Women, football and violence: The ugly side of the beautiful game?

An edited extract from Lawrence, S. and Pipini, M. (2016) ‘Violence’. In Cashmore, E. and Dixon, K. (eds), Studying Football, London: Routledge.

Football has long been thought of as an arena through and in which masculinity is made and/ or proven. Supposedly, it is a social sphere in which ‘men can be men’ by acting on their most primitive of urges. For many, the physical duel between men is a way for participants to prove they are strong, battle-hardened, tough, heterosexual and self-sufficient. Striving for such “ideals”, however, at times has lent itself to aggressive behavior, which often spills over into violence. In turn, violence and aggression, to varying degrees, have become closely tied to traditional masculine approaches to playing and watching football. Football has been accused, therefore, of fostering a culture through and in which hegemonic masculinity – a kind of masculinity that is defined largely as aggressive, heterosexual, white, homophobic, sexist, authoritative and physical  – has been glorified and promoted as the most normal way to “be a man”.

Historically, stories of male violence at football matches, rather predictably then, have been most forthcoming. The death of a volunteer assistant referee, who was kicked to death following a vicious attack at a junior football match in Holland, and the decapitation of a referee in Brazil, after the official had reportedly stabbed a player, are but two recent, international examples. Even so, and while it true to say male football violence is certainly better reported and researched, there have been numerous recent examples of football violence involving women, including the University of New Mexico’s YouTube “star”, Elizabeth Lambert, who was filmed punching and kicking opponents – even yanking viciously a competitor to the ground by her ponytail. Thus, from the United States’ goalkeeper Hope Solo, who was arrested in 2014 after accusations of domestic violence, to reports of a female fan in Paraguay throwing scalding hot tea over a match official at a game between Olimpia and Paraguayos Unidos, violence by women is certainly not unheard of. Additionally, to make the point that this is not simply a twenty-first-century phenomenon, Matthew McDowell points to a historical example from 1898, present in the Port Glasgow Express and Observer, which describes how ‘a general scuffle’ broke out amongst female football supporters after a match, leaving one woman hospitalized. It is important to note here, therefore, that violence is not irrevocably tied to men. As such, we might also say the same about masculinity. To this end, masculinity in football might be thought of better as a part of the dominant culture; a performance; an action; a language; a state-of-mind; in which both males and females might engage.

To elaborate further, Carrie Dunn’s work on female football fans illustrates how women and girls are keen to present themselves as ‘normal’ and/ or ‘authentic’ members of the football community. In order to do this, Dunn argues that women present themselves in ‘typically male’ ways and refrain from disclosing too much of their femininity for fear of undermining their ‘authenticity’. Not only does Dunn’s work, therefore, mark mainstream football culture as ‘masculine’, it also reveals how women, too, might police the game’s association with traditional masculinity and male interpretations of football, for instance, by way of their opposition to other females ‘who are too overtly feminine in their dress at football grounds’. In turn, as opposed to viewing violence as a problem deeply ingrained in the male psyche, one way to respond to Dunn’s call to interrogate and challenge the stereotypes associated with females in football is to document women’s and girls’ perceptions of and involvement in football violence. Future research might then wish to add to the literature on women in football, which rightly continues to illustrate matters of “sexualisation” and “stigmatization”, by considering football’s role in promoting cultures of violence amongst female participants and spectators.

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