By Carrie Dunn
Female fandom has been one of the most neglected aspects of football scholarship. My forthcoming book, ‘Female Football Fandom: Community, Identity and Sexism’ (Palgrave Pivot) represents an attempt to begin to redress this imbalance.
Few other studies focus on the experiential as narrated by the participants themselves, but it seems evident from my research – conducted as part of a PhD – that although every object of fandom and performance of fandom is different in both perception and practice, whether the individual is male or female, there are some significant overlaps in experience and performance among people who share a particular fandom.
Girls and women become involved in football fandom for many reasons, but among a significant proportion of my respondents the influence of their father often was regarded as the most important factor In many cases, a close relationship between father and daughter, cemented and maintained by their shared fandom, had continued throughout their lives.
However, this is not the only way in which female fans begin or develop their fandom; respondents also reported being influenced by mothers, other family members, friends and colleagues, and, after they had become involved for a time, some even choose to attend matches alone. It is evident that the traditional conception of football support passing from father to son is somewhat outdated; female fans can also introduce friends, family members, and their children to football, and initiate them into the fandom.
After being attracted to football through the influence of a significant person in their lives, women’s fandom is consolidated through regular match attendance. Most enjoy the social aspect of their fandom; many see their fandom as part of a family tradition, while others enjoy seeing their friends and chosen fan community, with very few viewing their support as a solitary activity. And fandom manifests itself primarily through the obvious display of attending matches, but female fans also buy, wear and display club-branded merchandise. Some spend time in fan activities outside the football ground, from supporters’ trust committees to writing for fanzines.
Something I found particularly interesting was that my respondents’ perceptions of overt, deliberate sexism in the context of their fandom were limited. This may be partly because female fans tend to choose to perform their fandom in a way that is not overtly marked as feminine; rather, they perform fandom in an unmarked, i.e. ‘normal’, i.e. ‘authentic’, i.e. ‘typically male’ way – they’ll wear trousers to the match; they won’t wear much if any make-up; they’ll try not to make themselves stand out. Females performing football fandom in this way do not highlight themselves as female or feminine, and are perceived (and perceive themselves) first and foremost as ‘fans’, not ‘female fans’.
One of my main conclusions is that sexism is an unspoken, covert dynamic operating within football; it is institutionally ingrained in the sport; and it doesn’t get criticised as the authorities refuse to take the lead in combating this form of prejudice. That means that sexist attitudes persist. Football clubs may say they want more women to attend games and that women are welcome to become football fans, but displays of women as cheerleaders at grounds and as ‘Soccerettes’ on mainstream football television indicate otherwise – as do the ever-criticised poor toilet facilities.
Of course, there has historically been an accepted popular myth that women have never attended men’s football matches with any degree of regularity, despite there being evidence that women have always been fans of the sport – and it is a possibility that the numbers of female fans in male professional football will increase over the next ten years as girls who have always played the game mature into financially independent womanhood. When I interviewed representatives from football clubs and the football authorities (the FA and the Football League), they seemed to think this might be the case, but they had very little data on female consumers of football, regardless of age, and regardless of how they consume football, whether it is as a player or as a fan, because there has been no research done in this field.
But what does seem clear from my research is that if women are encouraged to go to football, whether that is through advertising, marketing or encouragement from individuals close to them, they will certainly attend. There is nothing inherent within football as a sport that means it is male-only – indeed, the FAWSL, the elite league for women’s football, has just kicked off its season – but the attitudes from many fans, many clubs, the media and the football authorities in general creates an atmosphere and reiterates structures of institutional sexism, which means that significant numbers of women are and could continue to be dissuaded from attendance or even interest.
While it continues to be argued and accepted that football is a domain in which ‘historical’ ‘working-class’ values of maleness and masculinity can be exercised, explored and displayed, femaleness continues to affect football fandom. There might be no uniquely and uniformly ‘female’ experience of football fandom, but regardless, female football fans continue to participate in a male-dominated, institutionally sexist sphere where ‘male’ and ‘masculine’ values and behaviour are still accepted as the norm.
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