Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Men Play, Women Talk?

I've been browsing youtube & google video for soccer commercials featuring women - esp those featuring freestyle or just play. I noticed that the few Nike ads featuring women (USNWT) almost never show actual play. This is curious - given the much loved the Nike Joga Bonito ads - which, along with fifastreet ads, form their own viral video kingdom. There isn't much talking in *those* ads - mostly just awesome footwork.

Adidas did a little better with a 2003 Women's World Cup ad (pictured above) that presented a distinctly American nightmare of the Chinese national team (actually, some players & lots of stunt women) doing acrobatic tricks with the ball in unison (with no apparent awareness of the stereotypes invoked). There was an old Gatorade series animated by a searing goal or two from Mia Hamm - way back in 2000? (I'm guessing.) Brandi Chastain did something between a commercial and personal profile for Tailwind (a Nike line), in which we watch her juggle while she's talking (part of a series profiling women on the USNWT). Chastain's ad left me wanting to see more - she was so casual, in that way people with a great sense of touch can be - keeping the ball up, moving it from foot to shoulder to knee seems to take no concentration at all. Like talking with your hands, except you are using your whole body, and a ball.

None of the more recent Nike ads have much actual soccer in them. They are talky, defensive, full of cute jokes about "the greatest team you've never heard of", that do very little to demonstrate why anyone should be hearing about them. (See! They have a sense of humor! Totally not threatening!) It's funny how sexism can be the topic of an ad campaign that nevertheless goes on to repeat some of the problems in mass media coverage of women's soccer (focus on everything but the actual physical talent of the athletes).

Fans do a better job - because they are splicing together their homages from game footage. There's an impressive German montage of greatest goals by women's players (which goes back to the early 90s). There isn't a whole lot out there in the virtual ocean by way of Marta footage, but there is nevertheless a handful of great compilations, including some of her playing for Umea. Check out this one - Marta highlights set to death metal. I love soccer fans.

I have to say - even though it features no play, no footwork, I was really pleased to stumble on the following - an old ad featuring Julie Foudy getting a check up.


Saturday, January 19, 2008

David Beckham: Lesbian Icon

David Beckham is a lesbian icon.

That Beckham's charms are appreciated by straight women and gay men is a given. Beckham himself says he's "honored to be a gay icon", and, as the original metrosexual he has never been afraid of flirting with the edges of officially sanctioned straight masculinity - sarong, painted toe nails, ballet slippers, etc. His appearance in an Armani underwear ad is only the most recent image advertising his willingness to appear as sex object to anyone who fancies the idea.

But lesbian icon?

I stumbled onto this subject playing football with a great group of gals on a self-described lesbian feminist team. First time I showed up for training, I wore my Beckham Galaxy shirt - I wear it here with a sense of humor, understanding that people in London generally think Beckham's move to Los Angeles was crazy. As I took the field, I saw another gal also wearing a Galaxy shirt, number 23. It turns out that a lot of the women on the team really like Beckham - and don't hesitate to say that they are fans. I found that in this crowd I didn't need to pretend I was wearing that shirt with irony. My appreciation of Beckham is, to be honest, quite sincere - and is nearly enough to make a Galaxy fan of me.

In the locker room last week (we won, pretty much dominating the whole game, which was nevertheless kindof a slog on the Hackney Marshes), I floated this observation - that Beckham is something of a lesbian icon - and my teammates chimed in with a chorus of support for the idea.

He's of course loved by queer women for the same reasons he's loved by many football fans - for the kind of footballer he is. He's hard working, very sincere about the game, and he's capable of animating a team not through a lust for personal glory, but by passionately taking on the less glamorous work that happens in front of the back four: distribution, tackling, set plays, assists. He's the kind of player that makes other players look great and takes pleasure in this.

J.D. Samson
But he also "works" for queer women because the kind of masculinity he models is one he shares with some of our most compellingly queer lesbian icons (e.g. Le Tigre's J.D. Samson, pictured left). Beckham often appears boyish, openly sexual, and androgynous - and then there's his physical type - not beefy and lunk-headed (like Rooney) but lean, with fine features that always seem slightly at odds (in a tremendously sexy way) with his hard-bodied image. Even his reticence, his strange combination of self-consciousness and self-awareness has a queer resonance (that shyness can precipitate global stardom was well born out by Andy Warhol). Some women want to have him, some want to be him. And some of us want a little of both.

Beckham has what I like to call "Chachi charm" - the trans charm of boys who look like girls who look like boys (or girls who look like boys who look like girls). The reference is to Scott Baio's character Chachi, of the 70s t.v. program Happy Days - and the category includes, for me, those boys I had crushes on when I was a kid, like Jackie Earle Haley. He played the archetypal "burn-out" "Moocher" in 1979's Breaking Away, and the motorcycle-riding pre-pubescent proto 'playa' "Kelley Leak" of 1976's The Bad News Bears - the latter also notable, of course, for Tatum O'Neal's turn as the ultimate 70s tomboy with the vocabulary of a 1940s sailor. [FYI: Tammy Rae Carland took on this constellation of queer stars (from Carter and O'Neal to young Jody Foster) in her 'zine "I (heart) Amy Carter" (included in the anthology Girls Guide to Taking Over the World). ]

That the charm of the adolescent gender-bender has stayed with Becks well into his adulthood is a minor miracle - most men who start out with it lose it by their late 20s (note the disastrous late adulthood of Scott Baio himself). With Becks, one might say it's gotten rougher around the edges - much in the same way that it does when our androgyne sisters jump the fence and go full blown F-2-M.

Women on this planet of queer masculinity might include Daniela Sea, of L Word fame. She has this boyish charm in spades. Or, let's look at the more notorious model Jenny Shimizu. Shimizu is a particularly good point of reference for the sort of planetary pull such women exert - and which they direct more specifically at high-femme/ drive-you-crazy women like her ex, Angelina Jolie, or, the less famous but no less notorious genius Gwen Turner - Queer Hollywood's Dorothy Parker.

The truly crazy connection here: Beckham's infamous ex-lover Rebecca Loos has not only gone on record as bisexual - she married Shimizu in 2005 for a Logo TV program called Power Lesbian UK. Check out their Diva magazine interview.

Beckham's partnership with Posh - puzzling to so many - mystifies me not at all. One of the reasons he is so often pilloried by male journalists & intellectuals is this relationship: they can't stand that Beckham lets Victoria dress him, paint his toenails, that he's tried on her underwear, and, basically, lets her "top" him a thousand ways to Sunday, and, worse, that he's proud of it, too. I've found myself defending Becks to the most liberal of men - to leftie academic metrosexuals who prefer George Best to Becks, seeing in the latter a betrayal of the masculine ideals of the former.

I've never taken Posh & Becks more sexual photographs (in which he's often pictured dominating her, as in the recent W spread) to mean much about what happens between them privately - her penchant for leather, vinyl, lace-up, corsets, and lethal stillettos says it all. She's a high femme top, surely. And that sort - the ones who want the bling, like their men to light their cigarettes, open doors for them, to buy them lingerie and expensive handbags - these are the women old fashioned boy butches seem to adore.

And, finally, by way of conclusion, a gesture towards a queer reading of Posh and Becks: That Armani underwear photo has prompted global speculation: Is it real? Is that really his? Posh, pictured here wearing a very leather daddy hat, has also been at the end of that question (are those really hers?). She gave a great interview about the ad, and gushed about loving seeing
her husband's penis "25 feet tall" on a billboard, and has been the single greatest engine for publicity supporting the mythology of Becks' package (check out this old Ali G. interview with the two of them). The pair are so over the top, so playful about themselves, they deliberately tickle our curiosity about the line between the natural and the artificial - Posh makes a more than passable drag subject, and Becks has got to be the model for kings out there. I don't know anything about Australian drag king Jonnie Swift (pictured here in the dressing room getting ready with Sexy Galexy for the 2005 Sydney LGBT Mardis Gras) but he looks to me like Beckham's gay brother.

By way of an afterthought: Check out this great take from youtuber "Beaner LaRue": "Posh" explaining that the Armani-clad bulge really really is "100% his little Beckham":

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Interior Life of the Substitute

I watched the Women’s World Cup final with my aunt in her living room. (Pictured here, Brazil's Christiane fighting off Germany's Linda Bresonik.) I watched the semifinal match between Brazil & USA in a sports bar in France. . I caught the televised second half of the 1999 final in Pasadena, but I don’t know where I was, or how I happened to catch it. I do remember that I kept switching channels, because the tension was too much - scoreless, the game famously went to penalty kicks, and the tension of watching that was excruciating! Watching the 2007 games was qualitatively different – because in between 1999 & 2007 I started playing.

The experience of watching soccer on television is much more intense now that I play. When I watch now, I have very mixed feelings – I get caught up in the drama of the match, of course, but I also wish deeply that I could play like the people on the screen. And I want to be playing at that moment.

That desire can be so intense that my body begins to very nearly act like it’s playing – I’m like a sleeping dog dreaming about chasing rabbits. My feet are restless, my legs want to run - the most powerful sensation of watching football is this feeling of being physically hailed by the game. This is even worse at a live match – if I’m sitting near the pitch, it’s all I can do to restrain myself from jumping onto it.

This experience is new to me. I suppose this is how lots of people who play must feel about watching – enthralled, caught up in it, there, but hyper aware too that they are not there. The embodied memory of playing is a complicated gift: It gives you both the ability to feel what it feels like to play (and thereby get even more involve with the action), and an awareness of the real difference between you and the those on the pitch.

I am ashamed to admit that I really thought that watching sports was a relatively passive thing – but watching a soccer game is a lot like watching a really good suspense film, or reading an engrossing novel. Time seems to stand still and race by, you forget you are where you are, you are instead projected outwards with your interest – you are in the stands, on your couch, but somehow not. Somehow, you are there. Your heart races, palms sweat – watching a great game is almost unbearably exciting. But behind all of that excitement is a bittersweet sadness about that gap between us and them.

Sitting on the bench must be just awful (right: goalie Hope Solo, famously benched for the 2006 WC semi-final match mentioned above). I don’t have a lot of experience with this, as most of my league experience has been in games with unlimited “rolling substitution”, so you come off to catch your breath, and go back on when someone else begins to tire. (Using rolling substitutions well is itself a fine art.) But sitting on the bench as a highly skilled player who lives and breathes the game must be a real test of character. How not to sour? How not to get bitter and resentful? How to stay loose, and positive? Because the darker your mood, the more likely you are to stay on the sideline. Your bitterness would make you more and more static, and make you more and more leaden. You would become a stone.

Fred Poulet and Vikash Dhorasoo (pictured left, fighting off the hardest working man in show business, Franck Ribéry) explore this awful dynamic in their collaborative film Substitute about Dhorasoo’s time on the bench during the 2006 World Cup (film still below right). It’s an incredible document – started with no idea that Dhorasoo (who played in all of the qualifying matches leading up to the world cup) would serve the team as a sub who never takes the field, or that France would advance all the way to the final match which would then become famous for Zidane’s startling “coup de boule”.

We experience that amazing summer isolated from everything that made it amazing – security is very tight, Dhorasoo can’t film training, etc. – so he keeps a personal diary of sorts, measuring his increasing depression and resentment, as well as a heroic effort to keep those feelings in check.

I don’t know if I could have understood that film until I’d begun playing myself: Because until I’d taken the field myself, I wouldn’t have understood the difference between a film made from the perspective of a fan, and a film made from the perspective of a player – and in case of the latter, there is no substitute for actually being in the game.

And with that, below is a rather melancholy youtube homage to M. Dhorasoo - set to Velvet Underground's "Sunday Morning". I think this footage is from a 2006 classic match between Paris St. Germain & Olympique Marseille - Dhorasoo's was the winning goal, and I'm pretty sure it was delivered on a Sunday.

Postscript: Weirdly, I posted this the day after Dhorasoo announced his retirement. L'Equipe just published a really interesting interview with him, in which he speaks a little about the events surrounding his controversial dismissal from PSG (and, pointedly, about his disappointment about his teammates' failure to support him). There's a lot more to say about Vikash Dhorasoo - about his independence. Take his sponsorship of Paris Foot Gay (a men's team not all that dissimilar in political spirit from Hackney Women's FC - it's a gay team with a anti-discrimination policy - I will complain, though, that their site seems really disinterested in women's football - whose struggles are shaped by sexism as well as homophobia), and his readiness to speak publicly against all forms of discrimination and small mindedness - something I think is often congenitally linked with an inability to be totally strategic in one's personal navigation with oppressive institutions. I can so relate. Bleus blogger Laurie has a long standing mild obsession with Dhorasoo (she's even more footie obsessed than I am). She sent me the L'Equipe interview - thanks!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

FSU ladies freestyle, with style

A little treat: Japanese international & FSU standout Mami Yamaguchi plays around with FSU teammate Lauren Switzer, who contributes a freestyle move that's got to be based on the acrobatics of removing your sports bra without taking off your shirt.

Friday, January 4, 2008

And she scores – 2 points!?: Coed Soccer

Those of you who have never played organized coed soccer (mixed football) will be surprised to learn that in some coed leagues (e.g. UC San Diego's intramural leagues) your team wins 2 points when women score. First time I heard that (while playing one weekend in a coed 5 aside league in Santa Monica, CA) I was shocked and offended - until I took the field and saw that there was always at least one woman playing forward.

My admittedly casual research suggests that this rule is largely confined to "weekend warrior" leagues with a fair amount of inexperienced players (all coed leagues have rules about the ratio of men to women on the field, and ban or severely restrict slide tackles). Generally, when men and women are left to organize themselves, women end up in the goal and playing back. Put twenty two men and women on the field for a kickabout, and nearly every woman on a team will volunteer to play goalie before even half the men will have done the same. Regardless of experience, women will step into the box before men: This of course goes against all that people tend to think about femininity – the mentally and physically toughest position has got to be goalie, requiring a willingness to take ultimate responsibility, to confront attacks, to throw your body in the path of that attack. (Most people who used the uneven goal keeping at the World Cup to argue that 'the women's game will never be entertaining as the men's' didn't watch the final, and have never actually seen what women can do with just a fraction of the support and training available to their male counterparts. This was the subject of a great blog entry by David James. If you want to see a fierce woman goalie, check out the aptly named German keeper Nadine Angerer - best in the world - pictured above left successfully blocking a penalty from Marta in the last World Cup. ARGH.)

Anyway, among us amateur coed players, the division of labor that assigns women to the back four happens only because we often place defense in the same category as washing dishes, and making the boys in the office a pot of coffee. Many men drift up, many women drift back in spite of themselves.

Personally, I started off playing defense and am still most comfortable with it – not because that’s where my limited skills lie, but because it’s the easiest role for me to play on a team. I like feeling helpful, supportive – I find it hard to put myself forward with the confidence of a goal scorer. I also like taking the ball away from people, I like the challenge, and I like the collaborative aspect of defense (you have to communicate with everyone else holding the line). I am a big Michelle Akers fan (pictured left, check out her autobiography) - there's nothing like the level-headed, single-minded focus of a great defender to inspire a whole team. But if I don't play up, I don't learn if I can play up.

Anyway, leave it to social habit, and you’ll have co-ed games with men up front, and women on the back four: A bad idea with broken bones. Defense is really physical – especially when you have a lot of inexperienced players on the field, in an un-refereed game. You can take real beating – on average, guys are bigger, heavier, and have physics on their side. And, when you really get into the game, everyone forgets this – it’s hard to remember, “shit, if I really tackle him, I’m going to break my ankle”, or, “if I kick the ball as hard as I can at her, I might break her arm”. Fact is, in a good, hard game men and women play each other as people – we forget ourselves, and our differences - and unless everyone has a good skill level, there’s a lot of ugly tackling and dangerous play.

Furthermore, if you don’t have an outside mechanism pushing against habit, teams don’t play the ball to their own women players. People (men and women) on coed teams tend not to “see” women players – even when they are calling for the ball. This habit is harder to break than one might think.

THIS is why many lower-level coed leagues give women 2 points – not because it’s harder for women to score, but because without giving men and women a material incentive, neither gender will pass the ball to the women on the team, and neither team will place women on the forward line (even though, in the United States, many women playing in such leagues are more likely to have played competitive soccer through high school and college than their male teammates).

I learned the truth of this by playing on women’s teams after a long time of playing in co-ed situations. You get more time on the ball, and there’s also more pressure on you – you can’t drift in and out of the game. It’s both more fun (because you can play a lot harder against people your own size) and more stressful (because you are given more responsibility).

Interestingly, coed play is a relatively new idea here in the UK (see FA site statement about the topic and a 2006 Guardian story)- partly because there is so little out there for girls and women in general. Girls can play with boys until they are 11 (the FA is experimenting with changing this), at which point they are disallowed from playing with boys (other countries, like Germany, allow girls to play with boys up to 17). There seem to be very few adult coed leagues out there - the whole idea poses some interesting challenges to the UK footie fan.

Coed soccer is harder to organize than single-sex soccer, but it has some real rewards - I think we learn a lot about each other, about collaboration, about the integration of differences into a team. I think it does us gals good to compete with and against men, and vice-versa. (See Honolulu Advertiser story about coed play - from which the image right was pulled.)

We never instituted a 2-point rule in our LA kickabout (photo left of winter 2006 core members). None of us would tolerate it. We work out the division of labor together - and over four years of playing together and processing what it means to keep the game mixed and open, we've built up a good sense of each other's strengths, and how to create a game that gets everyone involved (lately by instituting a three touch rule, for instance). But we don't play in a league. (I think we'd do well in one of those 2 point leagues - Sally & Sojin, pictured here standing, are unbeatable when they've got the goal in sight!)

In a world in which sexism didn’t exist at all, in which it didn’t inform how men and women think about themselves and each other, no coed league would need that “2 point” rule – teams would choose their line-up by skill and size. Until that day arrives, however, I’m happy to hear guys shouting to their back 4: “Mark the girl! Mark the girl!”
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