Beyond pay and patriotism: What really drives the debate about the US women’s soccer team (USWNT)?
By Harriet L. Schwartz, PhD
The pose is everything. Megan Rapinoe stands with arms wide and head tilted toward the sky — countenance and posture signaling strength, pride, and confidence. In response to Rapinoe and her teammates, people around the world have become instant soccer fans, energized by these star athletes. At the same time, others are offended or down right angry. What is it about this team that is so divisive?
Some who have been captivated by the U.S. women are drawn to the sheer athletic excellence. Others have been moved by the players’ symbolic and expressed demands for equality — including fair pay for women and respect for athletes who are lesbian. Concurrently, those who find this team offensive fume about sideline protests, demonstrative goal celebrations, and disinterest in a White House visit. No doubt, these responses feel true to those who hold them. Nevertheless, I propose there is a deeper dynamic that drives both the admiration and vitriol directed at this team, and Rapinoe in particular.
She and her teammates are not only strong, proud, and confident, but more significantly — they are women unencumbered by the male gaze*.
This energy is evident in the pose, post-goal celebrations, a willingness to go toe-to-toe with the commander in chief, and the manner in which these women relate to each other and the world.
They will not conform. They will not obey. They are not here to please. They refuse to remain small so that others can feel big.
While these athletes certainly operate in what remains a patriarchal society, it’s as if they play and live in a space not defined by men, but instead in a space they define for themselves. This is evident in the pose. Rapinoe’s stance is not a typical stance of domination (arms raised high and vertical) but it’s the stance of a woman at the absolute peak of her game. Her arms are wide and thus there is an openness to her position and her hands reveal a touch of grace. In a culture which prizes domination and power-over, the pose conveys a woman so secure and in command, her power is simultaneously open and authoritative, graceful and strong.
She’s not only showing us she won, she’s inviting us to join her in the win.
This energy drives all the rest — the sheer determination, the celebration, the confrontation. In a culture that tells women to be quiet, put others before themselves, and not take up too much space, these women have been clear — they expect to win, they are living life on their own terms, and they are unconcerned with being how others expect them to be.
Their energy is the energy of liberation and for those who seek liberation, to see this lived out on an international stage is intoxicating.
What would it be like for people of color to no longer deal with the white gaze, for people living in poverty to no longer deal with the class gaze, and so on? This would be profound liberation, not only to live without fear, but to be truly one’s self according to one’s internal compass rather than the dominant culture’s unspoken judgements and demands. A glimpse of this can be irresistible for those who are oppressed.
At the same time, those who are angry find these women’s presence intolerable. They may call these women unpatriotic or ungrateful — but ultimately, they can’t tolerate women who just don’t give a damn about the male gaze, about deeply embedded cultural expectations.
This group of women confuse and disturb one of the foundations of western society — male domination/female subordination.
In a time when men have escalated their efforts to legislate women’s bodies and sexual harassers hold office, these women have moved beyond even fighting back. They aren’t fighting the patriarchy; they’ve left it in the dust. When women persist and resist, there is someone for the patriarchy to fight with. Persistence and resistance are necessary, and yet Rapinoe and her teammates have shown us — indifference is even more powerful. This magnificent team has for a moment created a new playing field wherein the male gaze and patriarchy are no longer relevant — instead, women can live definitively on their own terms. Beyond winning the World Cup, these women have shown us a new way to be in the world. Indeed, they have changed the game.
*The concept of the male gaze was introduced by film scholar Laura Mulvey in 1973 and suggests that women in film are defined by what they evoke in men. Men look and women are looked at. Mulvey argued that films are constructed so that the audience sees the story through this male gaze and thus the male gaze controls the narrative. This theory has been applied in several domains beyond film, including advertising, rock music, and sports.
Harriet L. Schwartz, PhD is the author of Connected Teaching: Relationship, Power, and Mattering in Higher Education (Stylus Publishing, 2019). She holds a PhD in Leadership and Change from Antioch University. Earlier this year, she published a call for white people in Pittsburgh to address racism.
Chaudhuri, S. (2006). Feminist Film Theorists: Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Creed. Oxon, UK: Routledge.
Mulvey, L. (1989). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. In Visual and Other Pleasures. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.