“That’s not true. Girls don’t like hockey!”
I remember saying this when I was around eight years old. I was watching something on TV with my family when an ad for, I don’t know, car insurance came on. There was a quick shot of three excited hockey fans celebrating a goal, one a woman. To me, this was an affront. I had to call out this commercial for what my young mind saw as a blatant lie. I was quickly rebuked by my cousin, who told me that what I had just said was sexist. I quieted down for the rest of the night, embarrassed.
Still, the incident sticks in my mind a decade later. Even at such a young age, before I really knew what sexism meant, I had internalized the idea that sports were not for girls. Since then, I’ve grown to realize that female fans are no different than male fans; anyone can love sports. Unfortunately, the media, the leagues, and many fans still treat all non-male fans – labeled as women – like outsiders, treating them condescendingly or outrightly patronizing them.
The majority of sports media is either entirely bland (‘the player scored x amount of points, the other player had y amount of assists, and their team beat the other one’) – or entirely male- focused (‘this player is awesome, and cheerleaders are hot!’). When the media attempts to target women, though, their attempts are wildly stereotype-reinforcing. ESPN launched their own website for women, espnW, which when not covering games can often be found covering the athletes’ fashion choices, especially in its early days. (To be fair, the website employs an all-female writing staff and also provides coverage of oft-ignored women’s sports).
Just recently, Blueshirts United, the official blog of the New York Rangers, released a slideshow called “A Girl’s Guide to Watching the New York Rangers.” The guide assumes that any girl watching a Rangers game is doing so at the behest of their ‘boyfriend’ or ‘husband,’ not, you know, actually as a fan of the sport. News of the lockout ending, according to the author, was as big for men as “a 70 per cent off sale” is for a woman. And one of the biggest reasons to watch the Rangers, the guide asserts, is the attractiveness of their goaltender. In short, the guide assumes that a girl watching hockey knows nothing about the sport, is uninterested in the sport (and only with spending time with her significant other), and would only watch to see a good-looking guy.
A guide for women is not an inherently bad idea – some women grow up adhering to traditional gender roles and are taught to shun sports, and watching sports for the first time can be confusing to anyone. If the guide actually explained the rules and the traditions to new fans, without being condescending, it would be useful. Instead, this guide, and others like it, just insult women who do have an actual interest in sports. In essence, these guides don’t offer anything to new fans, and they treat every woman as a disinterested spectator. To the media, all women are not-yet-fans who, if not drawn in the by the game itself, will be captivated by stereotypically female things.
Take, for instance, last year’s decision by CBC to run an alternate commentary to their Stanley Cup coverage called “While the Men Watch.” The feed, running online, featured two women who would banter about sports from a “woman’s point of view.” One of the commentators described their style as Sex and the City meets ESPN, with witty banter about the players’ hair and the coaches’ suit sizes. A more accurate title for this show could have been, ‘While the men watch that sport you don’t care about, listen to the girls dish on things you do care about, like fashion and looks!’
The plight of the female fan is to be constantly disrespected, to be thought of as an outlier. Think of how many times you’ve seen a rom-com or a TV show or actually heard some bro say, “She’s great, and the best part is…she loves sports, too,” as if finding a woman interested in sports is like finding a leprechaun. And many women who do prove their merits as a fan inevitably become ‘one of the guys’. We still live in a world with a bizarre separate spheres ideology: sports for men, fashion for women, never any overlap.
The solution to this issue is not a specific sports media for women and women only. Instead, there needs to be a reconception of how we treat female sports fans. Almost everyone who watches sports for the first time needs some explaining – for many men, like me, their fathers explain the rules to them – and women watching for the first time are no different. But to treat every woman as a fan who needs something other than the game itself to become interested is asinine. The female sports fan is here, and has been for a while. It’s time to stop treating women like second-class fans, only interested in a cute player or pleasing their partner. The sports fan isn’t a monolithic man anymore.