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The World Cup needs to send a different message to women

FIFA’s broadcast contractor is sending a message to women fans: You are there to be seen, not to participate.

Uruguay v France: Quarter Final - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

On Saturday, moments after England had dispatched Sweden 2-0 in a fine performance, sending them to the World Cup semifinal, Fox analyst Ian Wright had this to say about the performance: “I’m just so sorry that so many beautiful women are so sad right now.”

Wright’s comments, said after that England performance with those stakes, would be absurd if this practice wasn’t so ingrained in the psyche of footballing culture. His remarks weren’t without context, either: “Host Broadcast Services” (HBS), FIFA’s subcontractor for the tournament in Russia, has made a point to show pretty women in the crowd throughout the World Cup. They did so numerous times in the second half of England vs. Sweden, repeatedly cutting to women fans, especially for Sweden, at the match. It’s almost an expectation that the ability to lustily gaze at women is part and parcel with the entertainment that comes with the World Cup.

The idea that visual media has been designed to please the heterosexual male has been around for decades. In her 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Media, Laura Mulvey writes that the camera too often acts simply to please the heterosexual male by hyper-sexualizing actresses. The result is one that dehumanizes women by relegating them to a one-dimensional role that is secondary to the male erotic gaze.

This analysis can, and has been extended to sports and is particularly apt for the World Cup. Recently, Getty Images, a company worth billions of dollars and one of the largest stock photo suppliers in the world, published a gallery of the “World Cup’s sexiest fans” before retracting their article after criticism on social media. While it was abhorrent, it’s not hard to understand how it happened — Getty knew there was a demand for such photos.

And heterosexual men do like to look at these women. European tabloids run the photos, showing that there is a market for them. And for many male football fans, it’s hard for them to see the big deal. After all, it’s all in fun.

But this simplistic way of looking at the topic ignores the way this voyeurism relegates women to a confined corner of the footballing world. These cutaway shots tell women that the content being produced isn’t for them. It tells them that football is a male-only space. If they want to join in, women must appeal to the male gaze.

We also see this in the WAGs (Wives and Girlfriends) phenomenon, which began as a recurring English tabloid fixture and now has spread across the pond into the culture around American sports. For this male-dominated world, WAGs serve as soap opera characters constantly orbiting around, but never actually involved in, any of the action on the field. These women are cast either as accessories or “distractions,” further making clear that in the world of fandom, women are too often viewed as objects that can exist on the fringes of sport, but never active participants in it.

If you doubt that the defined space within the footballing establishment is highly restrictive for women, one need only look at the vitriolic reactions towards women who have been given a role as commentators and pundits in the 2018 World Cup.

When Vicki Sparks became the first woman to commentate on a live World Cup match for British television, Jason Cundy, a former defender for Chelsea and Tottenham’s men’s teams, reacted by saying this:

Astonishingly, he admitted that the problem had nothing to “do with her insight, the way she delivers, or her knowledge, or her ability to do the job… it’s the voice.” In other words, it doesn’t matter to Cundy whether women commentators are competent and capable of providing insight, because they, quite literally, possess a women’s voice; a rather roundabout way of saying that he doesn’t like women commentating simply because they’re women.

This misogynistic attitude stems from a footballing culture that too often cannot fathom women as three-dimensional, insightful human beings who have anything other than their looks to offer. As soon as a woman tries to escape the space defined for her, she experiences an angry backlash that attempts to quickly put her back in her place.

These attitudes can materialize into decidedly more aggressive and physical actions, as we’ve already seen in Russia:

As Kay Murray of BeIN Sports notes, this type of behavior happens frequently and has become a common hazard for woman journalists just trying to do their jobs. It has gotten so bad in Brazil, that women sports reporters have banded together to demand that they be treated with basic dignity and respect.

The prevalence of this problem reveals a harsh but simple truth: The characterization of women as objects is so ingrained in the minds of many men that they cannot see a women reporter — a professional doing her job — as anything other than a treat to be kissed, touched, whistled, and gawked at.

Thus, when confronted with the scale of the abuse women face in football, it is impossible to view the seemingly innocuous “let’s spot the pretty girl” exercise as anything other than a tool that reinforces the view that women only exist in sports as eye candy. They are not to be heard or respected — they can only exist in the space that men have defined for them.

If FIFA truly believes that football is for all, they must urge Host Broadcast Services to reconsider their practices. Neglect to do so, and HBS will continue to strengthen the fundamental attitudes behind societal structures that alienate women, sometimes violently, from the beautiful game.