If we were to believe the sexist advertising, merchandising and media around the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, we’d be forgiven for thinking that football is very much a man’s game.

From my couch in Johannesburg I have been subjected to advertisements that cast women as interested in football only when players take off their shirts (thanks Coca-Cola). Another ad cast women merely as an irritant to men, who basically just want them to leave them alone and let them watch football (thanks SABC).

A few weeks ago a Sunday newspaper announced that the World Cup was beginning with a front-page photo of a scantily clad Brazilian woman playing football on the beach (thanks Sunday Times) and this past Sunday the Times  front page had the headline “Beautiful Game: The babes from Brazil”. Two Sundays ago a story published with numerous pictures of buff footballers without their shirts on told us it was time to get the lowdown on all the “hotties” and “eye candy” at the World Cup (thanks City Press),.

On top of all this I have had to sit and cringe as I watched an SABC sports anchor and his panel of football pundits leer at and ogle a young woman in the crowd as they used sexual innuendo to attempt to disguise the fact that faced with a beautiful woman they immediately lost all ability to continue with the football discussion they were having before she appeared on screen. It was an embarrassing display, not only for the SABC and its sports broadcast staff, but for South African society in general.

While I have not seen any public outcry about this rampant sexism in South Africa, some recent comments from the Mexican team’s manager suggest that sports broadcasting is not the only arena in which a beautiful woman is seen as a threat to professionalism. Mexico manager Miguel Herrera said he wanted his players to avoid sex during the World Cup, stating that it was okay for his team to look at bikini-clad women but they may not touch any of them.

“I am thinking about football and I hope that the boys are thinking about football, because nobody has died from practising abstinence for 40 days,” he said. “We will be in front of the beach – it’s impossible not to cross a bikini in Brazil, but looking doesn’t hurt.”

So these professional sportsmen train for years to reach the top of their game, to make their national squad, to be honoured with playing in the world’s premier football competition, one that happens only every four years, and all it takes to derail them is a woman in a bikini. If their last group match against Croatia was anything to go on, the Mexican players appeared incredibly focused on the game and in their second round match against the Netherlands, they were only undone by a late rally from the Dutch, after they had had the lead for most of the game.

I find the Mexican manager’s comments problematic. Aside from the aspersions he casts on the characters of the men under him, I feel his comments normalise problematic male behaviour. It’s as if he is saying it’s okay, even expected, for men to be overwhelmed by lust at the sight of a woman in a bikini, but he wants his players to fight this urge.

But let’s get back to football and the issue of it being a ‘man’s game’. To set the record straight, football is not a man’s game. Fifa has reported that 43% of the global television audience for the 2010 World Cup was female. To take things from the macro to the micro, I live in a house with two women, whom I would say have probably watched as much of this World Cup as I have. Not once did I hear them commenting on how hot a certain players was or how they wished he would just take off his shirt.

But last Sunday’s page three story in City Press would have you believe that’s what woman are interested in, using language like “it’s time to blow the sexy whistle on …” and “ it’s gonna be hard to keep your temperature down”. The chosen language suggests women are just as likely to lose control of themselves when faced with a topless footballer as the Mexican footballers are when faced with a woman in a thong. If the Coca-Cola advert doing the rounds is to be believed, women see a topless football player and they become hysterical in a display of lust reminiscent of Beatlemania.

The two women I live with understand the rules of football, know who the players are and are genuinely interested in the game – shock, horror! So why do the media and advertising industries continue to attempt to reinforce these offensive stereotypes about women and football? I think we all know the answer.

In Brazil there is an organisation called Guerreiras Project that fights for gender equality in women’s football. It argues that the pervasive, hypersexualised image of Brazilian women only helps to keep women on the sidelines. Speaking to PolicyMic in a recent article, Guerreiras Project’s Joanne Burgio said, “The objectification of female bodies in advertising builds on and underpins the idea that women exist primarily as beautiful things to be looked at, and this is further entangled, in Brazil, by the hypersexualisation of these bodies. The biggest harm is the continuation of a culture that perceives women – and Brazilian women especially – as sheer embellishments.” Clearly Brazil has a long way to go, judging by the fact that there is a local television show called Miss Bum Bum, a nationwide search to find the best backside in the country.

Another example of sexism is the T-shirts that clothing brand Adidas came under fire for in the build-up to the World Cup. One bore the slogan, “Lookin’ to Score in Brazil” (alongside a drawing of a smiling woman in a bikini), while another announced, “I heart Brazil”, the shape of the heart resembling the shapely buttocks of a woman in skimpy underwear. Adidas pulled the shirts after rightly facing extreme pressure. But the point is that some man (or woman) decided these shirts were in fine taste and completely acceptable. I emphasise the point about the decision-maker at Adidas potentially being a woman, because the editors of Sunday Times and City Press are both women.

I asked my female housemates their opinion on City Press’ page 3 story last Sunday. They said it was a “double-edged sword”. They argued that the story subverts the normal male gaze by making it all about women looking at male football bodies, but one of them argued that at the same time it unquestioningly reinforced the problematic behaviour of objectifying bodies. The City Press story also plays right into the hands of the sexist advertising industry, reinforcing the stereotypes that women are interested in football only when the men are shirtless and there is something to perve over.

Fifa’s numbers on the gender breakdown of its global television audience disputes these stereotypes. It’s about time the media and advertising industries started treating football audiences, both male and female, with a lot more respect.


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