Mirror, mirror, on the wall, why do we compare at all?

 

In the absence of a long history of AFLW, it is tempting to assess its current state using the AFL as a proxy from which to make direct comparisons.

 

Indeed, I’ve noticed a myriad of ‘compare and contrast’ commentary amongst observers of AFLW this season. However, this could be counter-productive. Without careful consideration of context and perspective, over-simplified comparisons could prevent the AFLW’s distinctive style from flourishing and undermine a competition whose success is playing an important national role in a global social movement.

 

When AFL commentators ask each other who the best ever football team is – or was – aside from noting the strengths of each option, they often conclude that it isn’t fair to compare teams and individuals from different era’s. You might hear something like, ‘team X didn’t have access to modern training, so we just can’t know’. What follows are nods of approval. While statements like this might be interpreted as maintaining a sort of ‘player’s code’ that limits disrespect, those commentators are right. Such comparisons can make for fun banter, but how can they ever be equitable?

 

Yet when it comes to the AFLW, many commentators, supporters, detractors, and yes, even players, have so far had little trouble comparing the newly arrived AFLW to the long-established AFL. These observers do it in several ways. Two standout for their capacity to undermine the AFLW.

 

An obvious and ugly comparative approach is to denigrate player’s ability and the AFLW’s quality. In these instances, player skill, team speed and scoring, among other attributes, are punchlines intended to reinforce the view that women just can’t and shouldn’t play. Any shortcoming, no matter how subjective, is meant to justify keeping sportswomen off prime-time TV and away from the back pages. In other words, these comments push to keep women in their ‘traditional’ place, which supposedly isn’t on the sports field.

 

Perhaps owing to the viciousness of this kind of commentary, it prospers on social media and leaks into private conversations where these sites mutilate into contested spaces for AFLW legitimacy. In these spaces, a trickle can quickly deluge into a sick sport of its own. Whether mean-spirited or downright odious, these comments can hurt. I have seen them bandied about on social media a number of times during this season and the wave of bigotry must surely wear thin because it’s not simply words that have a powerful effect but also their volume.

 

From listening to what female footy players and viewers of AFLW have had to say about their experiences, I can see that it gets to the point where criticism becomes anticipated. This creates a dual battle of sorts. To use a sporting analogy, I imagine it to be like trying to win the games themselves and to prove a certain belonging by winning over already skeptical hearts and minds. Yet many of these hold an unfair standard, which is the AFL. I get tired just thinking about how I’d feel having to fight this never-ending battle.

 

This need to prove oneself in this space is an important issue because female footy teams are still winning games and achieving amazing feats of athleticism but not getting a whole lot of kudos. The (lack of) media representation, diminished pay scales, and that ‘memo’ point to how achievements in the women’s game are underrated and their contributions to society, undervalued. This reminds me of the plethora of literature that focuses on women in the workplace and highlights how they alter their work habits, communication and behavior just to fit in. So perhaps what I’m saying isn’t at all new and perhaps that’s the bigger problem, that it is still an issue.

 

Those who defend the AFLW on the grounds that it will achieve the same level of skill, speed and high-scoring if we only give it time is another complication in this debate. To be fair, I agree these areas of the game will improve as time goes on. How can they not? Given the AFLW is in its infancy, it’s impossible to see how the game won’t get more skillful, fast and high scoring. However, what if they don’t get to the same level? Will the AFLW be of lesser value and interest because of it? Will it really matter? I’d argue that even if these areas don’t improve beyond a certain level, the AFLW will be as entertaining as any other sporting brand.

 

Moreover, holding the AFL as the gold standard by which we measure AFLW quality and progress, even if well intended, might be re-emphasising male dominance in a sporting arena at a time we’d be better off supporting achievements and celebrating the differences and changes AFLW is bringing about.

 

So when we make comparisons, what’s important? I argue it’s a deep consideration of context. For example, often this second category of people, the ‘defenders’, will cite the low scores and poor skills of the men’s game from 100 years ago as supporting evidence that the women’s game is simply on the same trajectory. In broad terms, I’d say they’re right too. However, even these comparisons have their limitations. 100 years ago, players wore ankle high boots, wooly long-sleeve jumpers were the norm, grounds were terribly muddy in winter, and some rules were different, for example, you could kick it out on the full without penalty. Over 100 years ago, football was played in its own context and so comparing AFLW to what the then VFL looked like just over 100 years ago is useful but not entirely fair to either game.

 

I raise this point not to defend the men’s game from those who are merely trying to defend the women’s game. Love it as I do, the men’s game doesn’t need defending. I make this point to emphasise that comparing AFLW to AFL is limited and we do ourselves and those playing the game a dis-service when we make simplified and direct comparisons. This is because when we make these comparisons to the men’s game, we fail to appreciate and enjoy AFLW for what it is and for what it’s doing, right now.

 

By now I can hear a chorus sing – women have played footy before, so it’s not that new and what’s more, we’ve seen the game before so the whole kicking, contesting, tackling thing isn’t new either. While yes, many AFLW players have played the game for a long time, there are also a great deal of players who played in their youth but had to quit early or have come from other elite codes. When you add to this the unique elements of the game it means that large numbers of individual players are experiencing their bodies in new ways. Given it is a team game, this must surely make a collective impression too. This helps us to understand how women’s footy invites us to re-imagine and re-define what it means to be a female playing sport and perhaps even be female in our society.

 

At the present moment, there’s a change in the Australian football and social landscape. It looks and sounds different. It feels different, and we have Daisy Pearce and her band of sisters and the shoulders of those who came before them to thank for it. As I write, women and young girls around the country are watching other women performing on the national stage, on TV and in the papers and they can say to themselves, that’s me, or it could be. Young girls and women are taking up the game in enormous numbers. What was previously just a dream now shimmers with an open invitation to go ahead and play.

 

That is how I felt when I was little.

 

When I was aged 5 and full of wonder, footy was just about everything. My friends played footy, my relationship with my father was often mediated with an oval ball and 6 was my favourite times-table because it was the only one I could do without thinking (doesn’t every footy lover know that 15 times 6 is 90 and if you add 10 more, your team has probably won the game?). Using my imagination, I sat on my bedroom floor, drawing a speculative playing card of myself as a 300 game AFL veteran with a bagful of awards. It seems silly now but at that age, no matter how ambitious those dreams were, I knew it was a possibility. Evidently, so did my mum when I proudly showed her the handmade card of me taking a speccy. I pursued that dream with vigor and without the barrier of needing a team and a pathway to exist that would actually let me play. I couldn’t have done that if I were a girl. Not in the same way.

 

It saddens me to think how many young women didn’t play or stopped playing because they were told they couldn’t.

 

I’ve mentioned some of the positive social impacts but what of the game itself? What are some of the defining characteristics of AFLW? It’s a game of intense, repetitive contests. Lots of bumps, tackles and scragging. The level of desperation shown by the players at every contest across the game, every game is impressive and seems to have no correlation to the score line. Even games with big margins are still enjoyable to watch because everyone is giving it a real go.

 

There’s also a noticeable camaraderie amongst players from opposing teams and anyone who has witnessed the shared grief players display at some of the more serious injuries that have occurred this season will know what I mean. It’s wonderful to see. It’s also human. At the same time, there is an aggressive will to win. There is also incredible empathy and so the game shows us it’s possible to have both qualities.

 

Although I’ve argued against making comparisons between the AFLW and AFL, at times I’ve done exactly that. It’s not that we can’t compare the two but that we ought to be considered as to when and how we do it. Perhaps the usefulness of comparisons in this context is not in using it as a measuring device to reveal how much bigger or taller one is over the other and how much catching up the other has to do. I’d like to think we can be more productive and understanding in our comparisons. Perhaps we’d be better off if the comparisons were used like a sound recorder, catching the musicality of each code and allowing us to appreciate the context in which they exist.

 

As a male commenting on AFLW and writing about gender, I can’t help but feel that I’ve dived in the deep end. Perhaps, I should tread to shallower water. However, I’m excited by the changes AFLW might bring for our society as much as the game of AFLW itself. I also feel strongly that men can and ought to be invested in the support and celebration of women. Despite some progress, inequality of opportunity still exists and after a period of reading and listening to women’s voices, this is my way of giving back to the game I love and speaking up in support of women playing the game on their own terms.

 

Women playing footy at all ages and certainly at the elite level is a good thing for our society. It is empowering for female viewers and I believe it is great for men too. Playing elite sport and especially a historically masculine sport like Aussie rules helps us to see that the role women can play in footy is more than that of ‘canteen lady’ or mother cheering on the sidelines. It’s player, coach and whatever else they want to do. Moreover, given the popularity of our ‘national sport’, it extends beyond the playing field. Supporting women to play footy can have a pervasive impact on our society, in a good way. It can change our views of traditional gender roles and redresses the limits we’ve placed on women. It can provide us with an opportunity to re-evaluate the values we place around sport and performance and it can amplify new voices and new perspectives too. What will they say? Let’s be careful with the comparisons and instead watch and listen.

 

If we’re too busy comparing we might miss the beauty in change. We miss bearing witness to the mother pushing a pram at the local game and then running on to the field from the bench to lay a game saving tackle. We miss hearing of fathers spending more time with their kids as their partner goes to footy training. We miss the increased visibility of LGBT communities in everyday and historically masculine and hetro-normative domains.

 

We miss the opportunity to show young boys and girls that women can and should (if they want to) play. We miss women redefining what it is to be a woman, to play, to use their bodies with flair and aggression. And we miss the insights and unique perspectives that women can provide the game.

 

But if we pay attention, we’ll see them right in front us.

 

 

Comments

  1. E.regnans says:

    Love it, Trinity.
    Diversity is good.
    Thought is good.

    I like your closing sentiments, in particular.
    Thanks.

  2. Trinity Handley says:

    Thanks E. Glad you liked it!

  3. Yvette Wroby says:

    Wonderful Trinity. I have been watching the ‘beauty of change’ and celebrating. Thank you for your contribution. I watch every game and enjoy the joy.

  4. Trinity Handley says:

    Thanks Yvette. Isn’t it fantastic!?

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