Image: 'This Girl Can' - Sport England

Women aged 14 – 40 years are the target of the latest Sport England campaign “This Girl Can”. The campaign is supposed to be breaking new ground in terms of the particular approach it takes to women and sport, but questions still remain about whether it does enough to challenge traditional ideas of femininity or whether it simply serves to further reinforce the objectification of women’s bodies?

The £10 million lottery funded campaign has been described as “a sassy celebration of active women everywhere and proves that whatever our size, ability or previous experience, sport can be a fun and enjoyable part of our lives”.

The key aim is to address the persistent gender gap which means that more men play sport than women at every age. At first glance it does seem to challenge the norms. We see a range of young and indeed older women running, diving, kicking and dancing to the pumping bass of the Missy Elliot song ‘Get Ur Freak On’. The message seems simple – we all do (exercise) differently but share the same feelings of exhaustion, euphoria and relief when we’re done.

Unusually the women taking part in the advert do not all have the toned, aspirational bodies familiar from campaigns such as Nike’s ‘just do it’. The women in ‘thisgirlcan’ are more diverse than we might be likely to see on screen, some  actually have cellulite and look like they have been exercising – they are sweaty and authentically red faced.  Sport England declare that:

This Girl Can celebrates the women who are doing their thing no matter how they do it, how they look or even how sweaty they get. They’re here to inspire us to wiggle, jiggle, move and prove that judgement is a barrier that can be overcome.#thisgirlcan.

Sport England designed the campaign to challenge what they saw as being the biggest barrier to women participating in sport – being judged. However others argue that the campaign is hugely flawed and ultimately patronising, not least because the use of the word ‘girl’ serves to infantilise young women and invokes negative sporting associations such as ‘throwing like a girl’, ‘running like a girl’. This can be contrasted to the “Always #LikeAGirl” campaign where the insult ‘throw like a girl’ was intentionally deconstructed and redefined into a positive affirmation. It is not clear if the #thisgirlcan campaign successfully reclaims these pejorative terms. The reason for this seems clear as it fails to engage with wider patriarchal discourse that surrounds women in sport.

Perhaps it is unfair to critique Sport England for their lack of sociological integrity. They would perhaps counter that encouraging greater numbers of women to take up sport is the most positive way of undermining gender inequality. The fact remains however that this does not speak to wider structural issues, that still prevail and need to be challenged and resisted rather than negotiated around as the ‘thisgirlcan campaign does. Research suggests that female athletes must negotiate many additional challenges on a daily basis that do not typically affect male athletes. These include tensions around femininity, masculinity and sexual orientation. A study of female football players found that while there has been significant progress in women participating in diverse sporting contexts, “there is an added complexity to taking part in a sport so central to notions of hegemonic masculinity”.  It was difficult to become ‘accepted’ as football players and as one describes:

when we started no one took us seriously… it was OK we set up a friendly match but there was no, we had to use the boys kit, no special treatment, and when we went up to the astro-turf we had to pay for it and the boys would get it free, and they would have particular times maybe because it was a new sport at the time and they could not fit it in, but at the time it was frustrating when you are trying to get something off the ground.

The players themselves also recognised that there was a clear football hierarchy and the quality of ‘pitch’ was a significant marker:

Oh, we always get the worst pitch, the slow pitch, like ‘you are over there, see you later (laughs). A lot of people do not know that we have a women’s team as they haven’t seen us play, cos you can see the blokes play on a Wednesday afternoon, you can’t really miss them, but us you can. (Patricia)

Irish footballer Stephanie Roche was runner up in the FIFA goal of the year. Despite this achievement most of the UK media focused on a photo of Roche arriving at the FIFA Ballon d’Or ceremony in Zurich which has been much retweeted. It depicts her wearing a white dress and high heels, walking past top male footballers who appear to be, in the words of the many news reports, ‘eyeing her up’. This suggests that little has changed in terms of how female athletes are framed in media reporting, with the Daily Mail describing how, “Irish footballer Stephanie Roche turns heads of world’s best players Ronaldo and Messi after missing out on FIFA award for her stunning goal”. Perhaps the problem of female athletes being judged does not lie with women but male reporters and commentators? At the recent Australian Open, Channel 7 reporter Ian Cohen interviewed tennis player Eugenie Bouchard (ranked number 7 in the world for women’s tennis). He mentioned her tweet which complimented fellow player Serena Williams on her ‘fluoro’ outfit and asked “Can you give us a twirl and tell us about your outfit?”  Her embarrassment, as the request is met with cheers from the crowd, is palpable. In response, Serena Williams simply commented that “A commentator asked me to twirl. I wouldn’t ask Rafa or Roger to twirl. Whether it’s sexist or not I don’t know. I can’t answer that”.

‘This girl can’ is an interesting campaign but it operates within a framework where women celebrate their empowerment in decidedly sexual terms of being “hot” and “a fox”. Others have commented that it pushes “a neoliberal rhetoric of “free choice” to look a certain way, or move in a certain way; yet the choices available are restrictive and predicated on a narrow version of what constitutes sexiness. It does not involve a stretch of the imagination to think about how women’s self-reference to “sweating like a pig” through exercise can shift into denigrating terms (“fat pig”), that are used against them if they don’t conform”.

Sport England pitch their campaign at increased female participation, without any real reference to male domination (unlike #alwayslikeagirl). One campaign offers a political focus with which to address gender inequality, whilst the other does not. It seems unlikely that a campaign for men in sport would be described as “sassy” or have the tagline “thisboycan”.  Ultimately engaging more women in sport is laudable but we need to at least reference wider structural questions of male dominance and patriarchy if we are to realise the true potential of the Sport England campaign.