Goal Tending

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. 

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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.

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  1. The amazing thing about that compilation is I’m sure it would not be difficult to put together a similar one of male goalkeepers. There’s this idea that men’s professional sports are inherently more interesting that just isn’t borne out in reality. Here, we just had the Super Bowl of American football, and it was dreadful. One of the top two gridiron teams in the country, and they got totally steamrolled like they were a mediocre high school team. It was embarrassing.

    So yeah, it speaks to your overall point about the expectations people carry with them going into a men’s sporting event vs. a women’s sporting event, and how they form a feedback loop of sorts that ensures women’s sports are consistently devalued, no matter what the quality of play actually is.

  2. There are videos of dodgy male keepers. Type “male goalkeepers” on YouTube and the first video to come up (at least in the UK) is called “Worst GOALKEEPER mistakes”. And male goalkeepers get awful stick for their mistakes – England’s best Joe Hart got slaughtered in the UK press when he lost form in the autumn. If women’s footbal ever became popular in the UK (highly unlikely) the players would have to take criticism. Its unpopularity and men’s fear of being caled “sexist” means it gets an easy ride. As Laura Williamson wrote in the Daily Mail “Le’ts stop being nice about women’s football” (Williamson 2013). If she were male that article would never have seen the light of day as it would have been accused of being sexist.
    One thing puzzles me. You wrote “We need to think them together, and in relation to each other”. That is the last thing women’s football and women’s sport needs. One reason women’s football won’t take off in the UK is it is always being compared to men’s football. In the Wiliamson article mentioned above it was mentioned that then England manager Hope Powell was asked if her team could beat England’s men which is totally irrelevant. This seems to be a British trait that is not unique to football or even sport. I was in the attic last night and found an article in a tennis magazine which included this gem “the instinct of the British abroad is to compare which is why on the whole we make such rotten tourists and such good colonists” (Longmore, 1990). He is right – when the 2016 Olympics come I predict the UK press will be ready with the words “Not as good as London” – and this really hinders women’s sport which should be treated as a separate entity growing at its own rate. As David McCarthy wrote, “Men and women are different, in case you hadn’t noticed” (McCarthy 2013) Until we stop comparing women’s sport with men’s (or vice versa. For the Swedes to ask Zlatan who was the better between him and Schelin is nonsense) and learn to accept both for what they are female sport will always suffer. Serarate but equal is clearly the way to go.
    I should just say I find both this blog and your old one interesting even if I disagree with you – which is most of the time – and although this is nothing to do with the article i want to state that the IOC’s ban on tributes to Sarah Burke is a disgrace. A subject for a future article?

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