England Women's Football: It's Nationalism for Feminists and Feminism for Conservatives
When did it become unacceptable to say 'I don't care about football'?
England Player Lucy Bronze’s Image On a Can of Pepsi Max
If media coverage is indicative of anything, the biggest women’s football match in UK history is happening tonight, and I will be very enthusiastically doing absolutely anything other than watching it. Anything, really. Why? For the best and most justifiable possible reason – because I don’t care about football. Men’s. Women’s. Anyone’s. Up until a few weeks ago, neither did any of the women I know. So, this isn’t really a column about football. It’s about something far more interesting – nationalism and British identity smuggled inside women’s football, a can of Pepsi, and an immigrant perspective on a bizarre schism within British culture.
I watched comedian Bill Burr’s comedy special Live at Red Rocks last week, and comparisons to women’s football in the UK – where I live – seemed unavoidable. In typically obnoxious form, Burr blamed women for the relative obscurity of women’s basketball in the US. “Where are all the feminists? That place should be packed with feminists… None of you went to the f*cking games. None of you. You all – you – failed them. Not me. Not men. Women failed the WNBA.” While watching, I drank a can of Pepsi Max (I know; you think Coke is better). Looking down at it as Burr took a verbal flamethrower to much of his audience and my entire gender, it occurred to me that I hadn’t even a vague idea who the female athlete prominently pictured on the can was.
I did what any self-respecting journalist would do to gather infallible and totally concrete scientific data; I ran a quick poll on Instagram. I placed the following question gently into the open maw of the internet:
Ninety-six per cent of the people who responded were (like me) unable to name England right-back Lucy Bronze. When I ran the poll, numerous women messaged me through Instagram to say things like ‘I feel really bad. I don’t know who this woman is’; and ‘I responded no, but I don’t know male footballers either so hopefully that makes it slightly less awful that I don’t know who she is?’. Several sent me clapping emojis for having asked the question. I can only guess that this praise was based in a presumption that I was suggesting people should be able to name a prominent female footballer on a can of Pepsi. Let me disabuse you – I wasn’t suggesting anything of the sort. If you don’t know about or engage in women’s football, who cares? Why isn’t ‘I don’t care about that’a value-neutral statement? Should something that doesn’t interest you become more interesting based on the gender of the people involved?
Apparently, yes. The odd, pervasive guilt suggests women understand that they should care. The cultural zeitgeist is conveying very clearly that caring about women’s football (this week, anyway) is the virtuous feminist position. A couple of things are clear – firstly, people in the UK do not have an intrinsic commitment to women’s football as a sport. If you take the word ‘England’ out of the phrase ‘England women’s football’, nobody cares. People are not going to minor matches in any numbers. The current passion for women’s football in the UK is utterly extrinsic – characterised mainly as what is valuable as a means to an end, or for the sake of something or someone else. The obvious question arises – what is that end?
This evening’s match will be aired by the national broadcaster, the BBC, which is staffed (like all media institutions) by the people who decide not just what is for public consumption, but what ought to be for public consumption. The BBC is – of course – where you will find all the ‘fabric of the nation’ stuff broadcast within the UK. The solemn royal events and militaristic rituals. The Queen’s annual Christmas message, Comic Relief, Dr Who, James Bond reruns (probably not for much longer), sporting and political events, and, apparently, Antiques Roadshow for some reason (it’s been running since 1979). The BBC is the omphalos of modern and historic British culture and identity, broadcasting the things that make Britain, Britain – the things that reflect the UK as it is, and the things that reflect it as people in value-setting roles think it should be. Women’s football is now (apparently) one articulation of Britain as they think it should be.
The difference-maker here – what sets the present media frenzy for women’s football apart – is that word which has become somewhat grubby and frowned upon, especially in the context of a former imperial power. Nationalism. People are watching these matches because sport is one of few remaining socially acceptable conduits for nationalism, and English people want to celebrate England and the UK more generally. With its recent and distant colonial past and rather squiffily pervasive calcification of social class, celebrating national identity can be challenging in a world which equates nationalism with dangerous provincialism or, at its furthest extreme, fascism.
To celebrate England and the UK as a concept and set of values, British people will engage in interests or activities that they would usually reject. In fairness to them, sport can have this effect on all of us. We want to support our local or national team, particularly when there is a sense of shared experience around a big match – it is unifying, magnetic, and fun, but it is worth thinking about what these impulses are really about and whose interests they serve. Under the influence of this collectivising nationalistic impulse, people without any interest in women’s weightlifting or gymnastics will watch the Olympics to support the team representing their country.
That seems nice enough, until they suddenly start talking about obscure sports like curling and luge (Google it) and using terms like ‘wind drag’ and ‘hog line’ as though they are lifelong fans. Sorry if you’re one of the (at a guess) twelve people globally who is ‘big on’ luge. I don’t doubt for an instant that both sports require immense dedication and accomplishment at such a high level. Still, the average Briton is not filling their shelves with books on luge or donning a helmet and *checks notes* ‘booties’ to run out every weekend to the *checks notes* luge track. What they care about in that instance (as amid the current woman’s football mania) is nationalism. Not a particular sport, or women, or women’s sport in general. This is simply national pride with a less angry hat on.
It’s a brilliant means of subtly channeling both centre-left and centre-right people into a safe place that aligns with elite British values. If you’re a woman who doesn’t care about football, you may be encouraged to take part performatively out of precisely that sense of gender fealty – expressing your extrinsic interest. You don’t really have to care; you just have to take part in order to help instantiate this aspect of national identity. In participating, you don’t need to identify as a woman so much as British, or English if that’s more geographically accurate for you. This participation is a powerful force for homogeneity, which is a real help to the people in power who are tasked with keeping the wheels on a country that struggles mightily with its past.
Perhaps typically of an Irish person (who is writing this in English mainly because my ancestors were outnumbered and had crappier weapons), I don’t think of British nationalism and its various articulations as a particularly good thing. I find its stealth-articulations just as distasteful as its overt ones, if not more so. Getting involved in enthusiasm about the women’s team is a safe way to celebrate English and by extension British identity that unifies across left and right. Further, if you’re a man who likes football, this just means you get to watch more of it, which can’t be a bad thing, unless, of course, you’re a big sexist bigot? The women’s team (and media support for it) furthers those values by challenging the hopefully small minority of men who may indeed be bigoted about women playing the game they love. It poses a progressive question in the public consciousness – If you like football, then why would you cease to like it just because the players aren’t men? ‘Are you sexist, bro? Getting involved is the easiest way of communicating to everyone that you’re not!’
The push behind women’s football is a way of smuggling values that are anathema to people into their various worldviews. If you’re a cosmopolitan feminist who is against particularism (or the dominance of a particular perspective of one place or culture) then this is a way of celebrating women and women dominating or succeeding in traditionally male spaces. If you’re right wing or conservative, this is one of few remaining socially acceptable and endorsed conditions under which roaring ‘England ENGLA-AND’ at strangers out the window of a moving car won’t get you cautioned by the police. However, you can’t have one without the other, since these usually opposed values are currently linked within women’s football and the top-down endorsement of it.
The result is a confusion of identity that could really only happen in the UK – a load of left-wing people celebrating nationalism and a load of right-wing people celebrating feminism, which is the ideal intersection of elite British values according to elite British people. If fans’ interest in the sport is either intrinsic or extrinsic, then government interest – like corporate interest, which we’ll come to – is instrumental. It is the use of women’s football (which they do not intrinsically care about at all) to talk about how progressive British society is while ignoring all those tricky conversations about empire, race, class, reproductive rights and identity. ‘This thing can’t be falling apart, because we’ve all come together to celebrate the Lionesses!’
This form of nationalism isn’t just a convenient cultural outlet, it’s also a serious moneymaker. You might recall Pepsi’s bizarre 2017 advert starring Kendall Jenner. It was pulled from YouTube as a result of the immense backlash that resulted. In the ad, Jenner, overcome by rock hard principles and possibly thirst, ditches a modelling shoot to join a diverse crowd of energetic young protesters before giving a can of Pepsi to a police officer and achieving social justice or something. Pepsi wanted to be in the Kendall Jenner business back in 2017 because Jenner was then, as now, instantly recognisable as an individual and a member of a globally famous family. Her face on their product is in theory guaranteed to shift units, as it were (provided they didn’t create so dumb and tone-deaf a campaign at such a sensitive time that they had to pull the ad).
In the same vein, could one say that Pepsi is in the Lucy Bronze business? Well, no. While devoted women’s football fans will certainly recognise the footballer, they don’t make up a large quantity of the general British population or, presumably, the Pepsi consumer base – most people don’t know who Bronze is. She is on the can as a symbol of Pepsi’s desire to wade into identity politics for profit. For a popular soft drink company, the footballer represents the deliciously marketable confluence of Britishness – because she is on the English national football team at this much-hyped time of the UEFA women’s EUROs – and the intersectional politics that define the modern, progressive view of what the United Kingdom should be like. Pepsi want to make money. They went to Kendall Jenner – and then subsequently dropped her like a plague-riddled sock – in their own financial interest. What is selling Pepsi now is not Bronze’s image, but the brand values declared through the act of putting a female athlete on the can as part of its broader UEFA sponsorship. ‘Drink Pepsi, we are one of the good guys —promise!’
The intersection of football, nationalism and gender equality is really what represents a ‘golden triangle’ in marketing. If conservative and labour politicians, the BBC and The Daily Mail are hijacking powerful progressive currents, they are only doing what Pepsi are doing – repackaging a product, be it England or a drink very like Coke but not quite, in the hope that we’ll buy and swallow it. Women’s football appeals to the group the left thinks of as England’s lager louts and to the people the right thinks of as its progressive Penelopes. At few other events in British society will you see a gathering of women with cardboard straws in their Chanel handbags and men who take their shirts off in the street the instant the temperature goes over twenty degrees Celsius. This rarest of Venn diagram intersections allows a company like Pepsi to cash in on both nationalism itself and the intersectional politics which define British nationalism for the country’s elites today. Pepsi are not putting Bronze’s image on cans in territories where the image of a female footballer is contrary to national and cultural values that help to sell products. They’re doing it in the UK, where a female athlete who is not recognisable to most people represents British values in 2022.
If I leaned into Irish national identity, I would watch the final just to support the other side. It’s been known to happen. We can be petty like that. However, the more radical act is always the most honest one, which in this case is to say “I don’t care about football, no matter who is playing it, and I’m not interested in British national pride. It gives me an unspeakable urge to go into the kitchen and check if my potatoes are blighted". I’d rather watch Mixed Martial Arts, a sport in which men and women generally train together and where nobody just quits if they take a leg kick unless the leg is broken. I’ll leave football, gender politics and British pride to their respective enthusiasts, who, at least until the end of the match tonight, are locked in a bizarre alliance in the name of queen and country.
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