Athletic Feminism and the Women’s World Cup

By Jenna Barnett 7-03-2015
Screenshot of USA-GER goal celebration
Screenshot, USA-GER goal celebration

After the U.S. Women’s National Team won the 1999 World Cup, everything changed for me. I had a new career goal: professional soccer player. I had a new wardrobe: soccer shorts and headbands. And I had a new favorite song: Mia Hamm and Michael Jordan’s commercialized version of “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better.”

The commercial alternated between clips of Mia Hamm playing soccer (and drinking Gatorade) and Michael Jordan playing soccer (and drinking Gatorade) and both of them arguing that the other was better. They were probably arguing only about athletic superiority, but that’s not what the lyrics said. Mia Hamm, a woman, the poster image on my wall, said she could do anything better than Michael Jordan, the most athletic man in the world.

Feminism and athleticism were one in the same to me. Four square matches, pick-up basketball games, and soccer scrimmages were all opportunities to prove that women were as valuable and gifted as men. Brandi Chastain with her shirt off and body flexed in uninhibited celebration was my Betty Friedan and my Bell Hooks.

But then puberty arrived, and brought with it hormones, testosterone, and different images of female athletes as the boys in my classes got their hands on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition (I’m a much bigger fan of the feminine strength displayed in ESPN’s “The Body Issue”). The Women's United Soccer Association — the world’s first paid professional women’s soccer league — closed down, and suddenly it seemed to me that the U.S. only cared about women’s sports when women traded in their sports bras for bikinis.

So when I read that this U.S. Women’s World Cup brought in 285 percent more viewers in its group stage play than ever before, and when I heard two twenty-year-old men at a jam-packed bar in D.C. rattle off statistics about Morgan Brian’s college scoring stats and Tobin Heath’s signature moves, I got excited.

This World Cup, FOX is broadcasting a total of 16 matches, more than any broadcast network has ever televised in a men or women’s tournament. That means, for the first time in women’s soccer history, marketers and broadcast networks bet on women — bet that they would win, but more importantly, bet that people would care.

Though not everyone agrees with FOX Sports, most notably Sports Illustrated writer Andy Benoit whotweeted, “…women’s sports in general [are] not worth watching.”

The bodies of women are worth watching, they are worth celebrating, they are worth endorsing, they are worth as much as the body of men, they are worth going two hours early to a bar to guarantee a prime viewing seat. They are of sacred worth.

All of this coverage and fandom is progress. But now FIFA (and many others) must recognize that women deserve to play on the grass instead of turf — just like the men; that women in the National Women’s Soccer League deserve more than a minimum annual salary of $6,842 (compared to the men’s minimum salary of $60,000 in the MLS); and that all of these issues deserve the attention of sports fans and feminists alike.

Watch these athletes play Japan in the finals this Sunday at 7 p.m. ET. If we’re lucky we’ll see more of this.

Jenna Barnett is the Women and Girls Campaign Coordinator for Sojourners.

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