Women kicking balls
By Anne Myers
It’s Friday afternoon and I’m heading to the footy. Amy Winehouse croons to me down the Calder in a way that has me yearning for a dingy downstairs bar, not a seat in a stand. I adjust the rear-vision mirror and accidentally catch my eye. I quickly look away; I can’t face myself just yet. You see, I don’t do football.
The gates are open, I hear on the radio. A ping from PF – he’s checking up on me, seeing if I’m there yet, that I should get a move on, or I might miss out. I stop for petrol. Two girls in front of me are wearing Collingwood jumpers. “I haven’t taken it off all week,” one of them says when I ask if they’re going to the match. It’s at Prinny Park. I’ve run round the thing that many times, though I’ve never been inside the actual ground, so the only nostalgia I feel for the place is my lap times and how slow I’d be now.
The LARPers in Park St have hogged my secret parking spot; I forgot about them tonight. They’re all set for the evening on another (footy) oval, replete with swords and shields and beer; it looks like fun, more fun than footy. In the end I park next to the cemetery. It’s close to kick off and the roar from the crowd fills the back streets and laneways. The packed stands mean I don’t get to meet up with my friends Siobhan and Robbie until after the final siren. I run into other friends, Amanda and Mick and Georgie, who have a precious spare seat.
In front of us is sixteen-year-old Lili Gibson, here with her mum. She plays for Croyden Blues and has been selected to train with the Stingrays Development Squad. Now, her dream is to play for Carlton. She shows me how to do a panoramic shot on my phone but all I manage to photograph is the back of her head; oh well, it might be famous one day.
It’s close in the stands. Every movement on the field is matched with movement and sound all around me. I’m part of the field. Even if I close my eyes, it’s there, I can feel it. On my right, my friend Amanda tears up. She’s here for the occasion, like I am, like everyone is. It’s big.
As I walk back to the car after the game, the night sky is splintered with stars, a lone bat flies overhead and the plane trees swallow me whole. I wonder about what just happened tonight.
When it was suggested I write a piece on women’s footy, I initially said no. The little I know about footy comes about by osmosis, not because I love listening to Gerard and Robbo bang on about whatever, but because I live in a house where I see and hear things in a muffled-through-the-wall kind of way; it’s not that clear to me, but I get the gist. Still, I’m an outsider to the game itself, for tackles and half-passes and holding the man (besides the movie) remain a mystery.
Then I watched a family playing beach cricket and it was the girls who caught my attention. I watched them chasing the ball, athletic and agile, grabbing at the bat when it was their turn, unwilling to give it up when they were bowled out, then laughing and whooping it up for the fun they were having, and I recognized myself in them. I’d just finished reading Clementine Ford’s Fight Like a Girl and I was electric with ideas about gender in society and suddenly women’s footy seemed like the perfect subject to be writing about. I could tackle it from a perspective that I understood.
As a kid growing up in the seventies, I jeté’d my way through most Saturday afternoons. I was slender, graceful(ish), all pink tights and tutus, and on competition days, way too much blue eyeshadow; I was not undeserving of the label “girl.” Unbeknownst to me, by taking my place at the barre, by being light on my feet and quietly moving through the space around me, (and not taking up too much of it), I was well on the way to fulfilling the acceptable social ideal of what it was to be “feminine.” “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman,” wrote philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir.
As I stood in the wings on concert night, at age ten, fingers constantly touching my false eyelashes to ensure my eyes weren’t being glued shut, with my shoulders back, and head poised elegantly, ready to float out onto the stage like a butterfly, I would force my smiley face into position knowing that this was what was expected of me, if I was to make it. I already knew that the girl standing next to me wouldn’t make it, even though her smile was more impressive than mine, for she’d been told her thighs were too large. It was sold to us that looking pretty would distract the audience from looking at our feet, in case we made mistakes. I didn’t realise I was being set up for a lifetime of this.
In my teens I hung up my tutu and picked up a cricket bat. It was a relief to leave the leggings behind and to know I didn’t have to smile on command. The light-on-my-feet boast had diminished somewhat as I’d grown into my body, and I’d realised I wasn’t going to be that desirable Mia Farrow-esque waif. By stopping ballet I thought I could stop pushing against the expectations of what I should look like and just be. There was nothing pretty about the collection of bruises I soon accrued on my right thigh because I was shit on the leg side; or the boney lumps all along my shin because my fielding was worse, but I loved it. After school we would change into our gear and walk down Warrigal Road to the Oakleigh Cricket Club.
One day, Miss O’Toole, the Vice Principal at our Catholic college, saw us leaving and stopped us. “Where are you going? she asked, aghast that, as young ladies, we were not in school uniform and were wearing shorts. “Cricket!” she said, her face filled with disgust. She threatened us with detention if we left the school dressed like that again. In a way her reaction satisfied the rebel in me. It meant at sixteen I was veering off the socially acceptable pathway of becoming whatever was deemed to be the appropriate behaviour for my gender. Cricket didn’t appear to be on the list. I don’t think I gave a shit about what others thought but there was an inkling that I was playing a game that was stereotypically masculine and how could I make that work for me when I also wanted to be a “girl/feminine” and have boys like me. It was as though society didn’t want me to have it both ways and I had to somehow “fit in” to an environment that wasn’t flexible enough to accommodate and welcome difference.
I wish I didn’t have to put the qualifier “women’s” in front of the word “footy,” and that I could just write about footy and everyone would know I was being inclusive, but I’m getting ahead of myself. (I mean the Australian Cricket Team couldn’t be called the Australian Cricket Team could it? It’s named the Southern Stars. Because of course we know the Australian Cricket Team defers to the men’s team. Could it be the next step, to simply have the Men’s Australian Cricket Team and the Women’s Australian Cricket Team?)
I live in a state that hyperventilates on AFL for increasingly longer periods of each year. The game is a maypole, and everyone knows their place, weaving in and around each other. But I’m standing over near the edge of the meadow being offered a ribbon, and I step forward a few paces to take it and then change my mind and step back.
Sometimes I wish I liked footy more. Each season I tag along to at least one match to see if my feelings have changed, and each year I catch the train back home and think, nope, not this year, what was I thinking? It seems crazy to spend time worrying about why I don’t like something when there are oodles of other activities I love doing, that would require no worry time at all, but my desire to get along better with footy, at a personal level, is simple. I live with PF who loves the game – who spends an inordinate amount of time watching footy panel shows, travelling on V/Line trains to and from games, attending said game and enjoying the company of his footy-loving people – and I love being with him. So when you love hanging out with someone who loves hanging out with all of that, therein lays the challenge (and lack of time together). I can hear a disappointed Clementine Ford in my ear saying, “Fuck him. Don’t live your life through his, Anne, live your own life.” And I do. I just worry sometimes our paths don’t cross enough and sharing lives both ways may be our weakness at times. I do envy the sense of community that goes with the game and I do love the friends I’ve met through PF and it’s natural to want to be swept up in their excitement, week in, week out, the post-game analysis, the plans for hooking up when and where, the beers. Who doesn’t want to feel a part of things? But at the same time I have to be honest with what moves me; and up to this point it hasn’t been footy.
On another level, the (mostly) white cis-male dominated world of the AFL fails to impress me; a microcosm of patriarchy at its worst. I’ve never followed a team, or been invested in match minutiae, so I’m not privy to those transcendent moments of brilliance which might bring some balance, or help excuse the things I see (not that I should have to, but what often seems to be the case). What I do understand is that this hyper-masculinized world fosters a distorted sense of entitlement and privilege among young men. Men who behave badly — sexual assault, domestic violence, drug allegations, general arsehole-ishnesss and misogynistic behaviour — are still rewarded with media contracts and club drafts and pats on the back, because they’re seen as “good blokes” (with mandatory footy CV attached). It’s these men, past and present, within this protected universe, who use the game to enforce their idea of masculinity, wrapped up in the club colours of acceptability, who keep me away from the game. To attend a match is to support this culture.
Then last August something magical happened. I watched an episode of Australian Story titled For the Love of the Game, and was introduced to Susan Alberti and Moana Hope. I listened to their stories, to the terrible personal losses they’d experienced in their lives, and to the firm friendship they’d forged through their love of football. Here was an alternate universe opening up to me; a separation of the game from the men, and incredible women stepping out onto the oval. Susan Alberti, a public figure, pouring momentum and money into the women’s game, and not afraid to challenge the status quo. Moana Hope, with her heart and tatts on her sleeve, and a kick to match. Here were women who embodied everything I aspire to: determination, toughness, and a humility and gentleness of soul. I hardly took a breath watching that episode. I was back out on the field somewhere on a Saturday afternoon, and the oval was filled with Moanas, and I wished she’d been around when the tutu was being tossed. Best of all, she didn’t subscribe to the idealised version of how women should look and behave in a society that still places such emphasis on this. She was Moana Hope on her own terms, and here she was, playing footy at an elite level. I felt so proud. I lay in bed that night and thought if this is what footy is about then I could fall in love with the game.
A week has passed and I’m back at Prinny Park. It’s for research, I say to myself, but my eyes are bright as I sit with Kellie at Tiamo’s and wonder how the feel will be this week. On the tram, I spy a backpack covered in badges of AFLW players. Instinctively, I reach out and touch them. I think I’ve spoken to the backpack’s owner first, but I can’t be sure. Her name is Steffi and she plays footy for Melbourne Uni. The badges are the players from her club and there’s a few of them, seventeen to be exact. I see Moana Hope is there, too, even though she isn’t a Melbourne Uni player. “Oh, everyone loves Moana,” she says, and gives her bag a squeeze.
At the ground there’s breathing space in the stands; a more settled-in pleasure, perhaps relief at getting through that first week of bursting-at- the- seams excitement. It’s now down to business – women playing footy. The physicality astounds me. It is joyous to watch them smashing into each other, not holding back, giving everything. I am connected to the lived experience of the female body, so I am out there, too. It is a privilege to be watching the beginnings of this competition. I feel a sense of loyalty to Moana, as she stands there, hands on hips, a bit lonely at times, for I want her where the action is, but I’m not sure about hooking up with team Collingwood, (for all my non-footy knowledge this one is strong for some reason) so I’m feeling torn.
“I think I’ll just follow women’s footy,” I say to Kellie, to avoid making any decisions.
“Nah,” she says. “It’s more exciting if you follow a team.”
Right now though it’s enough to be sitting here and watching the game unfold, to enjoy having these women playing at an elite level. To have their stories being heard, to hear their incredible workloads around jobs and training, of the cows they’re milking, the kilometres they’re driving for training, the annual leave they’re taking so they can play the season, and that everyone seems to know someone who plays women’s footy. For example, Collingwood’s Stephanie Chiocci works at Kellie’s partner’s son’s school as a PE teacher (and they love it), and Carlton’s Darcy Vescio is Robbie’s cousin’s daughter, so without even trying I’m somehow connected.
And for anyone feeling uncomfortable about women’s football being given a larger platform: good. As Clementine Ford writes, “If you’re genuinely interested in becoming part of a better [football] world then take that discomfort and use it to find a better way.” This is women’s chance to shine. If you’re not on board, history will roll on without you. There’s been a huge shift since I started writing this piece. Turns out, I do like the game. It’s the culture that comes with men’s footy that I don’t like. For now, I don’t have to worry about whether I like men’s footy or not. I still don’t. And I’m definitely a fan of footy: women’s footy. It’s diverse, inclusive, it’s comfortable with what it is on its own terms, so it can only get better. I just hope the AFL looks after the women’s game as well as the men’s.
There’s still of lot of decisions being made by men and that makes me nervous. I want the word “women’s” in front of the word “footy.” It’s the women who get me excited about the game, who give me shivers; and shivers don’t lie.
My friend Siobhan (diehard Doggie supporter) was trying to pinpoint exactly why she was enjoying the women’s footy so much. “The first weekend was amazing but it wasn’t until I was sitting at the Whitten Oval watching the week two game, when I realised what I was really loving: overwhelming positivity, happiness, love and good will. Here I was in a crowd of people, all ages and backgrounds, young men, young women, families, gay, straight, older couples, young couples, friends, football lovers and newbies, all happy, enthusiastic, excited, celebrating something new, all ‘getting on board.’ In this fucked-up world where most news is so depressing, where people are disengaged, disappointed, distressed, where women are so often under-valued, under-paid and often unsafe, I was a part of something wonderful, something celebrating women. I also really enjoyed the footy, even though we lost. I couldn’t help but enjoy it. I think we needed something this wonderful.”
When I arrive home after the match, the house is filled with friends who have been to see Bruce Springsteen at Hanging Rock. The bottles of red are flowing. Earlier in the evening, one of our friends had asked PF what I was up to tonight.
The friend laughed as he said: “I suppose she’s gone to the footy.”
“Actually, she has,” PF replied.