — not only in the context of football, but in daily life as well. I know it feels like a chore sometimes, and I write this as I mindlessly refresh my Twitter feed, but please think. Think about what deep-seated prejudices you may have, think about what is both consciously and unconsciously conveyed by your choice of words, and think about how fantastic it would be to have sexism and homophobia uprooted from their place in society bit by bit, person by person.

Almost as fantastic as your team winning the triple.

(I kid.)

Guest Blogger Dili Yang can be reached at @avefrater or at her blog,

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