Opinion

The Soft Sexism of Baby Photos

Call the US women’s victory in the World Cup what it was: an achievement. Here’s a team that looked shaky walking up to the tournament and whose offense sleepwalked through the group round. Then, something clicked in the playoffs–I might summarize it as “Carli Lloyd”–and the women thwarted the Germans en route to the title. Enthralling, unexpected, and enthralling because it was unexpected.

The cherry on top? Their 5-2 victory over Japan in the final was the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history, with 25.4 million viewers. Yes, that is more than the deciding games of the 2015 NBA Finals and the 2014 World Series.

It is a coup for women, for women’s sports, for U.S. Soccer, and for soccer in the U.S. It’s a bit embarrassing to anyone who enjoys smirking at women’s sports.

So let me ask a question.

Why in bloody hell are there baby photos on the USWNT’s website??

I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. I’d tipped over to Megan Rapinoe’s webpage to check out the U.S.’ virtuoso midfielder, one of its most creative players and bigger personalities. I clicked over to her photos and saw this:

I’m world-class.

That is the one of the top photos of a star player on a championship team.

I rubbed my eyes. I went on to Morgan Brian:

Weird basket.

Julie Johnston:

I’ll cut you.

This really doesn’t seem like a big deal at first. It’s just a couple cute kid photos, you might say, among two dozen photos of these bomb-ass athletes and their action shots. What’s wrong with a loving shout-out to their kiddo origins?

Then you realize we don’t do it for Michael Bradley, star midfielder for the US men. Or DeAndre Yedlin, the team’s lightning-quick fullback. Or any of the other men. It makes you wonder. Why is this a double-standard? Here, I’ll hazard a guess.

Morgan, Whitney, Tobin, Lauren, Meghan, Ali, Alex, Christen, Becky, Amy, Abby, and Hope. That’s a random draw of first names from the U.S. Women’s National Team, and it’s a pretty effective reminder that in the US, women’s soccer (and all soccer) is still mainly played in the suburbs, and still mainly by white Americans.

This is one simple way to explain the double-standard vis-à-vis men. It comes from the cultural milieu in which we raise soccer players in the US: in the safe, wholesome, relatively conservative quarters of the suburbs.

Having grown up in a soccer suburb myself, I can vouch that part of the culture is to show great personal affection for players on the field, whether through posters, writing their names on the windows of your Chevy Tahoe, or throwing feather boas on them. It’s a very wholesome and loving environment, but it leads to many subtle and blatant ways in which boys are treated differently than girls: think of things as innocuous as the naming of teams or the colors of jerseys.

It’s tempting, perhaps, for American socceroos to extend that treatment to the highest levels of soccer. You might even call it smart marketing for US Soccer to present its WNT stars as more approachable, more familiar and non-threatening, than their MNT counterparts.

But to me, it is literally infantilizing. It is unbefitting a team that has won significantly more than the men’s team has. It is especially because soccer players are raised in the suburbs, the cauldron of conservative culture, that we should be conscious of, and resistant to, the narrative that women are fundamentally cute and familiar, not high-octane athletes who should be treated the same as men.

So, the photos. It is best not to make mountains out of molehills. But on matters of discrimination and double-standards, sometimes it’s the molehills that betray the mountains behind them.

Take the baby photos down, US Soccer. The women have earned it.


thumb_Saqib-Rahim
SAQIB RAHIM | @SaqibSansU

Like many fans, Saqib Rahim is the product of his sports traumas. The 49ers losing, year after year, to Green Bay in the late 1990s. USA Hockey losing to Canada in the gold medal game of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver – in overtime, no less. The San Jose Sharks perennially discovering new depths of failure, such as becoming only the 4th team in history to choke away a 3-0 series lead. But it’s all good. He’s over it. They helped make him the man he is today, and they made him curious about why sports are so engrossing and important to us. They helped him realize that sports are about the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.

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