Take Off Your Clothes or Get Off the Field: Hegemonic Masculinity and the Discourse on Women in Football

It’s no secret that football has long been considered the epitome of a man’s game, but a far less contemplated element of the equation is the question about how we got there. A natural assumption would be that this whole “toxic masculinity” that us Gen Z kids keep bringing up. Believe it or not, this idea of toxic masculinity is rooted in academic theory.

Per Connell’s theory of hegemonic masculinity we can understand it as the version of masculinity that is idealized by society and is so widely accepted it nearly goes unnoticed (Bishop, 93). It is important to note that when referring to masculinity in this context it is with reference to the social construct and not what would be inherited with the Y chromosome. This does leave room for evolution in terms of its changes with the times so as to remain hegemonic. The version of hegemonic masculinity that exists in and is perpetuated by football is a one defined by and against the concept of femininity from a gender-essentialist standpoint. Sport media’s coverage of women who enter football, both historically and presently, is built on the idea of “othering” female members of the media and a reliance on gender essentialism that creates a discourse that upholds the dominant ideologies of hegemonic masculinity.  Using the lens of Foucault’s theory of discourse and Spivak’s theory of otherness, this paper will dissect marking examples of the media’s discussion of women in football and how that has created the discourse that upholds hegemonic masculinity.

The film Let Them Wear Towels offers insight into a plethora of examples of the horrible treatment endured by female football reporters since the earliest days of locker room reporting. One of the featured stories is that of Lisa Olson, who in 1990, was harassed by New England Patriots players while she was on the job. When this incident reached the news feed, Olson was made to look as though she brought the harassment on herself by simply being in the room (Let Them Wear Towels, 2013). When we apply Spivak’s theory of Othering to this situation, we can see that Olson was made to feel like the “other self” (Jensen, 66), namely not the person who was in the locker room to do her job, but as someone who was intruding on a space not built for them. This was more than just an intrusion into the male locker room, this was, as Moziesk puts it, an invasion of the “certainties about gender relations and sex differences that sport serves to guarantee” (p. 282). Olson is also othered by the nature of her job as it brings her into a space in which women had been traditionally only welcomed as objects of fantasy and subject to sexualization.

The phrase “locker room talk” has for all intents and purposes, become a stand-in to describe the overt objectification of women, and, as evidenced by the leaked tapes of Donald Trump from 2005 and his 2016 apology (Fahrenthold, 2), often includes comments of a predatory nature. In Olson’s case, she found herself in the breeding ground for what is now an accepted form of discourse while not fitting the role assigned to her by that discourse. This, as pointed out by Nelson in her 1994 book, aptly titled “The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football” challenges the “male bonding process [and] in order for them to continue feeling like men she must become the Other” (230). The subsequent cycle is one that casts women as not only inferior, but as having absolutely no place within football culture.

When looking at how gender essentialism was at play within this situation we must turn to the media coverage given to Olson and her coming forward with her story. Gender essentialism is built on the belief that being a member of a particular gender is what defines an individual’s characteristics and abilities, with no room for crossover between the aspects ascribed to males and females (Antunovic, 63). This is reproduced through Olson’s case via the implication that as a woman she should not be looking at or critiquing male athletic performance, despite the fact that that was her job. These ideas are a direct result of the gender essentialist thinking that women do not belong in the domain of men’s sports, or sport in general. 

We see this same treatment of women in football through today’s culture, even though it is far less direct. One of the most relevant and recent examples would be the Lingerie Football League. This case is relevant to the discussion with regards to how sport media upholds traditional masculinity because of the fact that, despite the existence of multiple other regulation women’s tackle football leagues, it is consistently the league with the most media coverage and largest crowd size. The last part is a known fact across women’s football, so much so that Dakota Hughes, a breakout quarterback, was sold on joining the LFL’s Atlanta Steam over any other team in any other league because she knew that it was “the only professional women’s league that gets attention, and that [she could] play real football in front of real fans” (Kaplan, 5). This league came into existence as a spinoff of the Super Bowl halftime show, the Lingerie Bowl, that was then expanded to a ten team league who, in the words of their commissioner, relied on sex appeal for media coverage (Kaplan, 3).

Commissioner Mortaza was correct, as proven by the fact that to date the LFL is the only women’s pro league to be given a television deal. Through that television coverage, and everything leading up to it, the pattern of othering and gender essentialism are constant. The othering in this case is best exemplified by the essential trade off of revealing uniforms, in exchange for media coverage. This unspoken quid pro quo is hard to debate when looking at the widely understood truth in women’s football that the league with the barely-there uniforms is the one that gets the media coverage. By essentially ignoring the women who play football like the men, the women in the LFL have been forced out of “real” football and into a gimmick. As in the case of Lisa Olson not conforming to the defined role of a woman in football, women that choose to play the game are perceived as a challenge to the norms, and as this example shows, are being kept on the outs of football culture to this day. We see gender essentialism come into play by way of the fact that, as LaVoi and Kane put it, “sports women must be presented in a way that reinforces traditional conceptualizations of femininity and heterosexuality” (Frederick, 173). By forcing women to present themselves as these modern-day pin-ups-turned athletes to be taken seriously, the media reinforces the idea that above all else a woman is her body, a thought process that stems from gender essentialism. The underlying message is that women can be involved in football, just not in a way that can be understood as threatening the conventional norms. 

Foucault’s theory on discourse defined discourses in and of themselves as “sets of sanctioned statements which have some institutionalised force, which means that they have a profound influence on the way that individuals act and think” (Mills, 12). The dialogue surrounding women in football and its consistent patterns of othering and falling back on gender essentialism has become discourse by way of it being backed by the institutional rigor of the media. We can see how this discourse has bled down through the ranks of the media to the comments sections of social media. One of the most prominent cases of this came with Shannon Eastin’s NFL officiating debut. When the announcement was made that Eastin would be on an officiating crew the comment section wasted no time in discussing everything but her merits as an NFL official. Countless accounts suggested she should officiate naked while another accounts went a step further to call Eastin’s debut the step before “some penis envy lezzie [will] want to play quarterback” (Antunovic, 54). Even the well intentioned comments from NFL alumni unknowingly propagated gender essentialism. Retired player Larry Foote expressed concern for Eastin’s safety when he said that “women are more honest and fair than men and they know how to catch a man cheating. I hope she’s just a line judge. Don’t want her to get hurt” (Antunovic, 55). This comment is underpinned by the idea that men are violent and unruly, thus Eastin needed to be kept away for her own protection. The idea that she needed to be protected upholds the cultural hierarchy in which women are inferior and do not possess the traits necessary to handle themselves amongst men. Eastin’s entry into NFL officiating was yet another intrusion and challenge to the long held beliefs that a woman’s place in football was exclusively in men’s fantasies. 

Through history we can see how the media has used its power to be the breeding ground of the discourse that both keeps women out of traditional football and uphold hegemonic masculinity. The dominant ideologies with regards to masculinity are magnified through the othering of women in football and a dependence on gender essentialism to back up these arguments. While a few recent examples, like Sarah Fuller, have eluded to a potential turning of the tides, the years of ingrained discourse are far from being undone. If the discourse is to change it will fall on the institution of the media, the same one who created this current climate, to lend their platforms to writing a new discourse and potentially evolve hegemonic masculinity.

Works Cited

Antunovic, Dunja. ““A Female in a Man’s World”: New-Media Discourse around the First Female NFL Referee.” Journal of Sports Media, vol. 9 no. 2, 2014, p. 45-71. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jsm.2014.0010.

Bishop, Ronald. “The Transcendent Metrosexual: Affirmations of Hegemonic Masculinity in Press Coverage of the Birth of Tom Brady’s Son.” Journal of Sports Media, vol. 6 no. 2, 2011, p. 89-125. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jsm.2011.0009.

Fahrenthold, David A. “Trump Recorded Having Extremely Lewd Conversation About Women in 2005.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 8 Oct. 2016, http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-recorded-having-extremely-lewd-conversation-about-women-in-2005/2016/10/07/3b9ce776-8cb4-11e6-bf8a-3d26847eeed4_story.html. 

Frederick, Evan L., Jr., et al. “Legends Worthy of Lament: An Analysis of Self-Presentation and User Framing on the Legends Football League’s Facebook Page.” Journal of Sports Media, vol. 12 no. 1, 2017, p. 169-190. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jsm.2017.0007.

Jensen, Sune Qvotrup. “Othering, Identity Formation and Agency.” tidsskrift.dk/qual/article/download/5510/4825/. 

Kaplan, Emily. “Inside LFL: ‘Gotta Feel Pretty Before We Get Ugly’.” Sports Illustrated, Sports Illustrated, 23 Sept. 2015, http://www.si.com/nfl/2015/09/23/legends-football-league-lingerie-football-lfl-dakota-hughes-atlanta-steam. 

Lupton, Sarah. Let Them Wear Towels. ESPN, 2013, http://www.espn.com/watch/catalog/cd5a1f5b-d372-4e1d-930d-9cb01f590769/let-them-wear-towels/_/country/us/redirected/true. 

Mills, Sara. Discourse, Taylor & Francis Group, 2004. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/lib/ryerson/detail.action?docID=182431.

Mozisek, Korryn D. “No Girls Allowed! Female Reporters as Threats to the Male Domain of Sports.” Journal of Sports Media, vol. 10 no. 2, 2015, p. 17-29. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jsm.2015.0011.

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