Athlete or just a body? – Women on the screen

Though the female football (soccer) world cup is over, the US team has since flown back home and got into a feud with Trump, the questions raised by the World Cup are far from being settled. At least not in America, where soccer is a predominantly female sport and the male team simply doesn’t compare. Given the circumstances, American feminists are right to ask why female players earn less and why do female athletes of all sports have to work in worse conditions, with worse infrastructure and for less money.

Though the women’s World Cup gave us an exciting chance to evaluate the achievements and limits of the feminist movement of the last couple of decades, it also poses some unique questions for lesbian* viewers. For the first time in history, the women’s version of the world’s most popular sport, football, gained a significant world-wide following. How does the lesbian* audience factor into this and what is their political significance? How is the ‘lesbian* gaze’ problematic, and is it possible for an ethical lesbian* viewership to exist?


Megan Rapinoe, the captain of Seattle Reign and the  co-captain of the American National-Team | Photo: Lionel Bonaventure


Female bodies on screen

Watching a football match also means watching people’s bodies in motion: bodies sweating, celebrating, getting injured and getting in contact with each other in a number of ways. In 1973 Laura Mulvey film-and media critic proposed the influential theory that pictures shown on the TV screen suppose a ‘male gaze’. In other words: the makers of films and series tailor their product to the visual pleasure of an imaginary male audience (the article is titled ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, meaning this male pleasure). This doesn’t mean that every single appearance of the female form is sexually objectified, but it does mean that the (heterosexual) female viewers’ desires aren’t being met: the film assumes the viewer is a (heterosexual) male. If we think about how women and men are presented on screen it becomes obvious that films are trying to meet the (sexual or simply aesthetic) desires of men. For example, male characters tailored to the (heterosexual) female gaze only started to pop up recently: the manliness of classic male Hollywood heroes is not for the benefit of women, but of other men. It’s them who can insert themselves into these roles and vicariously live their desires (for adventure, for money, for sex) through them. Female desire was taboo, and female watchers also being attracted to the leading women meant for male consumption was downright unimaginable.

So, the depiction of female bodies on screen is problematic: it’s an invitation to look at women as a man would, to sexualise them. In sport, where the body has such a central role the sexualisation of women is almost inevitable. If the people responsible for film- and media production go on catering to the male ‘visual pleasure’, then obviously broadcasting women’s sports will present the female form as a sexual object to the viewer. This doesn’t allow for us to see the female athletes as they are, professional athletes. For lesbians* the matter is even more complex. On one hand we strive for equality and would like women’s football to be presented as just a regular sport: we like it because the players are good. But on the other hand, it’s hard to watch female bodies without feeling some sort of sexual attraction – if only because there’s so little lesbian* content present in media otherwise. So, the lesbian* audience faces the question of striking a balance between their interest in sport and sexuality. All this while treating the female players - as befitting their humanity - not ‘only’ as women but as athletes.


Tobin Heath, player of Portland Thorns and the American national team | Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer



The lesbian* gaze

The progress of dismantling the hegemony of the male gaze is underway, but it’s far from reaching its goal. There are films being made that suppose a female or specifically lesbian* audience, but – even if it’s about gay people – still predominantly address the straight male viewers. One example is the Cannes Award winning ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’ that presents its lesbian theme according to an aesthetic geared towards men. A surprising example could be our obligatory fav, The L Word: love between women is presented in a way and through bodies that appeal to male visual pleasure (note: this is why I dislike it – there are other reasons too, but expanding upon those is probably better kept for another article).  

In this context it’s important for lesbian* viewers not to adopt the male visual desires. Of course, for a lesbian* the female form could always hold a sexual interest, and this in itself is perfectly fine. The problem starts when the lesbian* audience also starts stripping female players of their athletic merits and only values them for their femininity. Women’s football isn’t just a discount version of the real deal we watch only for the female bodies on screen. As lesbians* we don’t have to become political activists or anything, but we owe it to ourselves and our fellow women to treat female athletes as humans and athletes first. This attitude shouldn’t mean we have to give up our desire for the female form. Far from it.

Translated by Zsófia Ziaja

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