Football vs Feminism: can you be a feminist and a football fan?

Photo by Connor Coyne via Unsplash

From reaching the UEFA European Championship final this year, to the 2022 World Cup next year; now is an exciting time to be an English football fan. Despite the Euro’s providing national pride after an unprecedented year, I found myself conflicted in supporting a game fuelled by toxic masculinity that often ostracises female fans and results in increased levels of violence towards women. Being a young woman, this summer’s Euros once again reignited my internal conflict of whether I can be both a feminist and a fan of a game that continuously inspires the poor treatment of women? 

There is no doubt that men’s football is the most popular English national sport, yet despite being exposed to the sport my whole life, the first and universal reaction any man has when I tell them I like football is complete surprise. This surprise doesn’t originate from my choice of team, although perhaps supporting West Ham is a surprising choice to some but stems from the fact that I am a woman. After the initial shock that women have the potential to be interested in a sport traditionally ‘for the lads’ is over, the impossible questions begin. ‘Name 10 players from the 2006 Swiss World Cup squad?’, ‘who managed QPR from 1998-2001?’ or truly insulting ones like ‘explain the offside rule’ as if it’s some impossible, complex theorem. It is the justification as to why I like football and the requirement of extreme football knowledge that highlights ingrained forms of sexism and misogyny within the sport. Whilst this behaviour does not encapsulate all men, this constant questioning happens to me 9 times out of 10, with my two female flatmates who are also avid football fans sharing near identical experiences. 

‘Name 10 players from the 2006 Swiss World Cup squad?’, ‘who managed QPR from 1998-2001?’ or truly insulting ones like ‘explain the offside rule’ as if it’s some impossible, complex theorem.

In a society where gender equality is yet to be achieved and patriarchal structures still embody the foundations of everyday life, I don’t find it surprising toxic masculinity dominates the sport of football. Toxic masculinity refers to male behaviour that promotes misogyny and sexism and can be considered ‘toxic’ due to resulting violence, including sexual assault and domestic violence. Whilst it would be wrong to generalise all male football fans as displaying these toxic traits, it is the subtle sexism female fans constantly experience and the ‘boys club’ culture surrounding the sport that is subconsciously promoted and allows extreme examples of toxic masculinity to occur. With major tournaments like the Euro’s, pubs naturally become a centre for fans to connect and celebrate games together. However, historically in England it was acceptable to refuse service to women in pubs until 1982 based on gender, thus highlighting the pub as a traditionally male exclusive environment. Despite legal measures changing, English pubs remain more of a male environment. With sport spectator-ship and alcohol consumption inextricably linked, the English pub helps perpetuate the male exclusivity of football by creating an unwelcoming, masculine atmosphere for female fans. When my female flatmate and I walked into our local pub to ask about booking a table for the Euro’s, 100% of the pub occupants were men, who stared at us and created an intimidating atmosphere that meant we left without a reservation. This experience made me wonder how many women have felt uncomfortable in a pub environment and have subsequently been denied enjoyment of football? Often, I find being a fan of a sport entrenched in male exclusivity and sexist ‘lad’ culture tiring, however, I think without female fan representation, whether this be physically at games, in the pub or merely in conversation, the continuation of football’s exclusive culture will persist. For football’s toxic environment to change, male fans need to provide a more welcoming and inclusive atmosphere for women, perhaps starting in their local pub.  

For football’s toxic environment to change, male fans need to provide a more welcoming and inclusive atmosphere for women, perhaps starting in their local pub.  

At this year’s Euro’s more extreme forms of toxic masculinity were attracting headlines, with domestic violence in England increasing by 38% when England lost and 26% when they won. Whilst abuse is the choice of the perpetrator, football can exacerbate pre-existing abusive behaviours, resulting in shocking statistics that highlight 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. Additionally, the street violence committed by men in ‘celebration’ furthers the stereotype of all football fans being ‘thuggish’ in nature and helps perpetuate being a football fan as a male exclusive activity, where women are unwelcome and unsafe if they are involved. As a feminist, I find it disgusting how football is used as a way for the violence and harassment of women to occur, with these statistics dulling my enthusiasm for a sport that leads to women being abused. 

In March 2018, the Football Association released its first gender pay gap report that revealed a 23% pay gap in favour of men, suggesting this disparity was due to fewer women working in senior leadership roles compared to men. With just 27% of workers in men’s professional clubs being women, with this figure dropping to 14% in the top pay quartile and to just 7% in the boardroom, it is fair to say the lack of female representation in staff/manager roles only bolsters football’s male dominated environment. Despite more female commentators, officials and television broadcasters being given opportunities and women’s football slowly gaining momentum, this representation is still not substantial enough, as being a football fan still mainly means supporting men’s teams, with male managers and male staff, again helping to keep football as a male exclusive sport.   

For football and feminism to be less conflicted, violence towards women needs to stop and there needs to be greater female representation from a fan and employee perspective within the sport. Considering how deeply entrenched toxic masculinity and male exclusivity is in football, these changes will not be easily achieved, however, I do believe football and feminism can eventually become more compatible. Football and feminism will both remain fundamental parts of my identity and I can only hope towards a better future where female football fans are equally respected, and football can become a sport that fully embraces women instead of ostracising them. 

Sources:

Biddlecombe, Sarah., Visible Women., (Stylist, 2018), https://www.stylist.co.uk/visible-women/law-lawyer-feminism-today-history-gender-pay-gap-abortion-equality/188525

Gill, Amée., Football’s gender problem., (The Conversation, 2019), https://theconversation.com/footballs-gender-problem-from-the-pitch-to-the-boardroom-women-are-still-being-blocked-from-the-top-jobs-106905

Rea, Ailbhe., Why talking about football is a feminist issue., (New Statesman, 2021), https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/feminism/2021/04/why-talking-about-football-feminist-issue
Trendl, Anna., Link between football and alcohol., (LSE British Politics and Policy, 2021), https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/england-football-alcohol-domestic-violence/

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