During the month of June I was riveted to the TV. World Cup women’s soccer simply absorbed me. I’ve never been an athlete and in my mid-fifties I consider myself lucky to be able to do a few pushups. So watching women from around the world run, pass the ball with accuracy and throw their bodies to the pitch just blows my mind.
There are two things that demand my attention. The first is how far women’s sports has come and has yet to go; the second is how soccer challenges our assumptions about what it means to be female.
Equity and sexism
The American women, the winning team this year, have always believed they should compete with the same dedication as men. The U.S. federal law that required an end to discrimination in all fields of education, including sports, is over 40 years old. Yet there is still sexism in American sports; part of this is demonstrated by the difference in salary competitors receive. But progress continues to be made.
Women in other countries have been less fortunate. The young Columbian team fascinated the world when they beat France in a huge upset. But goalkeeper Catalina Perez told reporters that at home, the women face challenges. “Parents, men, not wanting you to play – ‘this isn’t a woman’s game; you’re manly.’”
Journalists Xanthe Ackerman and Christina Asquith report that clerics in the Middle East forbid girls from playing soccer because female sport is “the devil’s work.” In Africa, women have received death threats for playing, and violence against lesbian players occurs with frightening regularity. Moreover, last year one African women’s team accused another of cheating, saying that the players looked like men. The claim was dismissed by the Confederation of African Football, but it raises some questions that I think will have to be dealt with over time.
Strength and beauty
Female professional soccer players have a wide variety of appearances. Some have what we think of as female beauty in a traditional sense: pretty women with delicate features. They might wear make-up; a few sport fake eyelashes and painted fingernails. Some have long flowing hair and pink headbands.
But there is different beauty also. There is the beauty of grace – I’ve never seen anything like Columbia’s Lady Andrade dancing on the ball. And then the beautiful power and strength of strikers Christine Sinclair (Canada) and Abby Wambach (U.S.) simply amaze me. A guy I know said that they have muscles in their thighs that any man would envy.
Which brings up a delicate point. Long ago, before I ever studied gender closely, I would have looked the members of some of the women’s teams and said that they look like boys or men. Today I realize that females are so varied and diverse that the phrase “looks like a boy” is completely inappropriate. But we still are mired in confusion about gender and identity in our culture. Olympic decathlon Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn Jenner only highlights the fact that we know so little about what makes us who we truly are. In the months since Bruce announced he is transgender, we have seen Caitlyn in glamorous make-overs, demonstrating a vision of “female beauty” that hardly any of us can achieve on our own. What was it that made him know that he isn’t a man? What is it about hair and make-up that helps Caitlyn now know herself to be female? What are the differences between male and female? Are they created differences? Do they really matter?
I was talking to a friend of mine about this recently. He is Christian Reformed, steeped in the perspectives of John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper and Martin Luther. But he also reads a lot of the kind of science fiction that imagines worlds and beings beyond what we know. His worldview always challenges my own thinking, and he said something about gender that captured my imagination. He said, “I’ve always thought that things like being transgender were the result of the Fall. God created males in one way, females in a different way and everything else is a mistake. But maybe we have misunderstood. If you look at all the differences in human beings across time and cultures, maybe God created the wide variety. And maybe it is the Fall that has caused us to push all of gender identity into a binary of only two ways of being.”
Hmmm, food for thought. One day we will know more clearly. In the meantime, I am looking forward to soccer in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
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