When we make our first trips to the stadium as children we learn when to cheer and when to boo. We also learn that there are “real fans” and that there are those who attend the games for less-committed reasons. As one young supporter of Australian football discovered, the fans whose credentials are most often questioned are typically women – like herself.
Most people inherit their football team from one of their parents. I got mine from my older brother.
Dad was a Geelong supporter, but when Mike started following football in the early 80s, Geelong wasn’t doing very well. Mum mildly suggested Hawthorn because it was “her” team. She actually hated football, but Hawthorn was top of the ladder at the time. Mike became a fan for life. My brother has a way of making an opinion like “Hawthorn is the greatest team ever” sound like undisputable fact, so I was always going to be Hawthorn as well. Geelong was my number two.
I didn’t go to games often as a kid. When I did go to the grounds, I remember feeling privileged to be allowed into this grown-up world. We packed japaras (rain jackets), warm clothes, and our lunch – usually a book, too, for the quarter breaks. I watched and listened and learnt how to be a real football fan. We didn’t shout “ball” every 30 seconds, like others who didn’t understand the rules. We cheered the goals, but only really yelled when there was something important to yell about, like a poor umpiring decision or a great mark. And I learnt that wearing a player guernsey with your favourite’s number on the back, not just a token scarf or hat, was the ultimate expression of fandom.
The real prize was to shout something witty and clever that would make everyone around me laugh. I spent those early games focused almost as much on thinking of something brilliant to shout as on the game. I think my proudest moment was when, at age ten or so, I went to a Melbourne v. Hawthorn game with Dad and Mike. There was a Melbourne supporter in front of us, sitting on his own, who was “playing coach” all day, yelling at his players, telling them what to do, and screaming when they didn’t follow his instructions (from the top tier of the Melbourne Cricket Ground).
This had been getting on my nerves all day. At one point the guy screamed angrily at a player: “Kick it! Kick it!! Just kick the bloody thing!” And the player kicked it – straight into the hands of a Hawthorn player. Turnover. Exultantly, I yelled out, “Well he shouldn’t have listened to YOU!” Dad thought it was the funniest thing ever, and chuckled proudly for the rest of the game. He kept telling people for days after how his daughter had said this really funny thing at the game and shut the irritating Melbourne guy up for good.
That was how we did footy.
When I finished school I started going to games regularly. I got my own guernesy with Hawthorn legend Jason Dunstall’s number 19 on the back. Dad bought me a club membership (later an AFL membership) and binoculars. I quickly learnt all the players’ names, nicknames, and numbers. We developed a tradition of going to Geelong-Essendon games, just Dad and me, to hurl cleverly-phrased abuse at the Essendon players and try to get a laugh out of other fans. Finally, I was a real fan.
I never spoke about it, but at that time I was inwardly dismissive of girls and women who came to the footy in make-up, nice clothes, and heels, with maybe a token scarf to show their allegiance. I dismissed those women as “not real” fans, even more than the men who showed they didn’t understand the rules in what they yelled out.
When my sister and a female friend started coming along, I was confronted more directly with questions of fan authenticity. They wanted to talk in the breaks between quarters and even talk about the game as it was going on, especially when it was a bit boring (let’s face it, most games have at least a few boring bits). They rarely yelled, preferring to clap and cheer. They didn’t really get angry or uptight. They had fun. They brought chocolate to the game. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it just wasn’t the way we real fans did things.
Looking back now, I see that I judged their fandom as less authentic based on what I had learnt from my male family members. Football was a masculine space and practice that I had been granted access to, and I dismissed others who disrupted those practices with their “inauthentic,” more “feminine” ways.
Fortunately, I came to enjoy this more social side of going to the footy. I also more readily accepted that passion for a sporting team can be expressed in different ways which aren’t actually incompatible with what I grew up with. We all got the train together and sat together and talked together. And that Geelong-Essendon game was still always on for just me and Dad.
I won’t suggest that women and men “naturally” do fandom differently. But in a society where gendered behaviour is encouraged, it is likely that women and men will express fandom in different ways. The trouble is, women’s fandom is often derided or deemed inauthentic – even by female fans like me – just because they are women, particularly when it differs from masculine norms of what fandom is supposed to look like. Unusually for an all-male contact sport, AFL has a high proportion of female fans – over 40% of those who attend matches – and yet stereotypes that dismiss female fans as illegitimate persist. Women are assumed to know less about the sport and be less committed than men, even though research shows no significant gender differences. Women are assumed only to be interested only in watching men in tight shorts, but that is actually an exceedingly rare motivation among female fans. These stereotypes are similar to the ways that female fans in other areas of pop culture (particularly teenage girls) are often dismissed as “mindless,” unlike men and boys are considered discerning and legitimate fans.
I often encountered men who assumed my football fandom was not genuine or deep. Women have to prove that we are “real” fans, whereas men not only accept the fandom of another man at face value, they often assume it unless proven otherwise. The questioning of my standing as a legitimate fan could be implicit or explicit, and I often felt that I had to wield a raft of statistics and quote experts in order to ensure my opinions would be considered valid. Most perplexing were those men who assumed that I was really flirting when I was arguing with them about the game’s all-time greatest goal-kicker or who would win the Brownlow Medal. More than once I discovered that someone I had considered just a mate, because all we ever talked about was football, thought I was hitting on him. Apparently, a woman couldn’t be talking footy just because she liked it.
Around 2007, things started to change. Increased family commitments meant that some of our group couldn’t always get to the games. As I got further into my research on football and sexual violence, my interest waned. It was smashed for good in 2008 when I discovered the details of a 1999 rape case involving at least two Hawthorn players and a club official (I’ve written elsewhere about that discovery and how it ended my love for Hawthorn and football). When the AFL establishes its national women’s league in 2017, I will probably start following a women’s team, and perhaps find new ways of being a fan again. If the women’s league gains popularity and recognition, maybe other ways of doing footy and fandom might become more readily accepted amongst both men and women.
But whatever happens, one of my fondest memories will always be driving back from Waverley Park after a Hawthorn victory, our scarves hanging out the windows all the way home.
Deb Waterhouse-Watson is author of Athletes, Sexual Assault, and “Trials by Media.” She is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Macquarie University, investigating the process of court reporting on sexual assault trials involving Australian footballers. Deb is on Twitter at @.