Gender and Football: a Personal View
We kick off February with a series of posts on the interrelationship between football and gender. Tomorrow, TTU regular Susan Gardiner will analyse the progress of women’s involvement in the sport while Glen Wilson will take the temperature of women’s football itself. We shall also hear from Southampton fan Nicky Borowiec while blog co-founder Rob Langham will assess concepts of masculinity in the game, hopefully without resort to a sociology textbook. Today, we are delighted to welcome Laura Jones, purveyor of the blog, Yes I Can Explain the Offside Rule. Laura can be followed on twitter at @YICETOR.
The Two Unfortunates asked me to give a personal account of my experiences of what it is like to be a female fan, a football writer and social media user. Football has been a largely enjoyable and rewarding aspect of my life. If it wasn’t I would have given it all up a very long time ago.
I have been a football supporter all my life thanks to my family. My parents married in close season and had their reception at Hillsborough. They bought the family home because you can see the South Stand from the bedrooms and both my brother and I were enrolled in the Junior Owls the day after we were born. My life has never been without football.
In the early nineties, when I first started to watch live football, I was lucky enough to support a club that had a high percentage of female season ticket holders. Watching football at my club has never been an issue.
I recently answered the Football Supporters Federation (FSF) Women in Football survey, where the focus was on what would encourage or discourage women from attending home games. For me the FSF were asking the wrong questions because in my experience home games have never been a problem.
Not many people believe me when I say I haven’t experienced any direct sexist behaviour towards me at football matches. The irony of that is I feel almost apologetic for that, like I’m not supporting those that do but I can’t report what I haven’t experienced myself.
One of the answers for the question ‘what would discourage you from attending a home game?’ was ‘I feel I stand out.’
I haven’t felt this. I’ve walked in and out of Hillsborough for 24 years and never been made to feel like I didn’t belong there. I’ve attended quite a few matches on my own too and not once has that felt like a scary prospect.
The next question in the survey was ‘which of the following, if any, have you experienced directly happening to you at a match?’
Unwanted physical attention (e.g. bum pinching).
Really? From my experience I’ve never seen men less interested in the female sex than when they’re at a football match. I can see how weaving in and out of crowds of men on the concourse, huddled around TV sets, could be intimidating but they never take their eyes off Soccer Saturday long enough to ogle anyone. I’m not being flippant when I say this but a woman would have to turn into Jeff Stelling to get any attention at the ground.
Away games on the other hand can be more intimidating. They are some of the best football experiences you can have but I make sure I choose my games carefully. The more nefarious characters use away games as an excuse to behave badly. It’s sometimes like an 18-30 city break.
At a recent away game at Fulham, a group of around twenty Sheffield Wednesday fans got on the tube at the same time as my family and I. All were drunk, all were loud and all were male. The chants started with generic Wednesday songs and moved onto a dedication about the Swedish god that is Roland Nilsson. It wasn’t threatening it was just loud.
The next hymn on the song sheet was:
Oh Sheffield (is wonderful)
Oh Sheffield (is wonderful)
Ohhh Sheffield is won-der-ful
It’s full of tits, fanny and Wednesday
Oh Sheffield is won-der-ful.
Now in full voice, with a captive audience, they moved onto ‘E E E DL’, ‘We want our country back’ and other songs about Muslims not being wanted here.
As a Wednesday supporter, I looked at the faces of the commuters on the tube and to the lone Fulham fan across from me and I wanted to apologise to them individually. They don’t represent my views or the majority of Owls fans but that will be their impression of our club from now on. When I sat down to write this article and thought about the musical rendition through the ‘isms’, I realised that I only became embarrassed when the chants turned to racism.
I’ve heard the ‘tits and fanny’ song for years, home and away. Although it’s not directed at any woman in particular there’s no denying that it’s sexist, so why doesn’t offend me like a song about Muslims?
Maybe it’s because I don’t class myself as ‘tits and fanny’. Whilst I have those parts they’re not what I use to identify myself so the song feels like it has no bearing on me. If I only regarded myself as boobs and arse, I’d book myself into therapy fairly sharpish.
Maybe it could be because I’ve been conditioned to believe that racism is more offensive than sexism. It’s quite possible. I can’t imagine a complaint about the celebration of genitals and football clubs is going to be taken as seriously as one about ousting Muslims from Great Britain.
Does that fact that it doesn’t offend me make me an enabler for sexist behaviour? I’m sure some could argue that it does. We may share the love of a club but that doesn’t mean I want to share oxygen with these men or even waste it on them.
Picking your battles is extremely important.
I’ll admit, the reason I started to write about football was because of Andy Gray and Richard Keys and their treatment of Sian Massey. It was a battle I felt needed to fight using my own words.
My blog is named Yes I Can Explain The Offside Rule in homage to the traditional first question a female football fan gets asked. Over the years this has become less and less of an introduction and it has been replaced with ‘who do you support?’ and ‘how often do you get to the games?’
I’ve seen the reaction to other women football writers, especially those that dedicate their writing to feminism in football. When they post an article it’s like watching them rub themselves with a balloon and waiting for the crazy static to mess with their heads.
The equation appears to be the more you pigeon hole yourself about an issue, the more trolls you attract. I write on a broad range of football topics including politics, finance and equality but yet rarely get abuse for being a female encroaching on a traditionally male subject.
A fundamental question for me is do women want to be accepted as equal when they write about football and integrated or do they want to be seen as different? I am different. I don’t hide the fact that I’m a woman when I write football articles but neither do I constantly feel the need to promote my difference. Again what does it matter what gender I am if I’m writing a feature about football and the living wage or a column on the lack of goals by a particular club? Do the majority of football fans care about who has written the article? In my experience no, they care more about points they disagree with and gleeful pedantic observations.
There are two comedians of Iranian descent, Omid Djalili and Shappi Khorsandi, whose acts are predominantly about being Iranian. The more I’ve seen of these comedians the less I care about them. It’s not because I’m racist or because they have a different culture, I’m always keen to learn and absorb more about what I don’t know.
It’s their one-dimensional acts that make me care less because I also want them to be thoughtful and funny, not just Iranian. I would say the same about female comedians who only talk about sexism and how rubbish men are. From my experience most men feel the same way about women writing about football. They’re not bothered that I’m a woman they just want me to be knowledgeable about the subject and vaguely entertaining.
This isn’t always the case. At the Bristol Festival of Football Ideas last summer, I was on a panel with a female BBC reporter who received a lot of abuse on local football chatrooms. Even though she rarely wrote opinion pieces she was bullied about her physicality by men who have too much time on their hands and a keyboard in front of them.
There is still strength and resilience needed to be a football writer and that applies to whether you are male or female. Everyone has an opinion on it and where the faceless social media applies it gives people the opportunity to be vile and dehumanising. This is not just a football issue, this is a depressing aspect of society.
I’ve had more sexist comments levied at me when I’m talking about football on social media than about my writing. The vast majority of men online that I’ve encountered are respectful, friendly and engaging.
The worst I ever had was from a professional footballer on Twitter who took umbrage to me questioning his ability to control a ball. After clearly searching his own name on Twitter after the game he told me that I didn’t know what I was talking about and that I “should get back in the kitchen and do some ironing.”
Ah that old chestnut. For a start there’s no room in my kitchen to do my ironing. His tweet was followed by further tweets from a very particular genre of man and fan using words such as “classic” and “lad.” The abuse was short-lived.
One of his family members tweeted me only a few months ago. The Owls have been going through a goal drought and when we scored out of the blue I expressed that I didn’t know what to do with myself because I’d forgotten what it was like to score. The footballer’s relative said, “Get drunk and strip.” A very vivid image of what some footballers and their hangers-on think the function of a woman is. It was all laughed off as if I couldn’t take a joke.
The football industry to me feels like it has a force field around it. Within the force field is a puerile school of cock flicking and alpha males asserting their authority. Listening to BBC Radio Sheffield last weekend a reporter asked a Sheffield United player how he was fitting into the team and whether he’d been accepted yet. The player said Chris Morgan, the Assistant Manager, had snapped his aerial off his car so he felt like one of the lads now.
I know that women mature in a more advanced timeframe than men but FFS some of these men are in their forties and coaching the teams.
I’ve just finished reading Anna Krien’s award winning book Night Games: Sex, Power and a Journey into the Dark Heart of Sport. It’s an extremely balanced book about sport, rape and the perception of women. Frankly it scared the living shit out of me.
In Anna Krien’s book she makes an important point. “The problem is not the game per se, but the macho culture of humiliation that tends to shadow and control it.”
This macho culture is an image that football industry seems keen to continue to perpetuate. In the latest Adidas advert #ThereWillBeHaters it has all the hallmarks of a 2 Chainz rap video. Misogyny is par for the course
The image they want to portray is ‘you might hate us but we’re young, rich and we can fuck who we want.’ A footballer can be worshipped for scoring a goal and scoring with “all the girls”. Is it any wonder that there are those who wish to emulate them?
Coupled with the ominous discourse since Ched Evans has tried to return to football fold, I’ll admit that that there is a heightened level of sensitivity about what it means to be a woman around football.
Sexism and feminism are not easy subjects. If you look at the recent Page 3 debate women even argue both sides. Feminism is about choice and the opportunity to choose what kind of woman you want to be. Some choose to be a wife and mother, some choose to make a career of taking all their clothes off and some choose to watch Sheffield Wednesday on a dark winter evenings and afternoons.
Certain men are always going resent a woman’s involvement in football because of their own experiences and prejudices. This won’t stop me from being the football fan my family have brought me up to be.