Women’s AFL — it’s more than just a game

By Dr Kellie Sanders | 23 Jun 17
AFLW women in sport

The profile of female AFL has ballooned in the past twelve months with the popularity of the women’s exhibition matches on free-to-air television, national talent searches, and the inaugural season of the VFL Women’s in 2016 demonstrating not only to the public but to the AFL that Australia does have enough depth of talent to host a national women’s competition.

As a direct consequence of its popularity, the inaugural AFLW season has given rise to a host of media coverage, which seems to have driven up participation rates in female Australian Rules football with 50 teams playing across local leagues in 2017 and a further 80 registering interest in fielding women’s teams. But what happens when the novelty value wears off? What memories and representations of women’s football are we left with, and how will grassroots women’s football remain affected?

Over the past six months we have witnessed contentious discussions in the media on women’s football at an elite level (AFLW) around pay and rule changes; loose questions around gender “equality” and access to resources; the celebration of women and girls seeing themselves playing the game they love; and the “dreams have come true” stories of a handful of players such as Moana Hope, Melissa Hickey, Darcy Vecsio and Sarah Perkins.

There has been reflection on the sheer popularity of the opening match and the ‘lock out’ at IKON Park; the general surprise of the AFL in terms of just how popular the women’s game has proven to be; the code switchers; and we have born witness to a host of “firsts” such as the first AFLW grand final and the first AFLW premiership “ring“. Despite women playing football (literally) for generations, the “firsts” keep coming. One can’t help but question whether the media coverage has been fuelled by women’s participation as a novelty and leads one to wonder, what will be left for women’s football when the novelty of the AFLW wears off for 2017?

Historically, women’s football has been represented by a butch-lesbian stereotype, which has emerged from grassroots women’s football over decades. This perception has not been one which accurately reflects the sexuality or desire of players, rather the butch-lesbian ideology has been used as a mechanism to draw into question the gender of female players in an effort to maintain the heteronormative ideology of football as a male only space.

With the advent of the AFLW, the media has played a significant role in shifting the public perception of the women’s game through an elite lens. If you read across a range of media outlets, you will see varying representations of the elite version of the women’s game. The “first” reports of a women’s match reported in the newspaper took place in 1917 and in some ways, little has changed. Indeed the authors of Play On! The Hidden History of Women’s Australian Rules Football note that “reporting had a knock-on effect, so that other women’s matches being played around the same time were also reported”. Women and girls increasingly see themselves as footballers as the AFLW has come to life in the public domain, with visions of elite female footballers represented through print and online media, local participation in Auskick, through to the women’s league.

Indeed, the perception of what constitutes a legitimate footballing body has grown in some ways, but when the hype wears off, what memories and representations of women’s football will remain?

The butch-lesbian stereotype has traditionally been used by disapprovers as a mechanism for de-legitimising women’s participation in football, serving to present football as only legitimate for masculine-embodied subjects. But women who play football may embody gender and sexual identities as diverse as anyone else in the community while still embracing the full contact demands of the game on the field. Media coverage has picked this up by representing the “bodies of the AFLW” in a range of ways, though there are several notable depictions of female footballers dictating the conversation.

Media attention has been attracted to a range of typecasts in the women’s game. For example there has been the strong and powerful imagery of Sabrina Frederick-Traub and the fresh-faced school girl look of Katie Brennan. Other depictions have included the diehard player represented in the expressive passion of Sarah Perkins and the lesbian representation of the female athlete in action. The representations of women’s football you have been fed will depend on the media outlets you expose yourself to. Where some publications depict feminine embodiments of gender, such as Katie Brennan and Daisy Pearce, others expressly represent athleticism in action, or display the physical, full contact nature of the game. While some images of physicality in the game are gender-ambiguous, the historically male-dominated lens through which we view football often leads us to assume these players are male.

What is interesting here is that the media we have been exposed to shapes our perceptions of the women’s game and an analysis could associate certain representations of gender embodiments, sexualities, class, and ethnicity with different media outlets. To identify the lenses through which female footballers are presented and represented in the media helps us to recognise the scope of female football embodiment and subjectivities. But what will remain of the public perception of the women’s game when the gloss of the AFLW wears off and the media attention dies down? What residues will this leave on the experiences and representations of women’s football at the grassroots level?

For many girls and women, playing football is not a novelty but a part of their everyday lives. Pre-season training and seasons are structured around work, study and family commitments, and for many players, past and present, the desire to be seen and heard comes second to making sure their team is able to garner enough support (committees, coaching, grounds, resources) and players to maintain viable teams with each passing season. Yet, with the exception of the popularity in young girls joining Auskick, the voices and representations of these grassroots teams are absent in the media, while the elite female version of the game is celebrated. You might argue that this is raising the profile of female football, which is a welcome boost to teams and clubs. Yet it is also creating an invisible challenge at the local level.

Not all players can or desire to play at elite levels. As in any sport, it takes enormous dedication- years of training, learning and resources, and the right context to play at a professional level. The media has represented AFLW as something achievable through the good news stories and the “dreams come true” narrative, but as with any professional endeavours, playing football at an elite level is not something you can walk into and expect to achieve easily or quickly, and certainly not glamorously.

Investment and recognition of women’s sport is significant not just at the elite level but at all levels. Presentation and representation of females engaging in sports in local communities sends powerful messages about the rights of women to be present and represented in community sporting spaces, the social construction of heteronormative gender ideology, the diversity of women’s bodies and the capacity of active women’s bodies as distinct from passive female bodies. Seeing, supporting and representing women in grassroots sports is much more than just a game.