When it comes to watching the World Cup, the male gaze is alive and well
Photo: Getty Images

OPINION

When it comes to watching the World Cup, the male gaze is alive and well

Picking out beautiful women in the World Cup crowds is a voyeuristic, demeaning act that needs to stop – starting with tonight’s England v Croatia semi-final

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By Emily Baker on

“I’m just so sorry that so many beautiful women are so sad right now”

That was Ian Wright’s apparently expert comment about last Saturday’s World Cup match, when England beat Sweden 2-0 to make it into the semi-finals. The camera was focused on a typically attractive Swedish woman, staring off on to the pitch and crying at her country’s loss. Viewers had seen the stereotypically Scandinavian woman – petite features, blonde hair, slim – a number of times throughout the game, and even more when she began to cry. Once the camera had picked her out, they wouldn’t leave her alone.

Watching the World Cup for the past few weeks, football fans seem to fit into very clear categories – men, children, people in funny outfits and, of course, attractive women. Most of the screen time is taken up by the first group, who (especially when watching an England game) are seen in their hundreds, singing with hands in the air and wearing their country’s shirt with pride. If you asked a child to draw a football fan, these men would appear on the page first. The children and inventive costumes are presumably shown for light relief during a tense or boring match, and usually they do that exact job. But lingering shots of the women feel different – they’re voyeuristic and prurient. Alongside the goals and the beer and the flags, “beautiful” women are a product of football, and especially, now, of the World Cup.

“It’s not just this World Cup,” says Sarah Batters, who co-hosts the podcast Fantasy Football Wives with her friend and fellow football fan, Ania Richmond. “At most competitions the cameras try to seek out the most beautiful women in the stand. That’s what they think people want to see, but it’s quite degrading towards female football fans. It’s stuck in the past.” The focus on women in crowds has one clear message: this is a broadcast for men.

Every channel in every country shows the same feed from the matches, provided by FIFA’s chosen broadcaster, Host Broadcast Services (HBS), a company that has provided World Cup footage for the past five tournaments. HBS did not respond to a request for interview, and the gender make-up of the company’s camera operators in Russia isn’t public, so – at this point, at least – it is hard to blame this solely on having men in charge of the shots. However, stats surrounding the wider state of women in sports media may provide a little insight into why attractive women are seen as such an interesting subject. According to a 2017 Women’s Media Center report, analysing print, broadcast and online news outlets in the US, just 11% of sports coverage was created by a woman, while, according to The Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation, a study from 2007 – an indicator in itself – found that just 10% of Sports Journalists’ Association of Great Britain members were women.

Lingering shots of the women feel different – they’re voyeuristic and prurient. Alongside the goals and the beer and the flags, 'beautiful' women are a product of football, and especially, now, of the World Cup

If there are more men than women behind the cameras, then this only goes to explain some of why women are seen as a commodity broadcasters can trade with viewers. To see the whole picture, we have to broaden out the horizons to the full spectrum of the football landscape, and to do that, it might be useful to look at The Sun newspaper. Since mid-June, women (as “scantily-clad” as is “allowed” since the destruction of Page 3) have appeared in the first few pages of the paper, wearing England shirts and expressing their love and support for the boys bringing football home. If a football shirt is nowhere to be seen, then you can bet on seeing a photo of a player’s girlfriend or wife in lingerie or a bikini. The Sun is a paper famous for its photos of half-naked women. It’s also a paper known for its dedication to our national team – yesterday’s front page featured coverage of Theresa May’s cabinet reshuffle via an old image of Boris Johnson wearing an England rugby shirt above the headline “Don’t you know there’s a bloody game on?” The Sun knows what its readers like: football, and women – the two go hand in hand.

Getty Images have been guilty of sexualising fans, too. Towards the end of June, an official gallery of images was created on their website, entitled “The hottest fans at the World Cup”. Needless to say, the photos were all of women, minding their own business and watching their team, and none of them had given their permission to be included in the gallery. The page was peppered with tired captions such as “Talk about a knock-out round…”, proving that, while the main game may be on the pitch, spectator sport in the crowds – namely, sexualising female fans – is alive and well. Following calls and complaints from social-media users and campaign groups, the gallery was eventually removed alongside an apology: “There are many interesting stories to tell about the World Cup and we acknowledge this was not one of them.”

The sexualistion and commodification of female fans is an issue that hasn’t really been discussed this World Cup, but other instances of sexism have been called out. When Vicki Sparks became the first woman to commentate on a live World Cup game on British TV,  ex-footballer Jason Cundy appeared on Good Morning Britain to announce that women shouldn’t commentate on matches because of their high-pitched voices. The backlash was so fierce that Cundy later had to apologise for his remarks. When Patrice Evra slow-clapped Eni Aluko’s brilliant punditry of a Costa Rica game, he was also branded sexist and patronising. The strong disdain held by football traditionalists for the increased number of female presenters on ITV and BBC has, thankfully, largely been ignored. But female presenters are still being sexually harassed live on air and, at home, the stereotype of the “football widow” still prevails, with women being offered “alternatives” to the football (mostly in the vein of Love Island), and Boohoo.com selling T-shirts emblazoned with “single, until the World Cup’s over”.

Batters’ experience as a female football fan will be recognisable to many. “When we tell people we’re football fans and we’ve got opinions, we always receive raised eyebrows. We get a lot of patronising, ‘Oh, that’s nice’ and ‘is it just to hang out with the men’ comments. Especially when I was younger, I felt people thought girls who liked football just wanted to hang out with all the boys,” she explains, “but really a lot of women are just as knowledgeable – if not more so – than the male fans.”

I have watched every single England game with women. The next day, when I come into The Pool’s mostly female office, we discuss the match with excitement and analysis. It’s the same when you’re in the pub or at a match, where gender just doesn’t matter, says Batters. “When I’m in the stands, wearing my shirt, I’m treated just as well as a male fan. It’s more outside of the stands when you have conversations about the football that you experience sexism.” It’s these comments and questions that women like Batters and Richmond are attempting to expose with their podcast, and that campaign group This Fan Girl are trying to disseminate.

This World Cup has done wonders for England – aside from the (sadly inevitable) episodes of bad behaviour, the national spirit is buoyant amid one of the most bitter parliamentary upsets this generation has seen. Thanks to sports psychologist Pippa Grange, the England team seem “happier and more grounded”, becoming more aspirational and straight-laced role models than we’ve seen before (i.e. cheating on their wives with their brother’s partner or being investigated for tax evasion). Gareth Southgate has become a national hero and a symbol of positive masculinity for all men. He’s also increased waistcoat sales by over 100%, single-handedly saving M&S from the brink of collapse. No one is saying the World Cup is a Bad Thing – it’s Very Good – women would just like to be active participants in the game, not passive bodies to be ogled.

@emilyrbakes

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