Thursday, July 21, 2011

You Think There's Men In This Country Who Ain't See Your Soccer Skillz?

I know. Talking about the Women's World Cup is so five days ago, which is basically two years in Internet Time, but I did at least want to mention my thoughts on it all.

I love sports. Because my high school didn't have a girls' soccer team until my senior year of high school, I never got much into soccer, but I've always enjoyed the World Cup. This year, of course, I was on the edge of my seat during the final match as the USA scored, then Japan scored, and then it was overtime, and then the USA scored again, and then Japan scored again at the very end and don't even get me started on those penalty kicks!

It was one of a handful of complete soccer matches I have ever watched in my life and, afterwards, I realized that I have never really given the game a fair shake. As the excitement around the tournament peaked, I think too, that perhaps many sports fans realized that maybe they hadn't given women's sports a fair shake either.

In one of the best reviews of A League of Their Own that I've ever read, Rebecca Katerine Hirsch observes the "eruption of acceptance" that meets the players and tells them:

"I matter, I’m strong. I look good. I play real good and people respect me. Do you hear them clapping? They want to see me play, they’re jumping up in the bleachers and taking my picture—and not ‘cause I’m their slip of a sex fantasy but because I’m a good athlete. They admire my skills. They admire my talent. They might want to fuck me. But they want to fuck me because I’m tough, because I’m strong/beautiful and because I represent their highest ideals for a moral civilization based on might and merit… not because I’m a weak and stupid receptacle for their semen."

The players on the US soccer team are indeed sexy but, like their male counterparts, they are not merely sexy. They are athletes, human, incredibly talented and recognized as such.

But it wasn't, and isn't, always that way.

In A League of Their Own, the voice of Maida Gillespie serves, throughout the movie, as a constant gender-policing reminder that There Are Things That Real Women Do Not Do. For instance, on her radio show, perhaps lying ass-over-heels on her fainting couch, she concernedly notes:

"Careers and higher education are leading to the masculinization of women, with enormously dangerous consequences to the home, the children, and our country. When our boys come home from war, what kind of girls will they be coming home to? And now the most disgusting example of this sexual confusion: Mr. Walter Harvey of Harvey bars is presenting us with [disgusted tone] women's base-ball. Right here in Chicago, young girls plucked from their families are gathered at Harvey Field, to see which one of them can be the most masculine. Mr. Harvey, like your candy bars, you're completely.... nuts."

Gillespie's message is juxtaposed with images of women trying out for the various professional baseball teams and in that comparison, the audience is invited to treat Gillespie's gender policing with ridicule. Like, here the women are busting their asses and doing something they love to do, and Gillespie's all "this is disgusting and unnatural."

What a buzzkill, right?

Gillespie's running commentary is funny in the context of the movie, but it is a reflection, of course, of what passes as "common sense" to some. Even today.

I've written before about those anti-Title IX crusaders who use women's previous lack of opportunity in sports to circularly argue that women are inherently less interested in sports than men are, and to argue that Title IX is Ruining Everything For the Poor Poor Men Who Now Must Share Resources Instead Of Getting Everything For Themselves. As late as 2006, arch-anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly was still saying shit like:

"This year's spectacular Rose Bowl game attracted a phenomenal 35.6 million viewers because it featured what we want: rugged men playing football and attractive women cheering them on. Americans of every class, men and women, remained glued to their television sets and nearly 95,000 spectators watched from the stands.

The runaway success of this game proved again that stereotypical roles for men and women do not bother Americans one bit. Political correctness lost out as all-male teams battled and women cheered."

I don't object to her idea that Americans lurve "rugged men playing football and attractive women cheering them on." What I object to is her presumption to speak for all Americans regarding that matter and her implication that the natural role for men is to play the rugged sports while the natural role for women is to attractively cheer the men on.

I mean, what does Phyllis Schlafly think when she watches the Women's World Cup and sees dozens thousands of people in the stands watching? Is such a momentous event even on her radar?

The 2011 Women's World Cup final between USA and Japan set the record for the most watched soccer match in cable history. The game set a new Twitter record, having inspired 7,196 Tweets per second.

The Women's World Cup is over and commentators are saying that it was a shining moment for women's sports, a real breakthrough. Yet, if memory serves, we said the same thing back in '99 after Brandi Chastain pumped her fists in her sports bra.

I want to be optimistic that Things Will Be Different This Time, that the many mainstream sportswriters and the "I like rugged men playing football, but what do you know these women in the World Cup are cool too" sportsfans might really mean it this time.

I want to hope (see what I did there?) that all those Twitterers (Tweeters?) won't go back to Ignoring Women's Sports now that one of the big shows is over.

I want to believe that the mainstream narratives about what it means to be men and women in sports and in the stands can be better than they have been.

We'll see.

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