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tackling sexism with sexism: collective shout and the lingerie football league


Image: Chis Putully via Wikimedia Commons

Image: Chis Putully via Wikimedia Commons

Being the feminist that I am, I’m all for calling out and challenging sexism. However, you can’t tackle sexism with sexism. In a patronising twist of events this is exactly what Collective Shout, an anti-sexism activist organisation, has tried to do.

Legends Football League (LFL), commonly known as Lingerie Football League, came to Australia from the USA last year. The first season was broadcast on Seven’s ‘blokey’ channel 7mate. It is women’s gridiron with an overwhelmingly sexist marketing strategy. Last year Collective Shout petitioned against televising the game and recently Sydney Morning Herald reported it lost its broadcast deal. It is unclear why this came about and whether it had anything to do with Collective Shout’s petition. Regardless, they shared the news proudly on their Facebook page.

Collective Shout rightly raised concerns about the sexist nature of the game. This includes rules surrounding the ‘lingerie’ style uniform and contracts requiring players to ‘agree’ to accidental nudity. Collective Shout’s co-founder, Deborah Malcolm, reported disturbing insights into the atmosphere of a game she attended. Nudity of the players was replayed on the big screen. Spectators (men) were invited to chase and tackle players for entertainment. A blow up doll was passed around. The commentator pointed out ‘[t]hey are all gorgeous girls, can’t wait to watch them’, making no attempt to hide that it was all about men getting ‘eye candy.’

I wholeheartedly agree that sexism in the LFL must be addressed. Most of all, I detest the way this type of marketing teaches boys (and girls) that a woman’s purpose is to entertain and pleasure men.

However, the approach taken by Collective Shout and community petitioners has done nothing to advance women’s rights or their representation in sport. The rhetoric used is at best utterly unhelpful and at worst just as sexist as the men passing around blow up dolls, only with a different spin on it. Online public discussions show how LFL players are being constructed in demeaning and sexist ways. There are the two prominent themes:

1. The women are passive, pathetic creatures with no capacity to respect themselves or to make decisions about their own bodies and careers. They are silly, vulnerable and need the intervention of well-meaning community members who know their interests best.

‘It just blows my mind that the girls involved in this farce are so deluded. I’m speechless and dumbfounded. They try and look tough wearing skimpy outfits. Ridiculous, and it SCREAMS sexism’ (Reader comment on Collective Shout’s online petition).

‘Effing ridiculous – and very skanky. Absolute joke. Are you girls idiots? You obviously have NO self respect.’ (Reader comment on Collective Shout’s online petition)

2. LFL players choose to disrespect themselves by wearing ‘naughty’ uniforms. They are worthy of recognition only when they dress like the respectable male players. They are poor role models for girls and young women, who are vulnerable and need protection from the influences of poisonous, dirty women.

‘Is this HONESTLY what you’d want your daughters to aspire to? I know I sure as hell wouldn’t want mine to!… We don’t have to dumb ourselves down or get naked to be respected ladies!’ (Facebook user comment to Collective Shout)

‘They are putting themselves in the situation… If they want to be recognised as sportswomen and have respect for what they do then they first need to respect themselves’ (Facebook user comment to Collective Shout).

It is ironic and downright wrong that a self-professed anti-sexism organisation failed to moderate and remove sexist comments on their own petition, including the one referring to women as idiots with no self-respect. Interestingly, name-calling by self-identified LFL players was chastised by Collective Shout, whilst sexist name-calling targeted at players went unnoticed. Collective Shout also promptly removed sexist, angry comments on Facebook by men against the campaign, yet those in support of the campaign were allowed to liken the players to porn stars. “[T]hat’s not athletics that’s porn”.

Indeed, the language used in Collective Shout’s petition itself is problematic:

‘While there are so many legitimate women’s sporting leagues that struggle to get sponsorship and media attention, and while the achievements of female athletes are already unreported in the media, it is appalling that Channel Seven would disregard clothed women in sport in favour of woman playing in their underwear.’

I think Collective Shout tried to point out that women should not be sexualised in order to gain the media representation their male counterparts enjoy. This is absolutely right. But the execution was all wrong. They imply LFL players are not legitimate sportswomen because of the attire they wear. Although LFL players are not overtly blamed by the organisation, the scrutiny has landed mostly on them rather than on men’s degrading, sexist behaviour, and the overall patriarchal system that created the sport.

Does anyone give a shit about what the players think and feel? It seems in the scheme of all this sexist rhetoric everyone has forgotten that they are people too. The comments on the petition by self-identified LFL players demonstrate they are feeling degraded and unsupported from all directions:

‘It’s pretty fucking sad that we have to wear what we do to play a sport but it’s the only way we can play this sport. We’re not allowed to join men’s teams and there is no women’s league. Stop judging us and maybe come down to a training session and see what we do.’ (Sarah – comment to Collective Shout online petition).

It speaks volumes, doesn’t it? Let’s get a few things straight:

  1. LFL uniforms aren’t inherently sexual. They are just pieces of fabric on bodies.
  2. There is nothing wrong with playing footy in your knickers, even if you choose to do so because it makes you feel sexy.
  3. Clothing is no measure for the respect a person deserves, no matter how ‘sexy’ or ‘skimpy’.
  4. The problem with LFL is that players are forced to wear uniforms sexualised by marketing and language such as ‘lingerie’. Players are marketed as sex objects when they clearly want to be recognised as sportswomen. It encourages the community to degrade women.
  5. The solution to this is to stop sexualising, objectifying and demeaning LFL players, and to let them decide upon their own uniforms, which can be as ‘sexy’ or traditional as they damn well like.

LFL players do not identify themselves as sex entertainers. So let’s all stop referring to them and treating them as such, regardless of their uniforms.

The backlash against LFL has achieved nothing of real significance in the way of change to sexist LFL policies and marketing. Now LFL won’t be broadcast, but the sexism within the game continues. Actually, the competition is expanding with a new team called All-Fantasy. The only difference now is overt sexism is less visible to the public. The opportunity for widespread community support of these women to get the respect and conditions they deserve has pretty much been missed. I simply can’t see this as a ‘win’, especially as women have been hurt and degraded in the process.

I also can’t get past the double standards. There are major cultural problems in men’s football. It promotes a distorted representation of masculinity as ‘tough’, aggressive, and violent. Punch-ups on field are common and cheered on enthusiastically by the crowd. Sexist advertising is dotted throughout the televised games; the consistent message seems to be that women are whiney bitches who forever keep fun-loving men under the thumb.

The glaringly obvious consequences are countless reports of football stars raping, sexually assaulting and sexually harassing women. Perhaps one of the most memorable cases was ‘Clare’, who opened up about being gang raped on ABC Four Corners in 2009. She consented to having sex with two NRL players, Matthew Johns and Brett Firman, in a hotel room. Shortly after, around ten football players entered the room and gang raped her.

To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a campaign targeted at removing men’s football from the television to protect young men and boys from the harmful influences of violent football culture. Is it because men are ‘tough’ and can take care of themselves? Or perhaps men are excused because of the pervasive myth that they ‘can’t control themselves’ yet are permitted the right to power and dominance.

I want to see a much stronger emphasis on reforming the LFL, as Collective Shout has done regarding sexism in men’s AFL, and/or a proactive campaign to raise the profile of sportswomen that demands equal and respectful media representation. Comments by LFL player Chloe Butler, reported in the Townsville Bulletin, suggest that LFL players also hope for reform:

‘They have changed the outfit to be more of a running outfit with no frill or anything to slowly make the move away from that (the sexy) part of it and rebrand it and slowly gain respect as a sport.’

In the end the LFL sportswomen lose out most. They are punished for being everything our patriarchal society tells them to be: conventionally attractive, prettied up with hair and make-up, dressed to suit the male gaze, and obliging to men’s ‘needs’ (wants). Yet sportswomen are punished just as harshly when they reject these pressures. Regardless they are not properly recognised by the public or represented in the media. We need campaigns that have the capacity to take on the complexity of these issues. We don’t need over-simplistic patronising campaigns that reinforce patriarchal structures under the guise of anti-sexism.

6 thoughts on “tackling sexism with sexism: collective shout and the lingerie football league

  1. Hi Ellen,

    Thankyou for the above LFL piece. It is definitely one of the more balanced articles I have read about the LFL. And you are right – there’s a lot of judegment of the players and it seems no-one really does give a shit about them.

    I am a rookie on the NSW Surge training squad this year. And to be honest, I may have also held similiar short-sighted opinions as some of the people commenting about LFL and the players before I joined the team.

    I went down to the open-trials on a whim, just to check out what the training was like. I was encouraged to give the trials a go and ended up in the team. And I can honestly say it has been one of the hardest training commitments I have have ever experienced. Physically demanding and technical, the game is tough and and requires not only great athletic ability but a good head to learn all the playbook (theory) that comes with such a strategic game.

    Recently we had a TV crew come down and film for a series called ‘Search for Hurt’ – where one girl has been trying out different sports of all kinds to test her physical ability and, as the title suggests, search for hurt. At the end of her session with us she walked away well beaten and physically challenged by the sports session put to her by the team. Even the producers exclaimed suprise at what the NSW Surge girls showed in athletic ability and I think the girls changed their minds about the legitimacy of the LFL as a women’s sport.

    I agree, if given the choice, that probably most girls would choose a different uniform for the sport. But if you love the game, and you want to play in this league at this level, you make the compromise. And as already pointed out, the uniforms have been modified to be less lingerie like and more sports like, because it isn’t just a bunch of models looking pretty & pulling hair on a field, it’s athletes, who also happen to look amazing (as most athletes do). The LFL also no longer stands for Lingerie Football League, it is Legends Football League.

    The league is not perfect – but it is in its infacy here in Australia and I believe that the players deserve more understanding and respect from the community at large and organisations like Collective Shout should probably reach out to the teams across Australia and spend some time talking with the girls who train day-in and day-out to perfect their skills in a sport that they love.

    I’d invite you and anyone interested (Collective Shout) to make contact with our team and feel free to drop in to any of our training sessions to get a more informed sense of what it means to be a member of an LFL team.

    Thanks again for your piece.

    • Hi there, thanks for reading my article and for leaving your thoughts. I’m really glad you found it balanced.

      You raise some really good points. I think respect is at the heart of the issue. If the community was more understanding and respectful of the LFL players i think a lot more could be done to address the sexism in the game: to support women to have more control over the uniforms and to ditch the sexist policies. If the community was widely respectful of women in the first place the LFL uniforms and policies would automatically reflect that respect. The conduct of spectators would also reflect respect for sportswomen, regardless of their uniforms. There is nothing wrong with having a sexy uniform, it’s the fact that sportswomen are *required* to wear those uniforms (and to have them “accidentally” fall off) under distinctly different (less favourable) conditions to male football players.

      The more i think about it the more bizarre it seems that we would respond to LFL players with such disrespect, when disrespect is the crux of the problem!

      I absolutely agree that Collective Shout should have reached out to LFL players broadly. It is after all a “grass roots” activist organisation, which means that change comes from bottom up rather than top down. It is very disappointing that they failed to do so and it is another mark of disrespect and objectification of the sportswomen.

      Thanks for your reply. It’s really important that the community hear directly from LFL players. I know that you are all talented, hard working athletes and i hope that you gain the respect and recognition that you all deserve.

    • Hi Kathy, thanks for your reply. Yes i was aware that there were a couple other groups working on this issue. The Destroy the Joint facebook post you left here links to the petition organised by Caitlin Roper at Collective Shout. It was the approach taken by Collective Shout that was the biggest problem.

      You raise a good point though. It may have been helpful to mention how other feminist groups reacted to the petition and question why they encouraged Collective Shout’s approach.

      It is disappointing that DtJ did not check the petition to see if it matches their values before promoting it. The language used directly by DtJ is much more respectful and takes a distinctly different approach to that taken by Collective Shout. It took the “why is there one rule for the girls and another for the boys?” approach, which draws attention to the structural sexism rather than encouraging the idea of LFL players as ‘illegitimate’ sportswomen in ‘naughty’ uniforms. It is a shame that it all boiled down to keeping it off TV and that DtJ encouraged and promoted the approach taken by Collective Shout.

    Recently I wrote a piece for University on this exact topic, and included a range of other sports and athletes who put the sexism in female sports. I’m glad to see there are other people in the world who understand.
    A great read!

  3. I am really fascinated by the feminist aspects of the LFL. The other component which I feel is important but you didn’t touch on is the variety of women’s bodies and challenging notions of what a sexy body is. The women are mostly selected based on athletic ability so there are definitely women who are more muscular and thicker than what you would see in a Victoria’s Secret catalogue for example.

    As a father of three athletic girls who I want to have a positive body image, I honestly can’t tell if the LFL is a good thing for them or a bad thing. And the intensity of play is really amazing. So impressed by those ladies!

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