Monday 21 October 2019

Comment: It's hard to enjoy the World Cup when you realise how sexist it is

Colombia fan inside the stadium before the match REUTERS/Sergio Perez
Colombia fan inside the stadium before the match REUTERS/Sergio Perez
Colombia fan wearing a wig outside the stadium before the match REUTERS/Jorge Silva
An Iran fan cheers prior to the Russia 2018 World Cup Group B football match between Iran and Portugal at the Mordovia Arena in Saransk on June 25, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Filippo MONTEFORTE
Grainne Kelly

Grainne Kelly

There's something strange about watching the World Cup this year.

I normally love getting caught up in the buzz of of it all, regardless of whether Ireland are involved or not. Despite the grandeur, there's something simplistic about it at its core: countries from all over the world playing a game of footie - no politics, no religious differences, just pure fun and competition.

This year however, something has niggled at me. Maybe it's due to the recent swell of female voices opening up about sexualisation and objectification, but in the last few days, I couldn't help but feel this annoyance creep inside during each game and then, last night, it hit me. Watching Colombia serve a big old slice of humble pie to Poland, there is one common shot I keep seeing on repeat - the cutting to a blond, busty, beautiful female Colombian fan in the crowd.

Why should this annoy me? I adore women and have always considered myself a "girl's girl" so the sight of a beautiful woman enjoying a match does nothing but bring me happiness...normally.

What I realized though, was that this particular woman, unbeknownst to her, had been filmed a number of times during the match, moreso than any other fan - even any other female fan. Why her in particular? Was it her enthusiasm? Was it her expressive reactions? Hardly.  She was trying to support her country and yet the creepy cameraman was enjoying cutting back to her at every opportunity.

Hear me out, I know it sounds like an over-reaction. Look at the hypocrisy of it. It's perfectly fine for drunken, sun-burnt bloated and messy male fans to be filmed. Shots of them wailing, dancing, laughing or indeed red-faced with anger and foaming at the mouth abound.

Ask yourself though, how many shots of of women behaving in the same way populate the footage? Why is it okay for men to be messy and to behave with reckless abandon in a sloppy way, but not the female fans? If it's OK, why don't we see it? Where are the messy ladies shouting and roaring? Or, more importantly, where are the lingering shots of the "hot" male fans in the crowd?

There seems to be a bit of a conflict here. On the one hand, FIFA claim to be an equal opportunities organisation actively promoting female inclusion and equality in football. On the other, there's an accepted culture of macho ogling during matches. 

What we do see is the preened, glamorous female fan on repeat. They're easy-on-the-eye and pleasing to the predominately male audience.

FIFA say they are trying to narrow the male/female gap in soccer. In March of this year, the organisation's president Gianni Infantino said at the FIFA Conference for Equality and Inclusion, "We have increased the number of women in our council from one to six. We appointed a lady as Secretary General – for the first time in over 100 years in the history of FIFA."

These are indisputably positive steps FIFA are making. However, when push comes to shove and they have the world's attention during the World Cup, they stand by as broadcasters subtly revert to their old ways, pleasing advertisers and perhaps even their audience, with the endless array of creepy shots of women in the crowd.

By littering their coverage with a very narrow view of ultra-glamorous, pin-up style women, they're sending a very clear message to the female audience they say they're trying to include. Can we not move on from objectifying women in the crowd and just show the real pictures of all types of women - old, young, beautiful, alternative, having a blast and enjoying the match?

I'll tell you why I think this is important. As a little girl I would watch Soccer AM on Sky One. Back in the 1990s, watching this show with my Dad and three brothers, I always felt included,- like one of the boys. I was a sporty kid and loved the fact I could enjoy the show with them. I would giggle away at Tim Lovejoy and admire Helen Chamberlain's encyclopedic knowledge of football. Then the Soccerettes would march on stage.

This was a portion of the show where young, attractive women would sport their super tight football jersey and walk down a catwalk to show it off, inevitably wearing hot pants or a tight short skirt and high heels, while the male fans would cheer and ogle her. She'd never be older than 30, maybe not even 25.

She was always stunning, thin and sexy. She'd never have the opportunity to contribute something funny or witty as she simply played along with the presenter's rehearsed jokes. It was like having a watered down Page Three model in the show. I have no issue with her - maybe she wanted to be a model and saw this as an opening or she could have just simply enjoyed the choreographed banter.

All I can say is that watching that part of the show as a 12 year-old girl made me uncomfortable and excluded. The awkwardness would sometimes force me to get up and go and make a pot of tea  for everyone rather than sit though it. It was a very clear reminder that you can know all you want to know about football; you can be as sporty as you like, but at the end of the day, what matters most is that as a girl, you should be sexy.

It was just another opportunity to sexualise women and I wish, I really wish, sport could be free from that, especially in the year of  female empowerment we've had. It alienated the young female audience then and personally, the constant focus on the sexy women in the crowd alienates me now.

Soccer AM has since ditched this section of the show and as far as I can tell, it's still pulling in an audience and producing great television.

Maybe I'm being unrealistic? Maybe I'm too uptight? Maybe it's just all part of the fun? If that's the case though, FIFA need to stop patting themselves of the back for promoting equality as they clearly still have their own little Socerrette system keeping their audience happy, despite their talk of "equality and inclusion."

You can't bang that drum and reap the financial rewards of it without following through and delivering a modern, truly equal product that doesn't objectify. Sneaky shots of the hot female fans completely belies that. I can already hear the backlash, "Uptight feminist unable to chill out and just enjoy it". So be it.

I'm a casual female football fan. What do I know? A line from the Simpsons comes to mind: Malibu Stacey "Don't ask me, I'm just a girl"

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