For the past couple weeks I’ve been posting artwork centered on women’s football, partly in response to the exclusion of such work from curatorial projects on “the beautiful game.” I have a professional responsibility as a feminist art critic and as a feminist sports writer to point out when the marginalization of women’s sports is extended into the art world, to educate people as to how one might counter that tendency, but also to explain why it is important that we do so.
As I talk with people about this kind of artwork, and the condition of women’s football globally, I’m constantly reminded of cultural attitudes about the women’s game. For most people, women’s football is an obscure subject. It’s an obscure subject, in fact, for most women sports fans. People are committed to the idea that women’s football is slow and boring. They might enjoy the Olympics, or the Women’s World Cup – but what they seem to relish is the surprise that they liked the tournament. Sports media feeds the fan this narrative – that anytime a women’s game is exciting, it’s a “new” thing. It’s a surprise because mainstream fans of football are committed to the idea that women just don’t have the skill, strength, or speed to play an “entertaining” game. When not enthralled by an international tournament in which women are somehow possessed by demons and play well, those (sexist) fans entertain (comfort?) themselves with stories of women’s monstrosity and ineptitude. These people sit at home and make video montages, evidencing what they already know. Women can’t play.
This gross problem is perhaps nowhere more in evidence than in popular ideas about women goalkeepers. The above youtube video has been, since 2007, the first video that appears in a google search for “women goalkeepers.” The first (at least from my computers and in my locations). Not season highlights of the first goalkeeper (male or female) to win FIFA’s World Player of the Year (Germany’s Nadine Angerer) but a weird compilation of low points in the early rounds of an old tournament. Ask the world what it wants to know about women goalkeepers, and you will learn that the world cares only about how awful they are. This is the story that world is determined to see. The question “Why is women’s goalkeeping so poor?” takes as a given the idea that women are inherently bad at goalkeeping; it assumes that the limits one might see in the early rounds of an international tournament reflect a biological limitation. A deficiency. In fact, any mistake a woman makes in goal at any level is likely to be read as the result of her having a vagina.
But ask the world what it wants to know about goalkeepers – who are assumed to be men – and you will see that the world wants a definition of the position and it wants to know which ones are the best. Given the ruthlessness of the sexism of the sports world, I think it’s important – necessary – that when we take up football as a subject in our research, writing and cultural programing we actively refuse the impulse to take the men’s game as a universal standard, and the women’s game as some form of deviation. We need to think them both together, and in relation to one another.