Published on May 15th, 2013 | by Seb
Life as a female football supporter
Natasha Bougourd from the excellent ‘Offside Rule’ podcast examines the disparity between the way fans of different genders and viewed and treated. This first appeared in Issue 2 of the ‘Good Feet For A Big Man’ fanzine. Purchase it here.
It strikes me as pretty weird that, in this day and age, people find it utterly bizarre that I’m a woman whose life largely revolves around football. I must admit, there are many people for whom gender never seems to enter the equation. I’m quite active on Twitter, where I talk football non-stop, and my opinions are often taken on board, agreed with, or if they aren’t, people will usually have a coherent and constructive debate with me. However, there’s been a number of occasions – usually from people I’ve never spoken to (they’re brave on Twitter!) who, if I post a controversial opinion, or simply one they don’t agree with, where I’ll get a response like “get back in the kitchen”. Really?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m more than able to take this criticism. It’s often from people who hide behind vague avatars and names. I do, however, delight in proving them wrong. Beating them to the ground with nothing more than a bit of wit and knowledge of the game. But it still stings with me a bit, that some men out there think that totally negates anything I have to say. To me, it automatically makes them look small-minded and childish, but it’s still incredibly frustrating to encounter. it is refreshing, however, when others back me up and criticise the blatant sexism I sometimes encounter.
I’ve been thinking recently, though, that sometimes gender differences in football support manifest themselves in different ways. More subtle ways, and ways that I feel I can’t pinpoint as negative. Take my trip to Bruges for example. 8000 Geordies, including myself and 5 male friends, and plenty of other people I’m familiar with, travelled to Belgium. Around 6000 of us, again including myself, didn’t have tickets for the game (despite the fact there were 11000 empty seats during the game, but I’ll leave that rant for another time), so the kind folks of Bruges city council put up a big screen in the city centre for us to watch the game.
We arrived in Belgium on the Wednesday night prior to the game, and went straight into the city to party. I hadn’t actually realised how many of us had arrived the night before, so I had chosen to wear a dress, assuming it would just be a night of clubbing. What it turned out to be, however, was thousands of Geordies in the square outside, dancing and singing football songs. MUCH better. I took great pleasure in joining in with the song being sang as we entered the square, “we are the Geordie boot boys”. In a crowd of thousands of men on the street, I was pretty much the only woman. I could see men leering at me as if they’d never seen a woman before. As soon as I opened my mouth and joined in the chanting, I could see the men around me stop singing, turning around in sheer shock as I sang my heart out for Newcastle United. I can only assume they initially thought I was a poor Belgian girl who’d chosen the wrong night to go out on the lash.
After the initial shock, I was welcomed by the other supporters. But I was treated differently than they treat each other. They’d shield me if someone walked past. A few tried to pick me up (particularly weird, as I’m not exactly dainty). A few, including people I’ve known through supporting Newcastle United for a while, asked me “what are you doing here??” as if it was completely implausible that a woman could travel to another country to support her football team. Men were protective over me, assuming that because I was wearing a dress, I was fragile and would shatter into a thousand pieces if anyone came near me. They were constantly amazed the more beer I drank (in that trip, I developed a penchant for Belgian beer, it’s delightful), the more I sang and jumped about energetically. I didn’t receive any properly negative reactions, but isn’t pure shock that I know something about football and am willing to follow my team all over the world negative? I think so.
Similarly, I often get told I know a lot of football “for a woman”. Why is that necessary? Why don’t you just tell me I know a lot about football, no extra clause added onto the end of the statement? At football matches, people assume I’m there for the men in shorts. I’m very vocal at matches, and again people are visibly shocked when I swear rather than slapping my leg and sighing “oh, bother” when a refereeing decision goes against us, or we concede a goal. My language is colourful, and I’ve been criticised for it before. I’m definitely the most vocal person in my season ticket block, but nobody picks up on the men who shout, swear, and get angry. I get told a lady shouldn’t swear. Even by some of my female friends. These little niggling stereotypes really bother me. I am, for the most part, accepted as a female supporter, but why shouldn’t I be able to express myself in the same way that is perfectly acceptable for a man?
Back to the fragile girl stereotype, I was told by a friend once that he specifically would not allow me to travel on a certain away coach because I’m a woman and “would be raped before I got to Scotch Corner”. I’m not naïve, but I highly doubt a group of football supporters are that animalistic. He later told me it was because it was a personal coach and only a specific group of friends travelled on it, yet he allowed others to travel. This smacks of hypocrisy to me, because I openly challenged his view that as a woman, I couldn’t cope on a coach full of drinking men. I must admit there are downfalls to being a woman on an away coach. I was the only female on a drinking coach to Reading last September and it was one of the best away trips I’ve ever been on, mainly because I’m almost as vulgar as the men. The one downside was the state of the toilet. But it’s manageable.
People are often surprised at the amount of injuries I get whilst watching my team. I consider a match unsuccessful if my legs are not suitably bruised afterwards. It’s that uncontrollable, limb-flailing reaction to your team scoring a goal that renders my legs black and blue, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I tend to ricochet off every surface when we score. I had a particularly bad bruise on my thigh last season after we beat West Brom 3-1 at the Hawthorns. I threw myself about which resulted in a hand-sized bruise on my thigh, which was on display for the next week due to the massive heatwave we had. People reacted to it with such fear and concern, you’d think a gang of men had beaten me to a pulp. I was asked if I’d been abused. Because I’m a woman, right? What a ridiculous assumption. As I write this, I have a bruise the shape of the folding-up chair from Wigan two weeks ago on my thigh, when I again bounced myself off the seat after we scored. I’m pretty sure I injured one of the lads I was sitting with because I was so uncontrollably happy. I wonder if he asked if he’d been abused? Unlikely. I’ve also had some painful injuries which luckily are not on show to people. I badly bruised my bum when we beat Chelsea in February. I sit on the end of an aisle and upon the equaliser, unbalanced myself and fell backwards onto the stairs. Fear not, I did not shatter into a thousand pieces!
In a way, it’s nice that my male friends are protective over me. I feel cared about. But when they don’t act this way with each other, it’s downright patronising. So thanks, lads, but I can deal with the physicality of football. The next time you think you’re being nice to your female friend who is also a footballer, think twice and ask yourself if it’s patronising behaviour. This and the utter shock of how animated I get during matches is proof that, although it’s not viciously so, football support is still inherently sexist in a way. And no, I absolutely will not get back in the kitchen. I’m a terrible cook. Bet you’re shocked at that!