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Leveling the Playing Field: Sexism kicks out female soccer fans

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Part two of a two-part series.

Giovanna Z. Rinaldo
Editorial Director

I was not born on a soccer field, but close enough.

Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein in São Paulo, Brazil is only half a mile away from the stadium of one of my city’s teams, the team on which my dad played for five years, but my story with soccer dates to even before that.

When my mom was four months pregnant with me, she attended the 1994 World Cup final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, where Brazil beat Italy in a penalty shootout to become four times world champions.

From my childhood until now, soccer has always been my passion and a big part of my identity. I grew up fascinated by how many variables can influence a 90-minute dose of what to me is hypnosis – so much that I decided to make my passion a career and become a soccer journalist. Through this transition, I have discovered that the challenges in acquiring a soccer expert status are plenty.

Despite dedicating more hours than I could calculate to watch 22 people running around and kicking a ball, and being born in a country where it is not only the national passion but almost a religion, being a female soccer fan can be challenging. Throughout the years, I realized that women always have to first prove that they really understand the sport, follow it and know what they were talking about before being welcomed into a conversation, if they are at all.

Sexist fan chants, misogynistic banners, jokes and offensive remarks, underestimation disguised as compliments – they all become the makeup of the soccer culture for women. Despite progress made through years of push for social change and women’s rights, soccer remains male territory and women who challenge this are either seen as trespassers or have to compromise to find ways in.

By the Numbers

In the 2015 report “Fans for Diversity: Women at the match,” British soccer organizations Kick It Out and Football Supporters’ Federation teamed up to assess and study the experience of female soccer fans across England, a country with one of the biggest histories and traditions in the sport.

Results showed that almost 36 percent of women have heard that they ‘know a lot for a girl’ while 21 percent have been told they were ‘only there because they fancied the players.’

“Half of the respondents reported having experienced some form of sexism as a result of attending football (soccer) matches,” wrote Fiona McGee, FSF national council and author of the report.

Although it might sound contradictory that women tend to be excluded from soccer more significantly in countries where it is the national passion – including most Latin American and European cultures – Brenda Elsey, associate professor of history at Hofstra University and historian of politics, gender and popular culture in Latin America, thinks otherwise.

In a recent interview, she said the relevance of a sport in a nation can often work as a predictor of how exclusive it is to women.

“I think because it’s so important and it’s seen as such a strong expression of national identity, men have worked and some women have worked to keep women away from it,” Elsey said. “I think whatever the national sport, it tends to have the highest barriers for women to enter. In the case of the U.S. I think it’s North American football, and … soccer is the No. 1, most exclusive, gender-segregated sport in Latin America.”

Elsey cited the prohibition of women from playing soccer in Brazil between 1941 and 1979 as an example. During that period, which for partly coincided with a military dictatorship, it was illegal for women to play the sport, citing that it was incompatible with their nature and with femininity.

“There’s no medical reason for that … it’s literally because it’s so powerful in terms of expressing your national identity and it has such cultural capital (that) women are systemically excluded. They’re excluded on purpose, it’s not an accident,” Elsey said.

Exclusion Strategies

Sexism in the soccer fan environment can take many different forms. The hostility toward women and strategies to counteract their presence work whether as a conscious attempt to prevent their ascension as fans or as a reflection of broader misogyny. A typical exclusion strategy is fan songs that either objectify women – such as “Show your t*** to the lads,” heard in several stadiums across England, Denmark and other countries – or the use of homophobia to compare male fans to women in an attempt to demoralize them. The chant “Does your boyfriend know you’re here?” is often used with both sexist and homophobic connotations.

Banners are another way of portraying sexism, and in January fans from the French soccer club Lyon illustrated that in a home game against Lille. They brought a banner with the word “kitchen” below the symbol of a woman, while another banner had the word “stadium” and a male symbol. Ironically, this demonstration of misogyny came from the team that has one of the most successful women’s teams in Europe.

Sexism is also widespread in online soccer communities, where jokes and memes reinforce the idea that women are incapable of understanding the sport. Viral posts explaining the offside rule by comparing it to a dispute over buying shoes, or short videos where women show skills in soccer tricks or FIFA video games with the caption “If she is that good, dump her, because there is no way she learned it on her own,” are common place.

Such ideas are also perpetuated in television, where any broadcast of a soccer game will likely show pretty women in the stands, not to highlight passionate reactions, but to provide the male audience another layer of entertainment. Such female fans are consistently objectified with hardly any opposition or reluctance as it has become part of the broadcast experience.

Advertising, whether done by soccer clubs or their sponsors, often either outright ignore that women are also fans of the sport or use tone-deaf strategies in an attempt to reach them, perpetuating misogyny. Making soccer merchandise pink, smaller and more revealing is often the technique to try to reach the female audience, and the strategy that brands as big as Nike and Adidas have relied on.

Prominent male soccer figures also often engage in sexist remarks that reach large audiences. The likes of FC Barcelona forward Luis Suarez, Bayern Munich coach Carlo Ancelotti and even former FIFA president Sepp Blatter have already said it in some form: soccer is a men’s game, women do not belong.

Weight of Masculinity

Beyond the statistics that give numbers to the issue are the underlining reasons why women are excluded so vehemently from the soccer culture.

A consensus among several scholars has pointed that sports fan environments tend to be a refuge to masculinity, especially with societies growing more progressive in regards to women’s rights. While men have had to accept more women in the workplace and other areas, a sports fan base can sometimes be the only remaining environment to act on and reinforce masculinity. The momentary escape from political correctness leads many to act in ways they would not and cannot outside of a bar or stadium, such as being discriminatory and even violent.

A June 2015 case study in Denmark named “Gender Constructions and Negotiations of Female Football Fans,” written by Verena Lenneis and Gertrud Pfister from the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports, took a closer look at the dynamics of gender within the soccer fan environment.

“The football (soccer) pitch, the stadium and especially the fan stands are environments that numerous international studies describe as places where masculinities are constructed, displayed and glorified,” they wrote. Despite Denmark’s exemplary scores on gender equality, the study revealed that traditional gender norms, prejudices and sexism are widespread in the country’s soccer fan culture.

“The fan stands seem to be a … space with its own set of values, norms and rules, where men celebrate dominance and power while women are considered intruders,” according to the study.

“Femininity is quite out of place at the football (soccer) stadium and traditionally masculine behavior like shouting, swearing, cursing, drinking beer, etc. is not reserved for men but is regarded as the proper behavior for female fans as well.”

In another study, named “The Power of Reason: Women in Football,” by Argentinian professor of social sciences at the University of Buenos Aires Mariana Inés Conde, soccer is described as an environment of emotional education for men. “The presence of women in football (soccer), as spectators, commentators and even experts, introduces a new element, a rational influence precisely because the men allow themselves to express other sentiments,” Conde wrote.

“Football (soccer) teaches, without apparent prejudices, the sadness of losing, the passion in encouraging a team and the love for the shirt, the violence of defending the flag; in summary, human emotions – love, hate and all the spectrum that connects them.”

Conde added that in such environments, men allow themselves the vulnerability of experiencing feelings in a degree they might not do in other contexts.

Therefore, the presence of a woman could jeopardize the safeness of that space. It then becomes impossible to make the soccer fan base an environment that is both a safe space for displaying emotions and performing masculinity, and a place where women can coexist and still hold some sort of prominence — all the weight of masculinity is put in the game of soccer for male fans, according to Conde.

“The fact that football (soccer) is part of popular culture confirms the idea that the hegemony does not live only in the hearts of the dominants, but also in the heart of the dominated, because it replicates in both a particular form of power: the power of genders,” Conde wrote.

Femininity Negotiations

The case study “Gender Constructions and Negotiations of Female Football Fans” from Denmark concluded that female fans can choose from several traditionally feminine and masculine practices in being fans, but they have to carefully navigate between the poles of masculinity and femininity to avoid over-performing either one and losing status.

There was consensus among the fans interviewed that sexism is “an inherited part of fan culture and that women either have to tolerate it or leave the stadium,” and many prefer not to challenge this as means to blend in.

“Some of the fans interviewed not only strongly disapprove of emphasized femininity in the stadium but also take on a masculine fan identity and consider themselves to be ‘one of the lads,’” the study found. “By doing this, female fans not only accept, trivialize and downplay sexism; they also contribute actively to the maintenance of the gender hierarchy in the stadium and the reproduction of a masculine and at the same time misogynist football (soccer) culture.”

The study points at this type of behavior as a consequence of symbolic violence, where the fans have unconsciously incorporated the dynamics of male domination in the stadium and see it as the natural law.

Female soccer fans learn to internalize the idea that femininity is intertwined with soccer illiteracy and, despite experiencing first hand the effects of sexism, they often look down on fellow female fans and compete for status or recognition, instead of displaying solidarity, according to the study.

Culture Change

Ultimately, to a legion of devoted supporters worldwide, soccer is not just a sport, entertainment or competition. It is a platform of identity expression and forming connections. Its negligence to women who also want to be a part of that world is a betrayal of the very premise that makes soccer so popular: the ability and easiness to bring people together for a shared passion.

The dynamics that play out in the soccer fan environment in regards to masculinity and femininity overlook the fact that, for 90 minutes, thousands of people in the stadium and thousands more at home or at bars have mobilized themselves to do exactly the same thing.

It takes a culture change to elevate soccer to higher standards of gender equality and become more welcoming to women who have always been involved with the sport, just not in seen in a valid light.

Meanwhile, it is safe to say that female fans will continue to be there – with their team’s jerseys, their dedication and fighting a battle bigger than themselves through the ‘beautiful game.’

Giovanna Z. Rinaldo can be reached at giovanna.zelonirinaldo@laverne.edu and on Twitter @giozrinaldo.

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