It’s 1 a.m. in China, and one of the country’s most popular foreign soccer teams, Germany, has just lost to Mexico at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. On CCTV-5, the state broadcaster’s sports arm, two hosts — one male, one female — are discussing the game.
“I don’t care about the result,” says Yang Mingming, a fresh-faced, sweet-looking woman, to her co-host Shao Shengyi. “Did you notice how handsome [German national coach] Joachim Löw looked today? And those German players! To be honest, whenever they’re on the field, I’m just happy to look at them and don’t care how they play.”
A grinning Shao responds: “Standard female perspective.”
This kind of misogyny used to aggravate me when I first got into soccer nearly 30 years ago. These days, though, I’ve become jaded by the whole thing. I’ve become accustomed to the daft questions, willful misunderstandings, and even outright malice toward female soccer fans in China.
I fell in love with soccer during Italia ’90. At that time, soccer was very much considered a man’s sport in China, so there were not many female fans. Back then, I had to explain to everyone where my passion for the beautiful game stemmed from.
As I grew older, it wasn’t easy to convince the men around me that I was into it for the same reasons as them: the excitement, the moments of levity, the emotional roller coaster of watching two well-matched teams compete with each other. “My dad is a huge fan,” I would say simply. “He often watches soccer games on TV, and sometimes I watch them with him.”
I always felt that this kind of explanation was more than good enough for male soccer fans to justify their love of soccer. But it rarely worked for me. My peers would look at me, eyebrows raised incredulously. “Really? But isn’t soccer a boys’ game? Lots of dads like to watch it, but I’ll bet few of them watch with their daughters!”
Like any regular fan, I’d try to bond with others about my favorite soccer moments from my youth: Roberto Baggio’s sky-high penalty miss in the 1994 World Cup Final, Diego Maradona’s unhinged-looking celebrations after scoring against Greece, days before he was sent home for a failed drug test. But all that was useless, too. “I knew it!” some men would exclaim. “You’re a tomboy, aren’t you?” No, I wasn’t, I’d reply to no avail. “Do your parents raise you like a boy?” they’d ask. Later, worn down by the whole charade, I found it easiest to say yes, I’m a bit like a boy. It was untrue, but it saved a lot of time.
Around the turn of the century, however, I discovered that I no longer needed that standard answer. There was an increasing number of female soccer fans in China, and although I still watched most of the games with my dad, I no longer felt like the odd one out when I told male friends I liked soccer.
But no sooner had China’s female fans emerged than the media began to stereotype them.
I have always thought that male Chinese soccer aficionados see female fans as somehow fake, and not to be taken seriously. Media representations of female fans still follow the outrageous misogyny of Yang and Shao, pushing the idea that the “standard” female soccer fan’s enthusiasm for the game lies not in its inherent beauty, drama, and moments of levity, but in the superficial eroticizing of beautiful male players.
This stereotype is reproduced across Chinese media outlets and social networks. Some soccer coverage bills itself as “tailor-made” for female fans, but then crassly objectifies male soccer players. Check out this popular WeChat article titled “World Cup = Meat, Meat, Meat, Meat, and More Meat!” and featuring a list of attractive male players stripped to the waist. Here’s another, titled “2018 World Cup watch guide for women: There are a lot of studs on the following teams.” In yet another such guide, the article starts with “For female (fake) fans, neither rules nor tactics matter! The only thing that matters is the handsome men both on and off the field.”
Let’s take a closer look at an article published in April on the online news portal Sohu, titled “As a female soccer fan, how do I watch a game gracefully?” According to the article, here’s how: Step 1, find a team to support. Step 2, buy the jersey and pair it with “high heels and Prada.” Step 3, sip wine while watching the games — not beer, because that’s a “man’s drink.” When a goal goes in, “say ‘cheers’ to the guy opposite you. No matter who he is, he’ll fall for you instantly.”
That’s how male fans see female supporters in China. At best, girls don’t like soccer. But if they do, their role is reduced to quiet, deferential sex objects who exist to enhance the male experience of the game with well-deployed, lighthearted titillation.
Of course, it’s natural for heterosexual women to be attracted to beautiful sportsmen. But to be honest, most of us would rather talk about whether Portugal has the squad depth to progress beyond the last 16 than what Cristiano Ronaldo looks like with his jersey off.
The stereotypes of Chinese women in soccer are ridiculous and offensive. They assume that women either don’t like soccer or do so out of sexual instinct. Previously, only “tomboys” — women who emulated men — could be soccer fans. Now, women can be different from male supporters, but they still desire them. Either way, soccer remains a male domain, hallowed ground for a gender I can only assume is born with innate knowledge of the offside rule.
Chinese feminists have rightly criticized the pigeonholing of the country’s female soccer fans as misogynistic. Some of their counterarguments, however, are problematic. In one article, for example, the author claims that “soccer culture tends to repel women” because the game is full of “toxic masculinity.” While well-intentioned, such language does not further the debate because it implies that women who move in soccer circles are somehow “adulterated” or “poisoned” by unhealthy expressions of manhood, and therefore can’t be both soccer fans and feminists.
In the fight against gender discrimination, we must be wary of arguments that implicitly tarnish the reputations of women who try to carve out spaces in traditionally male arenas. Misogyny in Chinese soccer is irreducible to a single gender issue; rather, it touches on all sorts of problems, like the lack of female representation in the national media’s sports coverage and gendered physical education classes at Chinese primary schools. In addition, depictions of soccer — and of sports more generally — as fierce, brutal, and savage are both inaccurate and inherently male-centric. Yes, soccer can be competitive, even ugly — but it is also sophisticated, aesthetic, and artistic.
I applaud the responses of many female soccer fans who react to misogyny with humor and self-awareness. On social media, many acknowledge their lower social roles in order to mock the excessive behavior of male fans: “It’s not wise to predict the final score — thank God I’m just a fake female fan and no one cares what I think!” “The 2 a.m. kickoff is too late, and it looks like a boring game. Good thing I’m just a fake female fan so I can go to sleep now!”
Despite the tone-deaf comments about women, I’ll follow this World Cup. After all, I’ve followed all of them since Shao Shengyi was in diapers. Not because I like gawking at pretty men, or to make myself seem more attractive to male fans. To hell with all that. I watch because I love the game.
Editor: Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Female fans cheer on the Chinese national team during a World Cup qualifying match in Wuhan, Hubei province, Aug. 31, 2017. VCG)