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Against the Run of Play: An Investigation into Women Footballers' Negotiation of Gender

The 2019 Women’s World Cup showcases the growing interest in women’s football, with over 6 million people watching England play against Scotland and Cameroon.

Coupled with growing participation rates, increased attendance at matches, and women entering coaching and officiating, it could be assumed that football is moving towards an equal playing field for men and women. Despite these developments, football remains an activity that is most closely associated with men and masculinity.

There is limited evidence to show that gendered attitudes and stereotypes have dramatically changed, with femininity and football still seemingly incompatible. As a keen footballer and a coach within the women’s game, I am interested in studying the complex and fluid ways in which gender is embodied by women who play football. One study I undertook before embarking on my PhD in the Carnegie School of Sport involved exploring the ways in which gender influences the identity and footballing experiences of 35 women, all playing for a single amateur club. To enable understanding of these complexities, my research drew on notions of hegemonic femininity - understood as womanly traits constructed in direct opposition to masculinity - and pariah femininities, which are more closely aligned with masculinity (Schippers, 2007).

Every player involved in the research stated that they are aware of gendered expectations and societal pressures to conform to notions of hegemonic femininity. For example, Joanna believes “you have to look a certain way”; Heather identifies that “sometimes you have to do things that like, maybe aren’t you … but you have to do them to look right”; and Margaret claims that gender is an “unwritten, a not spoken about thing … you just … know that you should be doing what you have to do to fit in, and not cause a stir”. Moreover, the women offered numerous examples of chastisement for appearing or acting in stereotypically masculine ways.

All had, at some point in their playing career, been ridiculed simply for being a woman who played football. However, within their football club normative notions of gender were less clear. There was a feeling amongst the women that to belong within the club, they needed to play with aggression, determination and competitiveness, as explained by Julie “everybody loves it when someone does a class slide tackle, takes the ball and the player… whereas… being a whiny girl [is less valued]”. As such, when playing matches these women tended to display pariah femininities. To compensate, the women who displayed the most strength, aggression and competitiveness when playing employed an overtly feminine appearance to lessen the negative repercussions related to their gender identity. Herein lies the conflict between football and femininity - for women who play the ‘beautiful game’ and embody pariah femininities they open themselves up to negative comments and questions about their womanhood and sexuality.

This research highlights the complex ways in which women footballers negotiate their gender identity, both consciously and subconsciously. These negotiations are often based on the still pervasive societal pressures to appear and act in hegemonic feminine ways. Whilst huge gains have been made in increasing the number of players, coaches, teams and commercial interests in the game, another more challenging battle involves addressing belief systems and discourse that continue to position football and femininity as polar opposites.

This is something that can only change over time and with continued effort at all levels of the game. At the higher levels of the game, continued media and commercial interests can contribute to redefining what women can achieve.

At grassroots level growing participation rates contribute to the normalisation of women and girls being involved in football. As a generation of young girls and boys grow up watching women and girls and their relationship to football through the television, on social media, and in the local park, they can become part of the revolution that redefines what it means to be a ‘footballer’ and what it means to be ‘feminine’ – hopefully definitions which do not remain mutually exclusive.

  • Schippers, M. (2007) Recovering the feminine other: masculinity, femininity and gender hegemony. Theoretical Society, 36, pp. 85 – 102.

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Ruth Brazier

Ruth Brazier is a Part-Time Lecturer in the Carnegie School of Sport.

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