In 2015 I attended my first Women’s World Cup matches in Montreal. I watched Germany beat France in the quarterfinals, and then the United States beat Germany in the semifinal to advance to the final, which the United States went on to win. The stands were full of outsiders: women with babies, teenage girls with their faces painted in the colors of their teams and men there alone, all of us unburdened by the need to imitate a form of masculinity that the men’s game insists on as the price of admission.
I watched my first men’s World Cup on television with my father and brother in 1978, and here I was watching the World Cup of my favorite sport live, finally starring women.
I’d grown up thinking of men’s matches as something with an ever-present threat of violence: players ready to fight when fouled, to argue with referees, to dive and exaggerate the consequences of a challenge. Violence that was often mirrored by fans in the stands and after matches.
On the Women’s World Cup pitch, the players were liberated from that performativity. Those women wanted to play and had no time for time wasting. That liberation was echoed in the stands, where teenage girls — a demographic I rarely see in televised men’s games — surrounded me.
If queer is the opposite of heteronormativity, it was the queerest sporting environment I’ve witnessed. And joyously so. (It bears remembering that the women’s game has a history of openly gay players that the men’s game has yet to catch up with.)
It was wonderful because it wasn’t about being better than the men — it was about throwing out men as the metric. Feminism hamstrings itself when it holds up men and says, “I want the right to be exactly like that.” Feminism must want more. I’ve grown to love women’s soccer because it felt like an arena where we’ve figured that out.
But on Wednesday, in a first-round game of this World Cup, I watched the United States women’s team — the current world champions — take on Thailand, one of the weakest teams in this year’s tournament. The match felt like a rebuke of all that I have come to associate with the women’s game.
The Americans won 13-0 and celebrated every goal as if it were the first goal scored in the history of humanity. No one expected Thailand to defeat the world champions, but the way the American team celebrated the humiliation of a team with even less pay and resources was a master class in what we have come to call liberal feminism: If the men can humiliate opponents, then so can we! It’s a form of feminism that focuses on individual liberation from misogyny rather than working collectively to dismantle the systems and institutions — not just misogyny — that oppress all of us.
How does it benefit the women’s sport to celebrate the humiliation of a much weaker opponent? The American women’s squad knows what it’s like to have to fight to be taken seriously. They have taken the United States Soccer Federation to court for equal pay and access to the same resources as the men’s teams. All the women playing at the World Cup this year know what it’s like to have to fight for equal rights — remember that the first FIFA Women’s World Cup was only in 1991 — but to paraphrase George Orwell, perhaps some teams are more equal than others.
Let me be clear that this is not about insisting that women be “nice” to one another. I have just finished writing a book that encourages women and girls to be all the things that our world tells them not to be: angry, attention-seeking, profane, ambitious, powerful, violent, lustful.
So if it’s not about being “nice,” what should that match have looked like? I wanted the American women’s team to play with the confidence of the world champions they are, rather than the insecurity of the poor imitation of the men that their detractors accuse them of being.
I’ve been asked how I would have reacted if the men’s team had reveled in the humiliation of a much weaker opponent. Men are not my template. First, because the American men’s team has never been as dominant as the women’s team in world soccer: Unlike their female compatriots, they have never won the World Cup. But more important, I don’t want the American women’s team to be better than the men’s. I want them to be free from what is expected of the men. I want this Women’s World Cup to be that queer space I glimpsed in 2015.
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