Mixed signals: football and feminism

Many people think of football as the classic man’s sport. Certainly, the game appeals to some basic masculine desires like physical strength, competition, and bravado. But many women enjoy the sport as well; things like loyalty to a region or player, a sense of community, or even just love for the game are all reasons why football can be universally appealing despite its masculine reputation.

In fact, according to the NFL, 35% of fans who attend games are female, and 50% of fans who watch games on TV are female.

There have been efforts by the NFL to acknowledge women (most notably the somewhat problematic breast cancer awareness week), but this year, the league is capitalizing on those statistics more than ever with a new marketing campaign and apparel line targeted toward women.

They even sponsored a special section in September’s Marie Claire magazine titled “The Savvy Girl’s Guide to Football”.

The campaign may be motivated by money instead of feminism, but being recognized as a consumer does carry a certain power.

Plus, the apparel line isn’t the traditional “pink and shrink” approach—it features clothes that are fitted to a woman’s body, but not overtly sexy, with team colors, logos and jersey styles just like the men’s line.

The commercial is pretty badass too. We see several women wearing team gear, going about their lives (one is a mom, one is riding a scooter, one is walking into a nightclub) and reciting a speech by John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens coach:

[media url=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAuNowQLA_s”]

Unsurprisingly, the women featured are all young and conventionally beautiful, but at least a couple women of color are featured. Mostly, the ad is cool because it puts women in a power stance, and their narration alongside Harbaugh’s indicates that they are legitimate fans, not just housewives putting on a Super Bowl party.

But soon after the launch of this female-centered marketing campaign, the NFL made a decision that many are arguing is sexist: banning bags and purses at games, allegedly to increase safety and prevent fans from bringing in alcohol.

Obviously the ban applies to men too—no backpacks—but the reality is that more women than men carry bags, and may have items that will not fit in our tiny (or nonexistent) pockets, such as tampons, or diapers and other items for children.

“It’s difficult to imagine a rule forcing men to empty the contents of their wallets into a plastic bag, yet purse-carrying women now must publicize their personal items at the stadium entrance, maxi-pads and all,” wrote Shawnee Barton in this article.

Certain clear bags or Ziploc bags are allowed, but clear bags offer no privacy, and who wants to carry a Ziploc bag around?

Maybe it seems like purses are a minor thing to get upset about. But if the new apparel campaign made women feel like we were welcomed to the club, the purse ban is a set of restrictions on membership.

And then there’s the ongoing issue of the portrayal of women on the field itself. NFL cheerleaders are notoriously underpaid ($75 per game) and over-sexualized.

On the other hand, Beyoncé’s halftime performance at the last Super Bowl was girl power at its finest: sexy, but not strictly for male consumption.

Bringing back Destiny’s Child was clearly a nod to the female fans that grew up with this music, but millions of men watched and enjoyed their performance too.

MIA, who performed the year before, had a different take: she’s now facing a lawsuit for flipping the bird during her appearance, which she argues is less offensive than the sexualized, underage backup dancers that were present.

When it comes to women, the NFL is still sending mixed signals. Hopefully the playing field will even out soon, but until then, we still love the game.

Sarah Hansel is a 23-year-old human female. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a minor in Women and Gender Studies from UC Davis. In her free time she likes to read, play video games, draw, and garden.

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