Sometimes Sexism Is Hard to Kick, But Kick It We Must

It’s been a long time since I posted, but I had an experience that had to be written about. Obviously, I hope I can make this more regular.

A few nights ago I attended a live presentation of the Guardian’s Football Weekly pod-cast. My interest in football is growing and I was excited to go. As the venue begin to fill with the football aficionados of Manchester, it quickly became obvious I was going to be one of a few women in the audience that night. My friend and I got some drinks, laughed about this, and were not planning to give it a second thought until ten seconds into the show when one of presenters made a joke by referencing the recently leaked nude photographs of the actress Jennifer Lawrence. This was received with ample laughter by the beer-toting crowd of three hundred or so men; I’m not sure what the five or so women thought of it.

One of them, let’s call her Kate, clearly felt that if her voice was to be taken seriously she would have to enact these masculine norms of ‘banter’: she tweeted ‘do you think Louis van Gaal will show any balls this season?’  However, merely being female and speaking sufficed to position her as the direct butt of another joke. Only a few minutes earlier, one of the panellists, Barry Glendenning, had admitted to making a bet with Paddy Power that despite a number of ‘unfavourable’ personal characteristics and no current romantic partner, he would someday have a son. ‘If any of the five women in the audience are interested…’ he quipped. But upon her identification in the audience the host James Richardson promptly asked, ‘Are you fertile?’  The crowd roared with laughter.

None of the men who asked questions were interrogated – even jokingly – about their bodies or reproductive capacities. This is consistent with observations feminists have been making for decades: male bodies are the norm and women are the deviant. Kate’s use of machismo vernacular belied an attempt to overcome this barrier and be accepted as credible fan of the game by showing she could be ‘one of the guys’, but none of the male interlocutors had used such highly gendered language. Her co-opting of masculine performatives, and in some respects the very act of speaking in  a male-dominated space, threw gender expectations out of balance. Whether intended or not, Richardson’s comment was a subtle reminder that within the social space of football men are the norm and women are the variation: ‘that’s right honey – you have a vagina. Don’t forget it.’

The problem with being the ‘variant’ is that it entrenches differences between persons that diminish their capacity to participate equally in social spaces. Indeed, if the subject of the joke had been a man (as Richardson has suggested on Twitter) it would be seen as an inquiry into their active ‘manhood’ (which is problematic for other reasons) rather than an inquiry into their ‘eligibility’ (to use Richardson’s own words) as vessels for reproduction. Put simply, a question about fertility will be perceived by men and women differently and for women it will always suggest a symbolic disempowerment. Men’s job in the activity of reproduction is to be actors. Women are passive recipients. This is a daft account of sexual exchange that is probably inconsistent with the sexual lives of many, perhaps even the panellists’, but it’s an interpretation which prevails in dominant discourses which Richardson chose to invoke. The question, ‘are you fertile?’ is another way of asking, ‘are all your bits right?’ and judging her ‘worth’ (to Glendenning) accordingly.

But why should questions about my fertility be the price I must pay to be taken seriously as a football fan? Or player? Or manager? It is little wonder that women’s contribution to football as whole is so limited – I for one could not put up with that all the time. Sure, I could ‘laugh’ it off, I could even play long and allow myself to be evaluated in terms of my sexual viability. And I could do this all because given that it’s the 21st century it will understood as ironic, right? Ironic, like when Helena Costa was hired to manage and coach Claremont Foot 63 in order to look pretty? Ha. Ha?

No, in my view complicity with sexism only serves to reinforce the formal and informal structures which designate women as inferior again and again and again.

Contesting these norms would, at the very least, require women’s voices to be heard on their own terms, which – yes – may not be favourable terms from the perspsective of the establishments. I would open the ground for criticisms of the institutional and social structures of football. As far as I’m aware, only two women attempted to have voices that night, and both of them were subjected to some form of gendered occlusion. In tweets, I asked them to explain the rationale behind the Jennifer Lawrence quip, which I firmly believe is no laughing matter, and I asked for their views on women in football. My questions were not aired. And, as recounted above, the other woman was met with a humorous request to declare her ‘eligibility’ for impregnation. When a question about women was finally asked (by a male no less) the panel responded by giving a few examples of good female athletes and briefly touched on some recent scandals involving female managers. Iain Macintosh reasserted the primacy of male biology by claiming that a lack of a ‘penis’ should not matter when hiring football (because that’s all a woman is: a man without a penis), but he didn’t say much else, or probe why it’s the case so many non-penised individuals are not working currently as managers in the world.  I genuinely appreciate their attempt to correct the track-record of the night, but it was a far cry from the level of critical self-reflection needed by some of football’s most lauded gatekeepers.

My aim in this post has not been to paint the panel as maliciously misogynistic. I always presume that non-misogynistic people can nonetheless make decisively sexist comments, and this is because our modes of engagement and expression, such as humour, are always implicated in the reiteration of larger norms, in this case, norms which reduce women’s worth and voice to their status as child-bearers or sexual objects. The framing of women as nothing more than a sexualized body was further evinced in anecdotes about footballers receiving oral sex from the women of the Sky News sports report team, and a question from the audience that asked Glendenning which players he would consider his ‘wife’ and which would be his ‘mistress’ (which, arguably, is a clear indication that their sexist rhetoric is reiterated by their listeners). These may seem relatively benign comments, but cumulatively they create an atmosphere that alienates women from discussions about football and validates the views of genuinely misogynistic men in the audience, men who perhaps don’t want women to participate equally in a collective appreciation of football.

I’m human though – I get why 5 guys in front of a live audience looking for a good time would make such jokes. Given that so few women were present, the impact of their comments on women hardly registered, making it easier to make sexist jokes. I appreciate that they too are coping with norms of sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. These norms are so insidious it is difficult to recognize their deployment in our everyday interactions.

Yet I do think Richardson and his counterparts have responsibility over their actions, and, in fact, I still feel that a declaration of offence by women would not have mattered. I find it telling that even when engaged on Twitter about his ‘fertility’ comment Richardson continued to insist that his remarks were not sexist. I also find it telling that the joke was made after I tweeted the panel about the Lawrence photograph comments. Indeed, I made this tweet before intermission and the fertility comment was made afterwards. That is ample time to register that more offensive remarks about women could potentially offend someone, at the very least me.

Yet, even if Richardson didn’t intend to be sexist, and even if none of the women in the audience were personally offended by his comment, it doesn’t matter. First, sexist comments do not have to be intentionally sexist to be sexist; they can be sexist because of their effect(s). Second, we know that women can buy into sexist norms, thus individual preferences do not have the same weight as thorough political analyses, and rigorous political analysis shows that their comments reflect a worldview that totalizes women under sexualized narratives and  in turn exclude them from participation in the traditionally male-dominated arenas of football.

I gained some good insight into the politics of football the other night. I learned that those already have access to the arena of football are painting with a limited set of colours. But if we want a different world it is crucial that we avoid reusing the same colours over and over again, and changing pallets may require a shift in personal disposition.  For the panellists of the Guardian’s Football Weekly, it means incorporating the voices of women, tackling the subject of women in football head-on, and withholding sexist jokes, no matter how well they are bound to go down. It’s hard to kick these habits because norms of sexism are hard to kick, but if we want a world where all genders have equal access to football then kicking them is what we must do.

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