Book Review: Female Football Fans: Community, Identity & Sexism
Female Football Fans: Community, Identity & Sexism by Carrie Dunn
Published by Palgrave Macmillan
July 2014, £45
Judging a book by its cover, which of course we have all been advised never to do, this work by Carrie Dunn appears to be scholarly but not a forbidding, heavyweight tome. Dunn is an academic who teaches at Manchester Metropolitan University and a journalist who is well known for her writing, particularly about football and, even more specifically, about women and football.
This should not put the non-academic reader off. Ms Dunn wears her scholarship lightly and it is an interesting read, not heavy either in a literal or metaphorical sense. As the author points out herself, very little attention has been given to the phenomenon of the female football fan. There have been several historical or sociological accounts of women and football – most with cringeworthy titles like Girls With Balls – but no one has really attempted to so thoroughly analyse the experience of women who love football before.
Dunn begins with a brief statement about her own experience as a female football fan. Like many people that I know she was taken to watch her team, Luton Town, as a child, by her father and then eventually started going on her own or with friends. It’s an experience very different to my own. Although I asked to go to a match with my father and uncle, much to their surprise, and was duly taken to one, the sense that I was cramping their style was palpable, even to a six-year-old. My father’s protectiveness of me as a small girl prevented him from sending me to stand at the front of the stand along with the boys. In fact, they abandoned the terraces for a seated area. It also meant that they decided not to go to the pub or supporters’ club bar. How I must have spoiled their day! When my brother was taken along instead, I found other interests, and only returned to football much later. (I’m not complaining, by the way, I would be a Stoke City supporter now if my father had continued to take me, so I may have a lucky escape.)
I’m guessing that Carrie Dunn’s experience is the more common one. Many of the women that I know who support my club, Ipswich Town, went to Portman Road as young girls with one or both parents, stood on upturned milk crates to watch, and formed those abiding friendships through football that you only make by growing up together and experiencing the good and bad times that inevitably come with the ever-changing fortunes of being a football supporter.
A brief overview of the history of what Dunn calls “female football fandom” follows, and there is little to object to here, except perhaps that it looks at the official, organised version of the game that started with codification and flourished in some public schools and universities in the 19th century. This certainly, as Dunn points out, was very much part of the “muscular Christianity” movement of that era and was firmly aimed at improving both the moral fibre of young men from the upper and middle classes and diverting working class men away from other pastimes such as drinking and gambling. With hindsight, the latter seems a little ironic.
Dunn is not writing a history of women’s football but it might have been interesting if she had mentioned briefly some earlier references to women and girls playing football, such as the ones Philip Sidney mentions in his poem, A Dialogue Between Two Shepherds (c. 1580) or the diarist Samuel Pepys complaining about being disturbed by dairymaids playing football in the street during the mid-17th century. However, this book is about women as spectators and supporters, not players, and it was along with the organisation of the sport along formal lines, that these separate roles developed for both sexes.
I am unsure, too, whether I’m prepared to accept the historical accounts of the “feminising” or “civilising” influence of female football supporters on general behaviour at grounds during the late 19th and early 20th centuries at face value – although I’ve done so myself in the past. In my own research, I have come across newspaper reports of women behaving badly and using “bad language.” The problem with history is that we don’t fully understand the mentality of the times we are reading about, and we don’t really know whether the writer is typical of the time, or the complaints about the behaviour of women are being made by a latter-day Roger Helmer or Jeremy Clarkson. It may be that some male spectators had a different point of view to those who wrote newspaper articles, but it is almost impossible for us to know that, unless there is more research, particularly into oral history and the memories of both female and male football fans – and time is running out.
Dunn goes on to make a very valid point when she points out that there is a “tendency to conflate increased middle-class attendance at football with increased female attendance at football, without any real data to support this assertion of ‘gentrification’ equalling ‘feminisation’.”
The main body of the book is divided into three sections of formal research: the “female fans supporting career,” their practice of “fandom” and their “understanding of the supporters’ trust movement and her attachment to the fan community.” This is where the book does become more serious and academic, as the author describes her methodology and how she researched her material.
I would have liked there to have been a little more information to back up such assertions as “it has traditionally been assumed that football supporting is passed down through the male side of the family.” Although the author cites references to back this up, it would have been helpful to have a little more background as reading through, there seem to be a lot of assertions of this kind. Another example being “in the patriarchal power structure, the father’s word is incontrovertible.” Hmmmm. Not in my personal experience of patriarchal power structure, anyway. However, this section of the book, despite being the more academic, is where it becomes most interesting as Dunn quotes extensively from her interviews with female fans and we learn about their real experiences in their own words.
The first section, about how girls first started attending football matches, is fascinating but appears to confirm that – despite the fact that most girls started attending games with their parents, particularly their father – their reasons for falling in love with their club and continuing to attend don’t seem to be very different from those of their male counterparts. There are those who were felt “forced” to go along but still later became attached to their club, and there are those who “wanted” to go. For most girls, like most boys, the fact is that they would not have gone or continued to go, unless they had wanted to. There are always other things to do besides going to a football match and even the women who attended their first game because they wanted to accompany a boyfriend, must have made a conscious decision to do so. They could easily have decided to do something else instead.
There are a few of the kind of extrapolations that academics like to make that don’t really ring true. One girl, Laura, found her mother objected to her attendance of football matches which is somehow linked to a desire to affirm “normality” (whatever that is) and then leaps quite a long way to assert that “within this framework Laura’s mother’s concern is for her daughter’s future chances of entering into a ‘normal’ family life (i.e. a heterosexual marriage with children) if she enters now into this male domain.” Or, quite possibly, Laura’s mother – like my own – might have simply wanted someone to go shopping with. It’s still a stereotypical view, but often the reasons why we do things are a great deal more prosaic than we like to think. However, this does raise a very interesting point about whether it’s possible to discuss gender and football supporting without also considering the influence of sexuality.
For many girls, their experiences of going to football matches with their parents is very similar, if not identical, to that of boys: the excitement of being allowed to glimpse into an adult world, perhaps a predominantly male world (“I used to meet my dad from work on a Saturday dinnertime, and he took me into a caff, which was very exciting, then we’d come down to the ground for a match.”) It seems to me that many of the narratives by women in this book are not particularly driven by the gender of the person concerned. I felt that, in many ways, they confirmed my belief that it is very much a matter of nurture, rather than nature.
The section about women attending their first matches with a partner or a boyfriend also appears to confirm that there are quite a variety of reasons why this happens and not just the stereotypical one of a young woman accompanying a more “experienced” male. The women interviewed for this book appear to have had an interest in football (or sport in general) before they went to a match with their man, and it chimes with my own personal experience that although I asked my boyfriend if he would take me to a match at Portman Road, I would not have done so if I had not had an abiding interest in watching football on television, mainly inherited from my football-mad father, and had already spent many years watching another live sport, cricket, with both male and female friends.
The next section about “female fans’ supporting performances” – really “how” rather than why women are football fans – is interesting because it shows that there is just about as wide a variety of experience among women as there is among men. Age, parenthood, class, availability of money to pay for what is becoming an increasingly expensive pastime, all contribute to differences in the experience and enjoyment of football matches in the 21st-century.
Where I differ from Dunn is when she implicitly criticises a fan for objecting to female cheerleaders at the same time as, jokingly, appearing to objectify male footballers by admiring their legs. It’s a typical stereotype of the female fan that she only goes to matches to ogle the players, as Dunn points out, but surely the clear difference between that and the existence of American-style cheerleaders is that the latter is an egregious example of how women are placed on the sidelines as support and decoration, whereas men (objectified or not) are at the heart of the action – quite literally – playing the football game which is, still, the central part of the event.
Dunn looks at many aspects of being a fan including buying clothes, the matchday programme, and the way that women interpret the media coverage of football. The one area that seems oddly absent from this, however, is the pub, and the essential experience in my view, of the pre-match rituals of meeting up with and drinking with friends. Of course, not everyone either drinks alcohol or socialises before or after matches but it is a common experience for many male fans and it would have been interesting to see if the female experience is very different.
The final section is about women’s involvement and experience of the supporters’ trust movement. Although I would hazard a guess that this is not important to many football supporters of either sex, I have a particular interest in this because I am involved with my own supporters’ trust and I’m a great believer in increasing the involvement and ownership of fans in their own football clubs. The anecdotal evidence here fits in with my own experience in that women often found that they were either not taken seriously (“what does that silly bitch think she’s talking about?”) or were given what might be considered to be to traditionally “female” supporting roles such as minute-taking. My own experience, which was a disillusioning one, was that the women who were involved, despite being enthusiastic and able, are quickly marginalised by being given administrative tasks to do and men are deemed more suitable for the public roles of media relations and leadership. Along with this, it seems to me that women are considered to be “strident” or “emotional” if they speak out whereas men can say very similar things and be considered “passionate” and involved. I’m not sure however about Dunn’s conclusion that this is somehow part of institutionalised sexism in football itself, rather than the everyday sexism that exists in society. Dunn does however have some very good examples to illustrate that institutional sexism does indeed exist at football clubs when she talks to (male) football club staff who reveal all too readily that they make a great many assumptions about women, one being that somehow women are part of a larger expansion of the football audience to “families.” Many women, like many men, indeed go to football matches, and see their support, as being intrinsically part of their family life, but the assumption that women are somehow always going to be associated with the family aspect of football watching seems to be among some of the worst kinds of stereotyping.
This is a very interesting and well-researched book that has raised many questions in my mind about how women watch football and support their clubs. Some of the points I’ve made are probably harsh, given that it would have been a much longer and probably less engaging and enjoyable book if it addressed them in more detail. The fact that I wanted to know more, and have more detail, is in the book’s favour and I hope that Carrie Dunn will follow this publication up, not only with further research, but also by writing more about this fascinating subject for the general reader.