By Phoebe Cannard-Higgins.
‘How we play our sport, is often how we play the game of life.’ – Jo Hogan.
For over one hundred years, Australians have played AFL. It has become the sport of our country. Favoured teams, rivalries and traditions are passed down from generation to generation, shaping the identities of individuals and in turn the identity of our nation. The AFL has become a cultural signifier; to examine AFL culture is to examine Australian culture more broadly. For example, the continuous booing of Adam Goodes and the debate that erupted after he performed a war cry on field, brought to light an Australia still grappling with its colonial past.
The AFL, unfortunately, has done little to combat issues of racism, sexism and discrimination within the immediate and broader Australian culture. “To even the casual observer,” says Clementine Ford, “it seems pretty clear that women in footy culture are treated as disposable by many of the players and their managing bodies and certainly a large bulk of the fans.” You only have to cast your mind back to the ‘St. Kilda school girl’ scenario, or almost any of the alleged rapes by players to remember the disdain with which these women were treated. It’s no surprise that when you google the multi Walkley Award winning AFL journalist Caroline Wilson’s Facebook you see pages such as ‘100k likes to get Caroline Wilson to stop talking about footy,’ and ‘Shut the Fuck up Caroline Wilson.’
For a long time AFL culture and Australian culture at large has harboured an unconscious bias about women’s place in sport. Up until recently, the culture that has surrounded the AFL and sport in general has been associated with masculinity. Masculinity, the championed identity of our patriarchal society (over other identities like feminine, queer, homosexual etc) has taken many forms. The varying typified Australian masculine identities include the archetypal Bush Man, Australian Legend, War Hero, Rock’n’Roll Star, Life Saver, and so forth.
The social construct of a “sportsman” has evolved from this history, and he has inherited various traits from each of the glorified masculine identities. Because sporting masculinity has become ingrained in Australian culture, an unconscious bias towards women in sport has evolved. Biases are a reflection of our backgrounds and cultural experiences. They evade rational deduction and spring from instinct rather than analysis. The only way we can be drawn into consciousness is by being exposed to new or opposing experiences to our biases; a task that requires open-mindedness and selfawareness. I spoke to Jo Hogan an AFL-accredited coach who has been working in the sporting industry for over 30 years. Jo has been around football all her life, and has coached at all levels from Aus-kicks to Juniors and Seniors. She says the unconscious bias exists in both men and women, and she often has to check herself for it.
Jo says the bias works both ways, sometimes she assumes men will treat her a certain way because she’s a woman, and this assumption is not always correct, she is constantly recalibrating herself. Jo told me that predominantly, in her experience, both women and men think that men are the better coaches. The nature of the unconscious bias Jo experiences within football culture, reflects a broader case of internalised misogyny. The French feminist theorist Helene Cixous speaks of internalised misogyny as an anti-narcissism, ‘a narcissism which loves itself only to be loved for what women haven’t got.’ In more modern times, I have encountered this kind of logic in what is often referred to as the ‘cool girl’ misogyny.
The cool girl, in a way similar to Cixous’ anti-narcissist, values in herself those traits that make her least like a woman and most like a man. She is one of the boys, ‘not like the other girls’, and she knows how to take a joke – especially a sexist one. She’s the straight girl that posts sexualised pictures of other girls butts on her Instagram with captions like ‘Happy Wednesday.’ It’s not a type of misogyny I usually like to discuss because the last thing women need is another person (man or woman) telling them how to be, act, what to think, and how to respond to and operate within their social context. Nevertheless, as Jo told me about a female coach she was training, who feels uncomfortable coaching the under-14 boys because boys should be coached by men, not women, I was struck by how commonly these feelings are held. I remembered the face of a woman I once spoke to. The smirk, the dismissal as she told me that women’s sport wasn’t as good to watch as men’s, and the women AFL players should stop making a fuss. It’s easy to criticise women, I realised, especially in a room full of men. It’s when you stand up for yourself, or women, that things get awkward, and you turn into the one who needs to “lighten up”. On her blog Feminist Killjoys, Sarah Ahmed describes these situations as ‘the problem of becoming the problem because you are trying to address a problem that others do not wish to recognize as a problem.’ Speaking from experience, the real problem with being the cool girl, is that most of the time, you don’t know that you are. You have simply found a formula that in a patriarchal society benefits you. These traits do not come from your personality; this casualness is manufactured by oneself through the intent listening, observing, and obeying of social constructs - and becoming really good at navigating them.
The cool girl has figured out - to an extent- how to receive the least criticism, and the most admiration under the all-pervasive male gaze. But as Emma Pitman points out in her essay Ironic Sexism: the male gaze of hipster spaces, the cool girl’s chill “is not the opposite of uptight. It is the opposite of demanding accountability. Chill is a sinister refashioning of “Calm down!” from an enraging and highly gendered command into an admirable attitude.” Conversations about gender with the ‘cool-girl’ and colleagues usually end on some sort of irrefutable biological terms – men are stronger than women. But is strength all we watch sport for? Or is this just an unconscious bias setting up camp in our frontal lobe? As put in an article on The Line, “If we were only interested in seeing the ‘fastest’ and ‘strongest’, we would race humans against cheetahs and watch them wrestling gorillas.” Associate Professor, Physiotherapy and Exercise Science, of Curtin University, Kevin Netto studies female athletes and says, “I deal with biomechanical and physiological facts. And these say female athletes work hard if not harder than their male counterparts to achieve an absolute target.”
So if women are working just as hard as male athletes to achieve their goals, they must be achieving something, right? And yet they get paid less because they draw less fans to their games, stadiums and associations. But this is not because they are ‘weaker’ or less trained athletes, this is because of the larger cultural and social factors that determine the value of women in society which in turn leads to an unconscious bias that surrounds women in sport. And thus we’re lead into a kind of catch-22. The unconscious bias surrounding women in sport is derived from wider social and cultural factors and yet these social and cultural factors have been historically, in any number of ways, influenced by masculine sporting culture itself.
Jo has experienced this contradiction first hand. She says that coaching has long been underpinned by the idea of merit. “One earns their merit by playing football in a formal league,” she says. Jo told me that for years she was discriminated against because she hadn't played in the formal league, and was therefore considered not to have the same understanding of the game as her male counterparts. But how could she play in a formal league, she’s a woman? She is also repeatedly told she is ‘passionate’ (which let me tell you she is) but what does this really mean from a male perspective? That they admire her for her ‘passion’ and dedication to the game, but fail to recognise the foundation of knowledge and experience which she possesses? Jo says male coaches often tell her what she needs rather than ask her what she needs and this is frustrating. “Men need to ask for women’s opinion more often,” she says, “and genuinely want a response.”
Jo believes women have a lot to bring to the game, “Women are emotionally intelligent and need to be given the space to play their game and not be over-coached. They have a great freedom of movement and thus create an agile, free-flowing game.” Similarly, women have a lot to take from playing the game. In Fight like a Girl, Clementine Ford suggests that women are told “Don’t grow, but shrink. Use your inside voice at all times.” When women are on the field they learn to hold their space once more, says Jo. “Women need to get to know their bodies as they did when they were children, swinging their arms about them, before they were sanctioned to take up less and less space. Football gives them an opportunity to take up that space again,” she says. Jo says the first game of Women’s AFL was a huge moment in Australia’s history.
Friends of hers who weren't usually interested in football came to the first game, “They were hugging and kissing. People were moved on a deeper level because the game represented a change in society and culture.’ Although our unconscious biases are derivatives of culture at large, and our culture at large is often determined by our sporting culture, the two don’t act as a mutually exclusive pair. So the more we do to combat our unconscious bias by practicing self-awareness and open-mindedness, the more we will be shuffling Australian culture forward and the value of women in society. It’s also important to try to resist the comparison of Men and Women’s sport more generally and instead enjoy the nuances both types of sport can provide. With the conclusion of the AFL Women’s league for the year, let’s hope this gives people time to reflect on how far we’ve come as a country, and return next season with a stronger, more inclusive society and sporting culture ready to confront any unconscious bias that exists around women in sport.