The beautiful game: the multiscalar experiences of women footballers playing a male-dominated game

GFGRG dissertation joint 1st prize winner

Isobel Phillips, University of Nottingham

With the best piece of pre-dissertation advice ringing in my ears – “Write about something you enjoy”, I decided to focus my research on a sport I have grown up loving, football. Combined with an interest in gender geographies that had developed through lectures, the challenge was initially daunting, with preliminary research finding sociology as the anchor of what I wanted to focus on. The benefit of conducting my own primary research however was I could find the geography within people’s experiences.

My primary methodology was 10 one to one semi-structured interviews, walking on the pitch, near a pitch, utilising a bird’s eye view and over the phone with a range of female university and civic players. Using some prompts as well as bouncing off the interviewees’ responses, a range of themes emerged including gender, sexuality, media, spaces, performance and stereotypes to name but a few. Due to my complex position as a double insider (I am both a football player and some participants were teammates), I also kept a reflexive diary throughout the process to understand my subjectivity, recording often some uncomfortable thoughts but ones that ultimately helped my research. I drew on a range of literature to give a thorough geographical grounding to my work, including key thinkers like Foucault, Massey and McDowell, as well as incorporating research outside of the usual discipline, giving it a new geographical spin.

I grouped my findings into three main scales, the overall sport, the pitch, and the body scale.

Within football itself, gender differences were such an influencing factor as female footballers struggle against a narrative that puts football as “more acceptable for boys” (Sally, an interviewee), a territory that’s not encouraged. The large-scale gender inequality; with the annual pay of the top 1,693 women footballers equivalent to one of the highest paying male footballer’s playing only contract in 2017-18 (Kelner, 2017). This trickles down, discouraging girls from an early age to play. The media emerged as a key factor in women’s football, with newspapers actively choosing how much space – column inches in fact – they give to women’s sport, historically very low, but slowly improving. Increasingly though social media, a new but hugely growing online space offers a geographically distant but strongly networked resistance to the masculine hegemony, as seen here in the Chelsea men’s and women’s teams sharing online space.

Figure 1: Chelsea Women and Men’s double header Instagram post (@chelseafwc)

The pitch was a crucial element to my work, raising some real geographical connotations I wasn’t expecting. Yi-Fu Tuan’s concept of topophilia was explored and I found that for these players the strength of connection was increased by an emotional connection, primarily when playing games as that’s where the winning and losing occurred, in comparison to training. Playing at home was still preferred, but with the increasing placelessness of sporting arenas due to artificialisation, the difference is becoming less pronounced. Analysing sub-pitch space was something new I hadn’t come across but I found through mapping the player’s comfort zones within the pitch, as shown below. This revealed an atypical link between Butler’s theory of gender performativity. Just as gender is re-enacted until seemingly natural, by playing football for many years and repeating scripts, the performance comes naturally to them. Non-visual senses, originally overlooked in geographical research were also prominent; the feeling of “standing in the cold” and “the smell of muddy football boots” highlighted the importance of senses in creating a richer sense of place. What was also interesting was the rubber crumb of 3G pitches travelled with the players back to their houses and cars, expanding the bounded space of the pitch.

The third results chapter discusses the impact of football on the body. The power of stereotypes was clear here, from being ‘tomboyish’ as a girl, viewed as a softer form of masculinity, with less of a threat to sporting patriarchal power. Hitting adolescence however this changes into “everyone thinks you’re gay!” (Sally – a participant). Using Foucault’s (1975) theory of normalisation within a sporting context; just as heterosexuality is positioned as natural, the association of lesbianism with women footballers, society also controls women athletes by being “doubly abnormal”. This idea is also caught up with being a “woman” as being a lesbian and to an extent, a women footballer, challenge the category of woman as they don’t have a socially sanctioned relationship to men (Caudwell, 2003). Women footballers are disciplined by the woman-feminine-heterosexual imperative, when in fact many employ woman-masculine-lesbian as well as embodying typically masculine aspects such as strength, power, muscles and short hair, disrupting the gender construct.   

Within the body work, injuries were a powerful component. The mind has often been prioritised over the body in dualistic thinking, so bodily emotions have often been excluded from geography (Antoninetti and Garrett, 2012). I found that through injury, players experienced ‘place panic’, an anxiety with feeling out of place in one’s usual comfort zone. This challenges Ettinger’s (2004) work on how mobility is linked to all emotions, as here immobility produces the stronger reaction. Bodies may also be subject to temporary spatial deprivation in which the ground may be physically inaccessible to crutches or wheelchairs, adding work to exclusionary space that has until now mainly focused on chronic disability. In addition, women footballer’s bodies were often subject to performativity. The male gaze acted as a form of surveillance that appeared in women’s football from a young age, making women feel out of place and like their body had to change. They had the contrasting experiences of wanting to feel attractive but the shame that when a female player made a mistake, it was representative of their entire gender.

My research addressed how gender differences are enacted at multiple scales; the sport, the pitch and the body. I hope I showed that although there are gendered challenges that come with playing football there is a volume of positive emotions that have contributed to women playing to high levels and for many years. Four main themes emerged; the strong sense of home, consciousness of their gender, contrasts between and within women’s experiences and resistance to stereotypes.

The future is exciting for women’s football; viewing figures for the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France hit 1.12 billion, the Australian women’s national team just announced they would be paid on parity to the men’s squad and England Ladies played for the first time ever in front of a sold-out crowd (86,000 people) at Wembley this November. There’s plenty of work still to be done, but the time is right to be studying both geography and football.

Antoninetti, M. and Garrett, M. (2012). Body capital and the geography of aging. Area, 44(3), pp. 364-370.

Caudwell, J. (2003). Sporting Gender: Women’s Footballing Bodies as Sites/Sights for the [Re]Articulation of Sex, Gender and Desire. Sociology of Sport Journal, 20, pp. 371–386.

Ettlinger, N. (2004). Toward a Critical Theory of Untidy Geographies: The Spatiality of Emotions in Consumption and Production. Feminist Economics, 10(3), pp. 21-54.

Foucault, M. (1975). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin.

Kelner, M. (2017). Football’s gender pay gap worse than in politics, medicine and space. The Guardian. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 1/6/18].

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.