On the night of August 16th, Australia donned itself in green and gold and assembled as a collective: crowds of thousands swarmed city parks and stadiums, pub-goers huddled shoulder-to-shoulder, while family members at home scurried for a spot on the living room couch. Gathering in the culmination of the FIFA Women’s World Cup semi-final, almost half the nation had their eyes glued to each fateful kick of the Matildas, like seagulls to a stray chip — surpassing the viewership of Cathy Freeman’s trailblazing victory at Sydney’s 2000 Olympics and firmly inaugurating the Matildas as Australia’s most adored national treasure. If our country had ever felt divided before, the pride of our women’s national soccer team had decidedly unified us in a facade of progressivism, but perhaps for one day, and one day only. The Women’s World Cup gave us a few weeks highlighting what Australia does best – occasionally coming together in the spirit of nationalism to support sport or celebrations like Invasion Day, instead of uniting in the face of injustice to lobby for recent campaigns against sexual assault or the discussions post-World Cup about paying women athletes equally.
The sensational success of the Matildas has unquestionably sparked a cultural shift towards a greater recognition of women in sport, and society more generally — launching the perennial topic of gender equality into an unprecedented national limelight. Patricia Karvelas, for the ABC, hailed the rise of the Matildas as a “feminist cultural reckoning for our daughters”, where age-old, sexist tropes had been “put to rest”. Craig Foster, for The Guardian, speaks to a “new Australia” by way of the Matildas, who “overturned misconceptions of women’s sport and… the place of women in contemporary Australia” through “extraordinary capability, courage and refusal to accept less”. Lewis Martin, head of Channel Seven’s network sport, declared the team had “rewritten the history books”, while Tracey Holmes, in writing for the Australian Financial Review, pondered whether Julia Gillard had ever considered such a progressive future following her “misogyny speech”. Apparently, the cultural force of the Matildas has been so strong that it has seemingly eradicated any traces of sexism or misogyny from the country. Hoorah!
Yet, as the Matildas ran national headlines, the Australian women’s netball team quietly secured their 12th uncontested victory at the Netball World Cup. And what do we hear from the media? Not a peep. This is not supposed to be a case of “whataboutism”: can we really claim the achievement of gender equality through the championing of women’s successes, if we selectively cherry-pick which ones are worthy enough to celebrate?
The value system that navigates such attention seems to largely predicate on the cultural interests of Australia — and that is, Australian men. Sports such as AFL, cricket, and soccer consistently rank among the most-watched sports in Australia while also being the most male-dominated — with reports collected by the Australian Sports Commission finding that males accounted for 84% of AFL participants, 88% of cricket participants, and 77% of soccer participants nationwide. It comes as no surprise, then, that netball receives the little attention that it does, considering 89% of its participants are female, a stark contrast to the above sports — despite it having more participants in total compared to both AFL and cricket. Caleb Bond, in writing for news.com.au, declared that women’s sports were not “hogwash” while simultaneously maintaining that they “[weren’t] that exciting” compared to the men’s – epitomising the sexism behind our cultural values pretty well: “The point is that people want to watch a good sport… And most of the inferior quality offerings happen to be played by women.” Bond goes on to ironically claim, “It’s not a sexist thing.”
Sport, as an institution, has always excluded women. The exclusion of women traces back to the literal inception of competitive sport, beginning from the first Ancient Greek Olympic Games in 776 BC, to the first Modern Olympic Game in Athens in 1896, and continuing all the way up until 1900, when the first female sporting group was finally formed in Australia. Even sports that attempted to include women sought to confine them: netball, specifically conceived as a “women’s basketball”, limited one’s physical movement and restricted contact between players to adhere to societal notions of femininity, while the emphasis on “masculine” traits such as assertiveness, toughness, strength, power, and aggression in traditional sport maintains the male as dominant and superior. Further, the distinct gender markings of women’s sports, such as the “Women’s World Cup” as opposed to simply the “World Cup”, seek to additionally entrench men as the default in both sport and broader society, and leave women as the ‘other’, and an afterthought. Australia’s cultural identity as one defined by male sportsmanship thus continues to exclude much of our population, as women are expected to familiarise themselves with the particular rules, nuances, and jargon of a language that has largely and historically been denied to them — in order to participate in much of our national conversations.
Yes, the Matildas may be “empowering”, “inspiring”, and “liberating” — but framing their success as a high and mighty feminist endeavour to conquer all sexism completely renounces our structures of its flaws and ailments. It succumbs to the pitfalls of a liberal, post-feminist lens that falsely promises that equality can be, and is, achieved by simply offering women more opportunities and recognising their successes, despite such offerings existing in a system that seeks to first and foremost benefit men. It does nothing to critique that, even if more opportunities were afforded to women, positions of power and authority would continue to be male-dominated — such as 20 out of 32 teams in the Women’s World Cup being coached by men (including our beloved Matildas), and women only represent eight out of the 37 members in the FIFA Council. It places the onus of responsibility onto women to succeed under the guise of “empowerment”, “freedom of choice”, and “equal opportunity”, rather than dismantling the actual system that prevents them from doing so — such a sentiment highlighted by FIFA’s very president, Gianni Infantino, when he addressed women when speaking in Sydney: “You have the power to convince us men what we have to do and what we don’t have to do. You do it. Just do it.” Yeah, because women have definitely held the bargaining power over men throughout history, and it is definitely our job to prove ourselves to change their minds about women’s inherent inferiority
I, like the rest of the nation, have thoroughly enjoyed the success of the Matildas and the sense of pride they’ve instilled, along with the newfound dialogues they’ve ignited regarding female recognition and gender equality. However, the Matildas’ achievements are not the feminist milestone they’re made out to be — only a testament to the sheer capability of a few gifted women to excel in an inherently oppressive system when ‘the nation’ decides to get behind them. Until we address and dismantle the deeply ingrained sexism and misogyny within our societal structures, branding any achievement as “feminist” will not liberate you, me, or anyone else.