Gender Divides in the Language of International Soccer

In her historic work The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir lays out one of the most influential concepts of feminist ideology. In her work, Beauvoir articulates the notion that the female sex is secondary to the male sex and that this has persisted through time, formed by omnipresent patriarchy historically ingrained in societies around the world. Societally ingrained patriarchy has established the notion that males are inherently dominant, forcing women to remain stagnant in their second tier position.  

The essential features attributed to the respective sexes are societal manifestations, they are manufactured distinctions that do not correspond to reality. This is why Beauvoir states, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” This Beauvoirian concept of the second tier position of women is applicable to almost all areas of life, yet one of the most potent of its manifestations is our use, misuse, or disregard of gendered language that prevents women from progressing past this second tier position.

This last year I studied abroad in Paris, where these concepts and work were born and ironically, where I was almost continuously stuck pondering the question of how, in the eyes of society, my gender places me in a secondary position.  Having been an avid soccer player for seventeen years, I was interested in learning more about the gender divides found in international soccer, or football as it is referred to in France. I decided to take a class on the International Politics of Football at the local university Sciences Po Paris.

In recent years, women’s soccer has grown to have an large impact within the realm of politics . This was made evident in 2015 when the US Women’s national team won the World Cup and shortly after, same-sex marriage was legalized, a cause majority of the national team advocated for. The very idea of a woman’s presence inside a stadium has been politicized, viewed as a contentious issue. For example, In Iran, for the first time in 40 years, women were allowed to watch the World Cup inside a stadium this year. Many acknowledge that impact of sports and politics can be powerful, a title of an article in the Washington Post proclaims, “The World Cup starts today. It matters as much for politics as for sports.”

It is evident that within the international community, politics plays a key role in the issue of women’s soccer, therefore I expected the topic to have significant weight and focus during classroom discussion. To my disappointment, the class proved to be exclusively about the world of men’s soccer with little, to no mention of women’s soccer. Over the course of twelve three hour classes in the span of 4 months, the summation of time dedicated to discussing women’s soccer in  the course added up to a grand total of a 10 minutes at most. What is worse, is that these ten minutes were spent discussing how women’s soccer-in the words of my exclusively male classmates- “could never match up to men’s soccer since women would never be able to play at the same capacity as men.”

Remarks such as these along with the general lack of inclusion of women’s soccer in discourse about international soccer and its involvement with politics, led me to analyze how gender specific language is used when referring to the difference in men’s and women’s soccer. The gendered language present in the realm of soccer is a salient example of how the concepts outlined in Beauvoir’s Second Sex pervade all spheres of life.  

A Gendered Language and Rhetoric

As Ellen Lewin and Leni Silverstein proclaim in their work Mapping Feminist Anthropology in the Twenty-First Century, “ language is not merely a tool for reference—it is a social tool as well, reflecting outward for the speaker, shaping by his or her particular location in the sociolinguistic landscape. But language doesn’t just draw on experience; it also actively shapes experience” (Lewin71), language is not merely a means of relaying information, it shapes the way we perceive the world.

Gendered language molds societal structures, norms, and practices by implanting ideologies at a young age to individuals of both sexes and socializes us into a “normality” where women are perceived as inferior and second tier to men. This concept permeates almost every aspect of life and is pronounced in the real of international soccer.

The most potent form of gendered linguistics is that of gender marking. The English language in particular lacks gender suffixes and forms of gender distinctions by attaching gender notions to specific adjectives, verbs and even nouns. This form of word association to specific genders has primarily tangled itself into power relations and societal privileges that have allowed males to progress much further than their female counterparts. When applied to the context of women’s soccer, gender marking proves to be another way in which women’s sports are continuously linguistically made to be inferior.

As gender studies professor, Linda Fuller states in her work Sports, Rhetoric and Gender: Historical Perspectives and Media Representations, “by constantly defining and identifying women’s athletic events as ‘women’s’ athletic events while men’s athletic events are defined as simply athletic events, women are marked and identified as ‘other’ and men as the norm, the universal” (Fuller32). This is a concept which Beauvoir alludes in discussing the marked and unmarked language of femininity and masculinity that induces a positive or neutral connotation for men and a generally negative connotation for women. Moreover, this form of gender marking renders general human characteristics necessarily masculine, even though these activities are not inherently masculine.

One of the most prominent examples of this form of gender marking within the international soccer community is the language employed by FIFA during the World Cups. When one hears the words “World Cup,” the image and association that is automatically produced is of the men’s world cup and hardly, if ever, that of the women’s. However, the unmarked gender applied to men and marked gender applied to women is not exclusive to the way we speak in our private lives.  Gender marking is omnipresent in the media and marketing campaigns. For instance, during the most recent men’s world cup, all media, including advertisements and direct FIFA campaigns, singularly reference it as the “World Cup”. On the contrary, in the case of the women’s world cup, almost all forms of media,commercials, brand ads, and even official FIFA posters and slogans, included “women’s” in its title. In this way, the Women’s World Cup -and more broadly, women’s soccer- is placed in the position of the “other”, perceived as straying from the norm of men’s soccer and rendered second tier.

Descriptive linguistics has proven to be an exceedingly influential device of gender specification through language. In the realm of sports when we speak about females we often use a form of descriptive language that  focuses more on their physical appearance than athletic capability. This trivializes female involvement in sports. On the contrary, when discussing male soccer players, commentators often exclusively talk about their athletic abilities.

Take the examples of some of the most internationally renowned players from both genders. When commentating on male players such as Messi and Ronaldo, discussion is almost exclusively restricted to aspects of their play such as their speed, shot accuracy, and strength. Discussion surrounding internationally renowned female players such as Alex Morgan and Hope Solo however, is often sprinkled with comments regarding their physical appearances and even occasionally their sexual relationships.

Sexually descriptive linguistics is nefarious, ingrained in FIFA’s treatment and regard for international women’s soccer. This has been demonstrated in recent years through the former FIFA president Sepp Blatter. Although Blatter recently stepped down from his role as president due to a summation of corruption allegations, his time in office between the years of 1998 and 2015 exposed FIFA’s low regard and mistreatment of women’s soccer.  Those years were marked with numerable instances where female players were confronted with demeaning comments associated with their sex. Ironically, Blatter proclaimed himself the “godfather of women’s football”-due to the rapid international increase in the development of women’s soccer during his time in office- while simultaneously establishing FIFA to be a platform rife with misogyny.

In questioned on the subject of women’s soccer and players, Blatter often responded with comments such as “female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men – such as playing with a lighter ball, “that decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?” or most notoriously in 2004 when he claimed that FIFA could increase its global population of spectators for women’s matches if  “women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts.” As Fuller ascertains, “by concentrating on looks and sex appeal rather than athletic performance, women are not only symbolically denied athleticism but they are also forced to conform to standard, stereotypical, and ultimately constraining ideals of femininity” (34).

These assertions, from the head of the international foundation of soccer, perpetuate a sexualized view of female players that trivializes them as athletes. This trivialization perpetuates the notion that women are incapable of competing to the same level as males and must have other characteristics outside of athletic capabilities, such as their sexual representation or sexuality, in order to receive international recognition.

Questions surrounding the impact of different forms of gendered language used in everyday life has resulted in discourse regarding gender neutral language. Within the second wave of feminism, feminists advocated for a form of gender neutral language as a means to combat the negative effects of gendered language. Today, third wave feminism has began questioning how, in practice, does gender-neutral language effect women and their place in society. This has resulted in a pertinent question, whether the English language can be gender-neutral and if so, should it be practiced?

There have been attempts to disassociate certain words from their masculine connotations and create a gender-neutral language. This can be seen in a multitude of different fields, for example making words like “officer”, “actor”, “waiter” apply to both genders, rather than invoking their feminine counterparts like “actress” and “waitress.” Although the attempt to modify the English language to be more equitable is admirable, in practice, gender-neutral language has the opposite effect. It prevents women from achieving the same societal status as men.

Fuller remarks, “the concern about gender-neutral language is about representation and inclusion: does our language use lead us to ignore people in ways that promulgate inequality?” (Fuller76). Even if one attempts to reshape the definitions of specific words and word associations, the origin bases of them are built upon a male platform that is difficult to remold within patriarchal societies. As a result, instead of including women into these categories, women are often times excluded and ignored to a larger extent due to the automatic association with males. As sociolinguistics have proclaimed, “ostensibly gender-neutral terms are in fact implicitly gendered in use […] the illusion of gender neutrality neatly obscures the actual exclusion of women” (Fuller76).  These issues with gender-neutral language are salient in cases of gender specific language within the game of soccer itself.

Fuller applies the use of gender-neutral terms to women’s play, making the argument that the gendered language used in both female and male soccer has resulted in a form of a unisex language. The use of words such as “man” whilst playing are used so frequently in the context of both genders that it renders them ungendered. Although I myself often use terms such as “man on” in the non-gendered sense while playing, regardless of the fact that they are used in a non-gendered sense within women’s soccer, the origins of these terminologies is rooted in sport made for men.

Women’s soccer developed far later than male’s soccer for a number of reasons including historical illegality of women’s sports activities and resistance to female athletes driven by gender norms within almost every culture. As a result, the development of the language used while playing comes directly from a sport dominated almost exclusively by males. When women finally began entering the field of futbol , as it was originally called, instead of changing this form of gendered language, women’s soccer has incorporated it into play, especially in countries such as the United States, a country whose language is the same as the sport’s country of origin, England. In this way it has become non-gendered  when used by women. However,the fact still remains that the male exclusive terminology reiterates the fact that women’s soccer was and continues to be a secondary development to a male sport.

Within a similar context, examples such as these demonstrate the common usage of what is referred to as masculine generics. Within soccer, there is a constant use of male terminology that is inappropriately applied to the women’s game, such as the use of “man-on”. Similarly to Simone de Beauvoir’s concept of women as the second sex, Fuller states, “the use of masculine generic involves the linguistic presumption of maleness, a referent both to males and, generically to all human beings” (Fuller31). There are certain terms that are normally associated with males and therefore produce a male image when used. This is often the case with soccer, whether one is being gender specific or not, many terms used are automatically associate the sport with males rather than both genders.

Futbol- the Universal Sport, but is it in fact universal?

Even while overlooking my notes from the course of the semester, a question that was frequently posed in my International Politics of Football class was “comment le football est-il devenu un sport universel?” (How has soccer come to be the universal sport?). This is often a question that I also hear posed by coaches, trainers, and commentators. As a response, my professor would often explain how football is a method of unifying the international community as well as providing a sense of national pride. It is often referred to as the “people’s game” as it is accessible to individuals regardless of economic status, and lastly, one can play no-matter where they are or how many people they are with.

Although these aspects may be true,  when discussing the concept of “universality” it made me question whether this extends to all individuals. When further examined, the statement is shown to be untrue. The case of Iran demonstrates how the notion of “universality” in soccer is far from universal as women have for many years, until recently, been actively prevented from watching the sport. The discourse on universality in soccer only affords universality for men. As Beauvoir proposes, assertions such as these reiterate how language used to refer to humankind as a whole is restricted to denoting the male and therefore is not inclusionary to all.  

The use of gendered language and rhetoric in the context of international soccer has resulted in the general international regard for women’s soccer as being secondary to men’s and trivialized in comparison. This undoubtedly has influenced general issues that exist in relation to sexism in the world of soccer and leads us to question how much inequality between the two genders remains within FIFA. As a result, women’s soccer is hardly, if even, discussed and talk of the sport is limited almost exclusively to males.

In consequence, the mentality that soccer is,or should be, exclusively male persists and permeates societies around the world, further hindering the development of women’s soccer. These issues raise the larger question of what exactly needs to be done in order to allow women’s soccer to develop internationally, for the game to become truly become universal.

Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone De. Second Sex. Random House, 1974.

Fuller, L. Sport, Rhetoric, and Gender: Historical Perspectives and Media Representations. Springer, 2006.

Language, Gender and Sports.

Lewin, Ellen, and Leni M. Silverstein, editors. Mapping Feminist Anthropology in the Twenty-First Century. Rutgers University Press, 2016.