Feminism Needs Women’s Sports
How much fun is sports twitter? I was newly reminded last night during the breathtaking opening minutes of the USA vs. Japan World Cup, when my TL was a sea of caps lock and gif dexterity reacting to the USA team’s performance and Carli Lloyd’s unprecedented hat trick. “I love Twitter,” my male partner laughed as we watched the game together over beers.
Then I retweeted a statistic about how the US women soccer players will make four times less to win the World Cup than their male counterparts make to reach the Round of 16. And my notifications saw a bit of a jump.
“You need to understand capitalism,” one lurker concluded at the end of a four-tweet streak in my mentions.
“Until women shell out money for women’s sports they will lag behind, sorry,” said another (I’m paraphrasing that one; I blocked him before I thought to grab a screenshot after realizing that life is short and my beer was getting flat).
The source of the outrage was clear: I’d drawn attention to a massive inequality, and this one—unlike the wage gap in the corporate world—creates enough public confusion and apathy to have become a fecund pool of Men’s Rights euphoria. When it comes to equal pay in general, men’s rights activists and other anti-feminist trolls must resort to denialism, but they have a more hospitable environment when the topic is sports and they can shrug and drop their trump card: Women’s sports just don’t make as much money.
Feminists can immediately recognize this as the “Lean In” fallacy. Putting the pressure on a marginalized group to correct inequality ignores massive systems of oppression and takes responsibility from those who deserve it: the privileged groups who created these systems. But we need to do a better job of helping the general public understand what to say when women’s sports are dismissed as simply less entertaining.
As Maggie Mertens wrote in an excellent piece for The Atlantic, “The gender inequities in sports are just as vast as those faced by women in corporate offices and on movie sets, but for some reason they fail to incite the same level of outrage.” Mertens cites four points by Hollis Elkins, writing about the divide between women’s movement and sports in 1978, to explain why:
One: Female athletes were perceived as either unconcerned with or hostile toward the women’s movement. Two: Feminists didn’t want to be “doubly damned” by “the suspicion of lesbianism” that both feminists and female athletes faced. Three: Sports was seen as a realm where men proved their manliness, negatively predisposing many feminists toward sports in general. And four: Sports was considered “frivolous.” It wasn’t seen as being as important as issues like the right to work, abortion, and equal pay.
Modern-day feminists should find these observations damning.
We have no reason to expect today’s athletes to be hostile to the cause of feminism. Top fighters like Fallon Fox and Ronda Rousey are championing equality outright. And how many young girls’ hearts soared after watching Carli Lloyd’s midfield goal just a quarter of an hour into last night’s game? I remember seeing Mia Hamm and Lisa Leslie in American Girl magazine as a kid and being awed by their strength and talent; later, I idolized the Williams sisters (who continue to be goddesses fifteen years into their career).
The homophobic aspect of the feminist aversion to sports activism is an embarrassment. At this point I think most feminists have been met with assumptions about their sexuality and gender identity that reflect the heteronormativity and oppositional sexism permeating our society: You criticize sexism. Do you hate men? Are you a lesbian? Because that would undermine your argument. Because there’s something wrong with lesbians because they don’t have sex with men.
It’s ridiculous and it’s been covered at length, and this unfortunate history of throwing queer women under the bus is a reason to double down on our efforts as modern feminists to embrace all female athletes.
That sport is a haven of toxic masculinity is an important point—and one that cannot be solved by feminists shying away from sports culture. Author and journalist Dave Zirin’s writing combines a fierce interest in social justice with a love of sport, and the result is anything but diluted. Just as patriarchy hurts men, sport needs feminism—for female athletes, but also for social justice more generally.
And considering the prevalence of disordered eating and exercise obsession among young and nonprofessional athletes, the fitness world in general can benefit from feminism as much as feminists can benefit from positive fitness models.
And are sports frivolous? Perhaps, but no more so than entertainment—and feminists have no trouble wearing out their keyboards on Game of Thrones and Nicki Minaj. Entertainment is a microcosm of cultural values and change that can play out on the field just as it can on screen, and it has. Sport has been the locus for the fight for racial equality and, more recently, LGBTQ equality, and feminism must link arms with these struggles and lift up the athletes brave enough to change the system from within. We can fight rape culture in football without erasing or dismissing the female athletes who are constantly discouraged from continuing in their passion.
Sport is strength and willpower and discipline and drive. Sport fosters diversity. Sport teaches companionship in a world where women are taught to compete against each other solely for men. As feminists we need the sports world and we need to support our athletes.
In an unfortunate sense, that one twitter guy was right: women do need to step up and support women’s sports. With our dollars, yes, but more importantly, by demanding and generating coverage of their games and their rising stars and their battles for justice. These athletes need media attention to generate interest, and they need money and viewer incentive to fund production values in their coverage. To achieve this, we have to embrace their cause without reservation.
It should outrage us that female soccer players play on an inferior field and that the media barely covered their lawsuit simply for real grass. And we should have something to say when the dominant cultural narrative shrugs and says, “Women’s sports just don’t bring in as much revenue,” just as we do when it says women aren’t funny and women are too emotional to lead and women can’t be scientists. We need to see it as the vicious cycle we’ve been fighting all along. Give us the same resources and, literally and figuratively, an equal playing field—and then let us show you what we’ve got.
Featured image: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images