Patriarchy in the ‘People’s Game’: a Feminist Perspective on English Football

English football has a problem. A big problem. It isn’t, for once, the inability to win a penalty shootout. It isn’t Roy Hodgson, nor is it a certain gifted yet wayward Uruguayan. It is – and in many respects, always has been – women. Despite the growth of the women’s game, there is a clear and fundamental difference in the way that female footballers, female officials, female fans, and women who work within the sport are treated in comparison to their male counterparts.

This opening statement alone will be enough for many fans to leap over the barricades and manfully defend the patriarchy that underpins the so-called ‘people’s game’. Earlier this week, Silvia Murray Wakefield had the temerity to ask in the Guardian whether it is ‘anti-feminist’ to watch the World Cup, only to be greeted with a torrent of online abuse. One reader took to Twitter to describe it as “utter garbage dressed as erudite, right-on feminism”, while others used Wakefield’s article as a stick with which to beat the perceived lack of quality in the women’s game. According to most commentators, the pre-eminence enjoyed by the men’s game does not have “anything to do with sexism” but is simply “because men play much better football than women”.

The savage response to Wakefield’s piece called to mind another article, written by Laurie Penny in the New Statesman, on the eve of the 2010 World Cup. Here, Penny criticised the jingoism and commercialised patriotism that now surrounds England’s participation in any major football tournament. In her piece, Penny pointed out that “the World Cup is only and always about men”. This claim was sufficient for her to be met with a barrage of abuse accusing her of misandry and bitterness. “Laurie has reached peak idiocy”, one suggested, while others simply told her to “shut the fuck up”, and to “pop to the fridge and get us another beer love, there’s a good girl”.

Both pieces are flawed, and it is important that this point is made. Many of the claims made by both Wakefield and Penny are based upon inconsistent and essentialised assumptions. However, the distinction that is important to make is that in making their respective arguments, both Wakefield and Penny were greeted with a show of misogyny and hyper-masculinity.

The ad hominem attacks received by Wakefield and Penny are indicative of the far deeper patriarchy that reinforces the gendered inequalities present within football. As in other areas of society where men continue to dominate and benefit from the pre-existing social order, whenever a critique of this patriarchy appears, it is shot down. These claims of male privilege are dismissed, and the pre-eminence of men in the supposed ‘people’s game’ defended and reasserted.

This patriarchy runs deep within the English game. Earlier this year, the Women in Football group surveyed over 600 females working at various levels within the English game in order to gauge attitudes towards women within the sport. The results were astonishing; the survey found that two-thirds of respondents had encountered some degree of sexism in the workplace, ranging from physical abuse to sexual harassment, ‘banter’ and discrimination.

Further evidence for this discrimination, harassment and abuse is not difficult to find. A succession of high-profile incidents have revealed the extent to which this behaviour and culture is not only accepted, but frequently trivialised and dismissed within the English game. A number of players, managers, television pundits, and even the Premier League chief himself, Richard Scudamore, have all been found to have assaulted or harassed women, engaged in sexist behaviour, or used sexist language. Worse still, in many of these instances, these individuals have either been cleared, or the victims ‘slut-shamed’ and attacked by supporters.

The English Football Association (FA) claims to take seriously this type of discrimination. However, when Scudamore’s lurid emails were exposed, the Premier League clubs and the game’s governing bodies simply closed ranks. The FA washed its hands over the affair and Scudamore was allowed to keep his job. Not only was it hardly a ringing endorsement of the FA’s commitment “to eliminate negative attitudes towards women”, it rather undermined the message to any women experiencing harassment or discriminatory behaviour that their concerns would be taken seriously by the FA.

The institutionalisation of this sexism and misogyny is reproduced in the over-emphasis placed upon appearance in the football workplace. More than half of respondents to the Women in Football survey believed that their appearance was judged ahead of their ability to do their job, and many felt a clear expectation to “appear glamorous”. The emphasis upon ‘glamour’ and ‘beauty’ is indicative of a broader, post-1992 commercialisation of the English game. After all, who better to sell ‘the beautiful game’ than beautiful women; particularly if by creating the illusion of an increased female presence, this can be claimed to represent an increased sense of equality within the game?

This emphasis upon beauty however has led to the hyper-visibility and instrumentalisation of women within the English game. While there has been an increase in the number of female television presenters for example, tellingly, there remains a lack of female football pundits. The difference between the two is crucial. Despite the growth and increasing appeal of the women’s game, and the experience and analytical insight that many female players are able to offer, few if any, have made it onto hugely popular television shows such as Match of the Day on the BBC, ITV’s coverage of the Champions League and FA Cup, or Sky Sports’ weekly Super Sunday.

This simply sends out the message women are there to be seen but not heard. Unlike in countries such as Sweden where women offer pre and post-match analysis of the men’s game, television producers in England remain reluctant to make room on the pundits’ sofa or in the commentary box for female players.

I have written this piece as a football fan. I love football, and have done for the thirty years or so that I have been able to run and kick a ball. However, the patriarchy, the sexism, the misogyny, the harassment, the abuse of women that I have described here need not, and should not, be part of the English game. The growth of women’s football in England is of course to be welcomed, but it cannot be used to mask the gendered inequalities that persist within the men’s game. Only by dismantling its institutionalised patriarchy can football, in all its forms, truly claim to be ‘the people’s game’.

Dave WebberDr David Webber is a Teaching Fellow in PaIS. His research interests include gender, and the cultural political economy of English football.

Twitter: @DrDaveWebber





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