Commentary Media

Women’s World Cup May Seem Like a Feminist Fairy Tale, But the Fight’s Not Over

Shireen Ahmed

Despite the joyful ending for the U.S. Women's National Team and the increased media attention toward women’s soccer, there is far more to achieve and attain for equality within the game—including the need to address the sexism inherent in pay disparity for players and in commentary surrounding the sport.

The 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada began with 24 teams, the most in tournament history, playing with passion and pride in order to achieve ultimate soccer glory. The exhilarating matches ignited discussion and debate while drawing attention to social issues surrounding the beautiful game. But despite the joyful ending for the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) and the increased media attention toward women’s soccer, there is far more to achieve and attain for equality within the game—including the need to address the sexism inherent in pay disparity for players and in commentary surrounding the sport.

In spite of fears that the recent scandalous allegations involving the World Cup’s governing organization, FIFA, would hurt ticket sales, the Cup took off in thunderous form with host nation Canada already on its feet. The Canadian Soccer Association confirmed that attendance for this tournament would be a record 1.25 million people over the 52 matches. The final between 2011 World Cup Champions Japan versus the United States was watched by 25.4 million viewers, according to FOX Sports, making it the most-watched soccer game in United States sports history. From the initial blow-out matches, to the unexpected upsets, to the riveting and incredible football, to some teams’ heartbreaking endings, people around the globe were captivated by this World Cup.

The proof of importance of women’s soccer is in the pudding—or in the case of the USWNT, the World Championship. And was the country ever-ready to celebrate and revel in this spectacular win.

All of this might make the 2015 Women’s World Cup seem like a fairy tale, in which the ongoing success of women’s soccer might defeat the evil sexism that is so deeply rooted in organized sport. At Mashable, for example, journalist Rebecca Ruiz wrote that this tournament “was a victory for women warriors everywhere.” And while she is correct in asserting that watching the USWNT rise to glory has been an inspiration for many young girls and women, a World Cup win for the United States does not guarantee a “win” for female players on a global scale.

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Despite a grand tournament distancing itself from a governing body steeped in patriarchy and headed by the blatantly sexist Sepp Blatter, the financial outcomes for the teams, for instance, are not exactly shining. The world-champion USWNT received $2 million in total for their championship prize money. This is in stark contrast to the $8 million that the U.S. national men’s team received at last summer’s 2014 World Cup in Brazil. They were awarded four times as much as their female counterparts for only reaching the 16-team round—not even the quarter-finals. There was no discussion about the matter from FIFA; these were evidently just normal allocation procedures. As in all other industries, equal compensation for women athletes is a huge issue. In this instance, there is a dim silver lining: In the last week, discussions of gender inequality in pay have been prevalent in mainstream, male-dominated sports media that would otherwise not even discuss such topics.

Beyond pay inequity, female players are still inundated by sexist behavior in sports culture. The trophy ceremony at the WWC itself, for example, unnecessarily featured models in tight-fitting, black dresses to award the players their medals—unfortunately often considered the “norms” for such events by organizers. The Edmonton Sun, the news site of one of the host cities, posted an article during the tournament on the “hottest women at the World Cup,” unnecessarily drawing attention to the physical appearance of certain players. And in a horrible attempt to laud England’s women’s team for their solid third-place finish while beating the German team for the first time in history, the Football Association in England came under fire for a sexist tweet focusing on the players going back to being “mothers, partners, and daughters”—despite the fact that they do not stop being athletes at any point. The Lionesses ended a drought of pride in English soccer, only to be welcomed home with condescending compliments.

Sadly, this kind of behavior is not uncommon. Soccer can be the playground for a lot of misogynist behavior that is considered acceptable and even humorous. There are often incidents of male coaches, advisers to top football clubs, and players making ridiculous statements that can be discouraging and disheartening for women. And young players must endure tropes that often emphasize the physical looks of a player, instead of her skills. This adds undue pressure on young girls to not only perform brilliantly but to adhere to unrealistic beauty standards.

Sexualizing female athletes or a sport is common all over the world. Such behavior is unhelpful and potentially psychologically dangerous for women: Body image issues and eating disorders are already rampant for young female athletes. In addition, supporting the personal choices of a female player to dress a certain way is paramount. Some players, including USA’s Sydney Leroux and France’s Louisa Necib, enjoy wearing make-up while playing and that is their prerogative. Criticizing them for that choice is not acceptable.

To present the players in a demeaning manner is not a way to applaud their achievements. It propels a system of intimidation and misogyny in sports.

Perhaps this lazy sports journalism strategy is applied in order to attract more readers and viewers. Fortunately, there has been growing pushback to many outright displays of misogyny. The English Football Association deleted its aforementioned tweet after a social media outcry rightly cited the team’s strong, character-displaying performance in Canada. When Andy Benoit, an NFL analyst for Sports Illustrated, tweeted that he thinks that women’s sports “are not worth watching,” retribution was swift. Much of the Internet replied to Benoit’s comments with sarcasm. Comedian Amy Poehler, accompanied by her colleague Seth Meyers, spoofed Benoit’s remarks on “Late Night.” Ironically (and that is being very generous), Benoit supported his claim by arguing that TV ratings of women’s sports were low. As the USA celebrates its highest viewership ever and a World Cup championship, he might be in his man cave eating humble pie.

As we move forward, players, fans, and policymakers must continue to call out sexism in mainstream sports media, urge decision-making federations to support development of the game, and to recognize and act on the needs of female players, including where pay is concerned. During the Women’s World Cup, FIFA hosted a symposium on women in football, featuring former and current players, executive members, academics, and advocates. The objective, according to FIFA-appointed executive committee member Moya Dodd: to grow the game on every level. In order to expand women’s soccer, developing programs for young girls and women is critical—not only on the pitch but in all aspects of soccer. FIFA, for example, recently launched a program encouraging women to take roles in leadership: a move that can not come soon enough.

More than 30 million girls and women play soccer around the world. It is a sport that is revered across cultural lines showcasing different styles of play with charisma and love. This must be nurtured and supported, particularly in the wake of the Women’s World Cup, when different leagues and tournaments will continue to delight fans. At the same time, one need not look further for future sports heroines beyond our own schools and neighborhood parks. Equality in sports is an intersectional feminist issue. In order to support young players at a grassroots level, supporters must work to also make the game more accessible in marginalized or low-income communities; advocate for more visibility of players of color; and ensure women’s soccer does not remain, as former USWNT player and current ESPN commentator Julie Foudy called it, “a middle-class, white sport” in America.

One of the most compelling sentiments among fans from this tournament has been: “Can we just call it ‘soccer’ from now on instead of ‘women’s soccer’?”

We certainly can. We definitely should.

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