"Football is not a matter of life and death, it is more important than that."
Women Sports Fans
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Kim Toffoletti, London, Routledge, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-138-18927-0I am writing this review during the 2018 FIFA World Cup at a time when two issues are being discussed in the UK media and social media – the number of Iranian women who, banned from watching live football at home, have travelled to Russia to see life football for the first time and the mixed reactions to the number of female presenters and pundits on British TV coverage of the event.
The book, noting how women have become more visible in sport in all roles, seeks to document women’s perceptions and understandings of their sports fan experience. One cited reference “From football widow to fan” encapsulates the issue. All this, the book suggests, helps to expand our perception of who can be a sports fan. A recurrent theme is that current perceptions of sports fandom have been shaped by men. One small example of this is that the book welcomes that more feminine merchandise is available but regrets that the merchandise often “panders to male ideals rather than the needs, desires and experiences of women sport fans”.
A recurrent issue is that while women sports fans are accepted and welcomed they are expected to fit into a male-designed mould of how a sports fan should act because “a masculine standard informs how sport fandom is perceived and understood”. One extreme example cited is female fans in Turkey who take part in sexist and homophobic chants and use foul language in order to fit in.
Women supporters, the author suggests, “are commonly viewed as suspect or illegitimate participants … are constantly negotiating the requirement to demonstrate ‘authentic’ sport fan identity” and “can only gain legitimacy as fans by fitting in with preconceived notions of sport fan identity based on a fairly narrow set of characteristics, actions and expressions”.
A sad conclusion of the book is that women supporters are only welcomed and included if they behave in ways that do not threaten male norms or affect the status quo of unequal relations of power in sport. Thus rather than resulting in changes in the sport-gender order it can work to consolidate existing power hierarchies.
The issues with which I started show that this is an important and topical issue. Kim Toffoletti’s attempt to address them is most welcome and timely.