As I’m about to go off on a massive whang here, I’d like to start with something positive. Let’s kick off with London, 2012. Everyone liked the Olympics. What an absolute cracker they were. What a crowning glory. What a time to be passionate about sports, to be British, to be a woman. It was one of the few instances, ever, when we agreed: when we smiled at the same time David Cameron did, whooped with the folk we don’t like or with whom we don’t agree. Even before it began, most of my family were emotional wrecks: I just about held it together until Kenneth Brannagh opened his mouth on the night of the opening ceremony, and then I was gone.
A summer of watching great athletes weep, for joy and frustration and sheer bloody hard work, and then weeping yourself. The majority of those weeks I spent behind a bar in Horseguards Parade, distracted by the noise and the bustle and the way everyone grinned, spilling coffee over my feet, eating chips and wailing every time a medal was won and someone thanked their mum. It was triffic. Wonderful, too, to see Clare Balding storm the coverage, chatting and congratulating and critiquing and then winning best presenter. The patriarchy got its ass kicked by Balding: gals in sport were champions last summer.
And then, BACKLASH. Think Spiceworld. You know, the bit where Richard E. Grant’s shouting about mayonnaise and spitting with ire on the Spicebus. Describing Balding first as a ‘horse woman’ who ‘appreciates power between her thighs,’ Bob Mills stated that, given ‘20 minutes… I’m pretty sure I could turn [her] around… We all know there is no woman that can’t be cured’. I should point out that these comments were made on BBC R5 Live’s Defend the Indefensible section, a great stinking turd of chauvinist humour that follows the classic bullshit formula ‘We don’t actually believe this ourselves, guys! Come ON! We’re LAUGHING at those who DO think like this!’ It’s an airing cupboard for a bunch of (usually) men to spout distasteful crap and get away with it. On this occasion, mercifully, they didn’t. Balding’s more than capable of coming back at those who’ve attacked, though: after AA Gill’s frankly incredible 2010 column, in which he called her a ‘dyke on a bike’ (seriously, who the fuck oversaw THAT copy edit?), she succinctly rejoined: ‘great twat’.
And now, 2013, in this glorious haze of heat, we’ve got our Wimbledon champions. Murray’s been splashed across the front pages, kissing the trophy, lorded as a hero. And he is: he did bloody well, and I’m glad he won. But what of Marion Bartoli, the women’s winner? Where’s her parade? Once again, we can look to R5 Live for heaps of gnomic wisdom on the matter. John Inverdale comments, as Bartoli goes to hug her dad,
“Do you think [he] told her when she was little, ‘You’re never going to be a looker, you’ll never be a Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight’?”
Instead of being sacked he was back the next day, reporting on Murray’s win. A man doing mannish things isn’t offensive, after all, and aesthetics don’t come into it. Murray’s human imperfections are just that: human, whereas a woman in sport is a dangerous woman. Strong, powerful, grunting, ‘unfeminine’. She crashes onto a platform but (Lord have mercy) it’s not a striptease, in a dark club, and she’s not wrapped around a pole. She’s wearing a short skirt, the better to whack the living shit out of whatever comes her way across that net.
It’s poisonous, what we’re dealing with, out there, and it’s coming from women as well as men. Minutes after Bartoli’s win a young woman (my own age, we were at school together), posted this on Facebook:
What made me really sad, after Inverdale’s comments went viral, was that Bartoli herself responded, challenging him to see her at the Wimbledon ball and THEN pass judgement on her appearance. This is exactly the sort of currency women shouldn’t be entering into, exactly the sorts of negotiations we need to avoid. If Bartoli meant what I hope she meant by that comment, she’ll have turned up to said ball wearing a giant sack-cloth: covered in Madeira cake, Glen’s vodka and the sweet smell of success.
The amount of times, working at the Beach Volleyball event last summer, that I’d hear those familiar braying whines. ‘Take it oooooof,’ people wheedled, as the women played in lycra instead of bikinis that rode halfway up their internal organs. It’s not fair, those voices seemed to say, that we should have to watch women’s sport – if you can even call it that – without some sex appeal. Is that so much to ask? Virtually every sport except those traditionally invented just for women – netball, lacrosse – are crashingly dominated by men, and none of the big dog authorities seem to want to end this. Sepp Blatter (yes that is his name) of FIFA recently described a female footballer as ‘good, good-looking’. Jensen Button’s made his own, edifying comments on the women-in-Formula1-issue, claiming that American driver Danica Patrick could never compete with the boys:
‘One week of the month you wouldn’t want to be on the circuit with them, would you? A girl with big boobs would never be comfortable in the car. And the mechanics wouldn’t concentrate. Can you imagine strapping her in?’
Lest we (and David Cameron) forget: Virginia Wade won the 1977 Wimbledon women’s final. So we HAVE had victory for Team GB before Murray the Man came along. There’s no female Tour de France. The Oxbridge boatrace is still dominated by big schlonged social-media-suing airheads, and we’re supposed to care. I am calling bullshit on all of this. My mum, who’s a teacher, has spent the last ten years introducing kids to sports, helping them, nurturing them. What would she say, after the hours of coaching, the competitions, the time and stress and success, if one day some benighted man was to pass judgement on one of them: ‘She can swim, all right. Pity about the face.’
And this happens so much, to women, when it doesn’t happen to men. We’re ‘saved’ if we’ve got the brains, the sporting ability, the daring – but only to a certain extent because without the sex appeal we’re basically fucked. It’s like that bit in Tess (and I really am so sorry to whang on about Tess so much, but we poured gin on the router, so no Internet, and it’s the only DVD we have in the flat) when Tess’s dad says how nice and kind and generally pleasant she is, and her mum says something like, ‘but it’s her FACE that’s the hot-ticket outta this dump, and will put an end to us all being povvos once and for all’. Or something. You get the point. John Inverdale is Tess’s mum. And Tess’s mum, as we all know, is a silly.
Are we honestly more likely to crash cars when we’re on the blob, more likely to whack our opponents round the head with our racket, or choke slam the ref in a bout of hysteria? Will we stop moaning when men say chumpy things about us? Will we pull uncomfortable clothes/shoes on, even if we’re dead clever, dead happy, dead cool with the way we are anyway – just to be noticed in the workplace, or outside it? Will we stop weeping when women do great things in sport, or anywhere else? Will we fuck.