On the night of August 16, Australia donned itself in green and gold and collectively assembled. Crowds of thousands swarmed city parks and stadiums, pub goers huddled shoulder-to-shoulder, and families at home scurried for the living room couch.
Gathering for the culmination of the FIFA Women’s World Cup semi-final, almost half the nation had its eyes glued to each fateful kick of the Matildas, like seagulls to a stray chip. The viewership even surpassed that of Cathy Freeman’s trailblazing victory at Sydney’s 2000 Olympics. Without question the event firmly inaugurated the Matildas as Australia’s most adored national treasure. If our country had ever felt divided, the pride in our women’s national soccer team decidedly unified us.
The sensational success of the Matildas has unquestionably sparked a cultural shift towards a greater recognition of women in sport, and society more generally — thrusting the perennial topic of gender equality into an unprecedented national limelight.
The ABC’s Patricia Karvelas hailed the rise of the Matildas as a “feminist cultural reckoning for our daughters”, where age-old sexist tropes had been “put to rest”. The Guardian’s Craig Foster ushered in a “new Australia” by way of the Matildas who “overturned misconceptions of women’s sport and… the place of women in contemporary Australia” through “extraordinary capability, courage and refusal to accept less”.
Lewis Martin, head of Channel Seven’s network sport, declared the team had “rewritten the history books”, while Tracey Holmes, writing for the Australian Financial Review, pondered whether Julia Gillard had ever considered such a progressive future following her “misogyny speech”.
Apparently, the cultural force of the Matildas has been so strong it has seemingly eradicated any traces of sexism or misogyny from the country.
Yet, as the Matildas ran national headlines, the Australian women’s netball team quietly secured its 12th uncontested victory at the Netball World Cup. And what do we hear from the media? Not a peep. This is not supposed to be a case of “whataboutism”: can we really claim the achievement of gender equality through the championing of women’s successes if we selectively cherry pick which are worthy enough to celebrate?
The value system that navigates such attention seems to largely predicate on the cultural interests of Australia — that is, Australian men. Sports such as AFL, cricket and soccer consistently rank among the most-watched sports in Australia. They are also the most male-dominated. The Australian Sports Commission reports that males accounted for 84 per cent of AFL participants, 88 per cent of cricket participants, and 77 per cent of soccer participants nationwide. It’s no surprise, then, that netball receives little attention given that 89 per cent of its participants are female, a stark contrast to the above sports, despite it having more participants in total compared to both AFL and cricket.
Caleb Bond, writing for news.com.au to declare that women’s sports were not “hogwash” while maintaining they “[weren’t] that exciting” compared to the men’s, epitomised the sexism behind our cultural values. “The point is that people want to watch a good sport… And most of the inferior quality offerings happen to be played by women,” he wrote. “It’s not a sexist thing.”
Sport, as an institution, has always excluded women, a trend that traces back to the inception of competitive sport, from the first Ancient Greek Olympic Games in 776 BC to the first Modern Olympic Game in Athens in 1896, and all the way until 1900 when the first female sporting group was formed in Australia.
Even sports that attempted to include women sought to confine them: netball, specifically conceived as “women’s basketball”, limited physical movement and restricted contact between players to adhere to societal notions of femininity. The emphasis on “masculine” traits such as assertiveness, toughness, strength, power and aggression in traditional sport maintains the male as dominant and superior.
Further, the distinct gender markings of women’s sports, such as the “Women’s World Cup” as opposed to simply the “World Cup”, seek to additionally entrench men as the default in both sport and broader society. So Australia’s cultural identity as defined by male sportsmanship continues to exclude much of our population, as women are expected to familiarise themselves with the rules, nuances and jargon of a language that has largely and historically been denied to them to participate in much of our national conversations.
Yes, the Matildas may be “empowering”, “inspiring” and “liberating” — but framing their success as a mighty feminist endeavour completely overlooks our structures, its flaws and ailments. It succumbs to the pitfalls of a liberal, post-feminist lens that falsely promises that equality can be achieved by simply offering women more opportunities and recognising their successes. It does nothing to critique that even if more opportunities were afforded to women, positions of power and authority would continue to be male-dominated. For example, 20 out of 32 teams in the Women’s World Cup are coached by men (including our beloved Matildas) and women only represent eight out of the 37 members in the FIFA Council. It places the onus of responsibility onto women to succeed under the guise of “empowerment”, “freedom of choice”, and “equal opportunity”, rather than dismantling the actual system that prevents them from doing so. FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, highlighted this when he addressed women in Sydney: “You have the power to convince us men what we have to do and what we don’t have to do. You do it. Just do it.”
Yeah, because women have definitely held bargaining power over men throughout history.
I, like the rest of the nation, have thoroughly enjoyed the success of the Matildas and the sense of pride they’ve instilled, along with the newfound dialogues they’ve ignited regarding female recognition and gender equality. But the Matildas’ achievements are not the feminist milestone they’re made out to be — only a testament to the sheer capability of women to excel in an inherently oppressive system. Until we address and dismantle the deeply ingrained sexism and misogyny within our societal structures, branding any achievement as “feminist” will not liberate you, me, or anyone else.