Friday, June 11, 2010

Of soccer and sexism

Chile has come down with a serious case of World Cup fever. It's been several years since the national team has qualified to participate, so everybody is anxious to see how "La Roja," revitalized by the leadership of coach Marcelo Bielsa, will fare. Red jerseys are flying off the racks, players' faces are being plastered on everything from Coke bottles to supermarket displays of men's razors, and everyone is discussing the best way to stay awake all night in preparation for the early-morning game broadcasts. It's an electric atmosphere that I'm excited to be a part of.

There's one thing I'm not thrilled about, however: the fact that the World Cup craze, in addition to fueling enthusiasm for soccer, has also intensified the Chilean media's already pervasive objectification of women. Television channel Canal 13 -- owned by Chile's Catholic University -- provided ample evidence of this the other day. Around lunchtime, Canal 13 camera crews set up and broadcast impromptu pep rallies in the Plaza de Armas, downtown Santiago's central square, and the La Vega food market. The group that gathered in the Plaza de Armas was almost exclusively male -- except, that is, for the women who paraded through the crowd in tight, tiny outfits based on the national flags of World Cup teams. Within seconds, the men in the crowd had transitioned from jumping and cheering for the Chilean team to leering and whistling at the group of women. I remember watching one woman -- probably freezing in the winter cold in her crop top and short skirt -- maintaining her smile as one of the men repeatedly tried to grab and kiss her. No one tried to stop him.

When the show cut to the rally outside La Vega, I was pleased to see that the women present -- who appeared to be market workers -- were participating as fans and not as eye candy. Oh, how wrong I was. Before long, these women too were urged to parade in front of their male counterparts to garner applause.

I couldn't watch anymore. I didn't need to. The message was clear: The only place for women at a sports-related event is as entertainment for men. We're obviously not there to support our team; we're there to be oggled. Not only that: Treating women as sex objects, segments like this imply, is a natural and even necessary part of being a sports fan.

But Canal 13 didn't stop there. Later that night, the talk show Tonka Tanka -- presided over by the generally well-respected and well-liked female host Tonka Tomicic -- featured a group of women in loin cloths performing a dance to the official song of this year's World Cup, Shakira's "Waka Waka." Obviously, sexism was only one of the objectionable elements involved here.

And it's not just TV. As one might expect, the mannequins in department store display windows here are decked out to support La Roja. While both male and female mannequins sport the national team's jersey, the way in which they wear it is frequently very different. The plastic men wear it the way the players do; comfortably loose. The plastic women, on the other hand, wear it hiked up to reveal their stomachs, pulled tight across their chests and knotted in back. And, of course, the ensemble wouldn't be complete without a pair of jeans unzipped to reveal -- that's right -- La Roja underwear.

See, ladies? You can be soccer fans, too! Just make sure you're sexy ones.

In no way do I believe that the female body is something to be ashamed of and covered up. What I do have a problem with is the objectification of women's bodies for mass consumption. And that is exactly what the World Cup media blitz is doing in Chile. Aside from the fact that sex indeed sells, this can be explained -- I believe -- by the male-dominated culture surrounding soccer here. The next time you walk past a pickup game or kids' soccer clinic at a Chilean park, check out the gender of the participants. If I had 100 pesos for every woman (myself excluded) I've seen taking part . . . I'd be poor. Men here are expected to be into soccer; although there are female fans and players (the latter of whom receive a miniscule amount of media attention in comparison to their male counterparts), the same expectation does not apply to women. Case in point: When my (male Chilean) roommate and I sat down to have a drink with our three new (male Chilean) roommates, one of the latter asked him if he liked soccer but didn't address the same question to me. A Chilean TV commercial I recently saw reinforces this stereotype: A woman gets increasingly frustrated while struggling to understand soccer before finally deciding she doesn't care. Lucky for her and women everywhere, this channel didn't get the rights to broadcast World Cup games and will be showing programs that won't make our pretty little heads explode.

It's far from shocking that the male-dominated -- and heteronormative -- universe of Chilean soccer fandom would incorporate women on its own terms: as objects of the male gaze. Which, in the end, is what soccer itself is perceived to be.

Sorry, Canal 13. I, for one, will be watching Chile's games in a red T-shirt. And I'm not going to knot it above my belly button.

I'm well aware that sports-related sexism is not limited to Chile. This ad proves as much. Therefore, I'd be interested to hear what people living both here and in other countries have to say on this topic. Please share your thoughts in the comments!


Eileen said...

100% correct, and de acuerdo. I try to just turn a blind eye to it, but I'm already grown, and it affects me. I can only imagine the number it's doing on the kids out there.

I was at a club recently where part of the event was progressively scantilyer clad (you know what I mean) women parading across the stage. An acquaintance of mine, who I happened to run into there said, "there should be men up there too, for you guys!" As if objectifying men the way women are objectified would somehow even the score.

Oh Chile, how we love you, warts and all.

Kyle said...

Booooo, I hate that.

I haven't seen any of these ads or women parades, obviously I don't get out much. But it doesn't surprise me.

In the U.S. I feel like soccer is the one sport that it's actually "ok" for a woman to like. It's considered too girly of a sport for the men, but a woman can watch a soccer game and unlike if she were to watch a football or basketball game or something, there wouldn't be ribbing about her being "one of the guys."

Abby said...

Yes, I hate this aspect too. And I hate that guys here assume I know nothing about soccer (or sports in general). I don't have a TV so I haven't seen the woman parades, but I can imagine what they look like and it makes me sick. I have seen the mannequins and thought the exact same thing as you did. I actually have a jersey but would never in a million years dream of wearing it like that!!!

dregonzrob said...

Isn't this everyday, with or without La Roja fever?

dregonzrob said...

Also the mannequins haven't changed... it's not like they brought in new, extra-sexy mannequins to don La Roja apparel.

Leigh said...

Eileen - Word.

Kyle - That hadn't occurred to me, but I agree. It's strange that a sport that plays such a huge part in the construction of a certain masculine ideal here is considered feminine -- or, I would chance to say, something one grows out of -- in the States.

Abby - I'm not a huge sports fan when it comes to following teams, but I do like to run out on the field and participate in athletic activities, and it drives me nuts when people here are shocked by this!

dregonzrob - I agree that sexism is a constant in the Chilean media, with or without the World Cup. That's one of the reasons why I keep my Chilean TV consumption to a minimum. Still, I think huge media events like the World Cup provide even more opportunities for exploitation (in that they provide more opportunities for media coverage period), and I think much of the Chilean media is definitely taking advantage of them, especially since sports are considered an overwhelmingly "male" interest here (and elsewhere). My beef with the mannequins is the stark difference in the way I've seen the World Cup outfits shown: sporty for men and sexy for women.

Anonymous said...

Come on, is not like women arent doing at lot of objectifying on their own.
When given the chance women are the same if not worse.

In my university was very normal to have some sort of events with male(and female strippers) dancing in stage and you could guess how women acted. And i think the same is happening on disco' events and stuff.
Unfortunetly for you soccer is not watched by the majority of women, so they arent the big target audience.
I dont even think the media cares about the national team, they just want to make a buck out of it(just like all business)

I think is all explained by that after pinochet, chile has becomed a sex crazed culture.
Lets just hope this starts to decrease to normal.

Leigh said...

Anonymous - I absolutely agree that women are just as capable of objectifying as men. And I agree with Eileen that objectifying men is no way to fight for equality. As things stand, however, there is MUCH more sexual objectification of women than of men in the Chilean media, and that's what I'm addressing here. To me, the type of objectification I describe in this post is unacceptable, regardless of who the target audience is.

As for Chile becoming a sex-crazed society after Pinochet, I haven't been here long enough to comment on the evolution of sex-related views and social norms over the past few decades. How much of the sex in today's Chilean media do you think has to do with the fact that the country's economic model demands competition and consumption -- and sex sells?

Anonymous said...

From what i remember when i was a kid in the late 80's, there wasnt any male/female models on tv showing Skin.
Everything was very conservative on the media, nothing like today.
Altough i remember a teacher talking about revistas show which were like burlesque's shows with humor.

The shift has just become obvious like when Tunick came to Chile and by the Popularity of guys like the Rumpy.