The Work of Belonging

Arsenal Ladies v. Chelsea Ladies - copyright June Pan 2012 DO NOT REPRODUCE WITHOUT PERMISSION

I’d like to share with you a post I wrote some time back, on being a woman who loves and blogs about European football, which is a traditionally- and aggressively-masculine domain: Women and the Football Precariat.

That high-brow title belies the simplicity of my main point, really: that as a woman, I don’t and can’t belong. The default football fan is always male; as a woman, I will always be Other.

A man has a place, as a football fan. So whatever he does, he’s fine. This is his world, and he is the standard. And if his opinion, his writing, his facts leave something to be desired — well, we all know there are silly football fans out there. Roll eyes, shrug shoulders. Move on.

Except no, wait, back up. When a man spouts off nonsense, we put it down to him being another one of the ignorant masses. He’s just another stupid football fan. But at least he still belongs in the football world, even if it’s on the bottom rung.

That’s not quite the case for a woman. Because when she says something objectionable, she’s slammed for being a woman and what does a woman know about football anyway? Cue: rehashing of the proverbial offside rule debate. Cue: every stereotype you’ve ever heard. Because she’s not “just another stupid football fan”, see — she’s a stupid woman trying to be a football fan.

A woman doesn’t have a god-given right to be a football fan. She has to earn it.

So when it comes to writing about football, it’s not enough to jot down some half-formed opinions mixed with a dash of fact. You don’t get that kind of leeway, as a member of the football precariat. You have to stay on top of your game. You have to get it right.

Or else develop a skin that’s thicker than the lithosphere.

This might remind you of Molly Lambert’s 2011 article, “Can’t Be Tamed: A Manifesto”. It’s definitely been on my mind.

But over the past couple of days, I’ve been reflecting on my place as a football fan in conjunction with this Youngist interview regarding the problem with “white allies” — specifically, the problem with the label of “ally”:

Labels are about fixed identities as opposed to the work. Labels are about differentiation from others and work to position one as above accountability – “I am ally don’t question me.”  The notion of being an ally supersedes the necessary space of accountability. As whites engaged in political work, justice work, and work that challenges white supremacy, we must be accountable to the struggles for justice, to communities of color, to organizations on frontlines, and to the work being done.

Labels are about identity, and identity is about belonging, and belonging itself is an act of exclusion. Because to put up a boundary within which you can belong is to put up a boundary with which some other people must be shut out. But work, labor, breaks with the spatial logic of identity and belonging. Work is about responsibility, productivity, accountability. Work cannot be exclusionary because work is engaged and subjective.

I’m not entirely sure yet where this line of thinking will take me, as far as the intersection of being a woman and being a football fan. But maybe that question itself is now irrelevant. Maybe the right question to ask is: what is it that I do, in loving football? The answer for now is: I write. So I will write about my fan experience, and I will write about the sport, and I will not stop writing and questioning, because that is my work.

I leave you with Marx:

Labour is the living, form-giving fire; it is the transitoriness of things, their temporality, as their formation by living time.


One thought on “The Work of Belonging

  1. I am so glad you have talked about this. I conducted a little study of national newspapers in Uganda while I was working as a journalist at a daily there. I sat on the Features floor and all of the editors for the different magazines were women. Their writers were women, for the most part. We had about five men for thirteen women (the largest gathering of women in Editorial could be found on our floor).

    I collected the two English dailies of the country for a month and counted off the bylines. There was only one female sports writer in one daily and none in the other. The other interesting part was the stories they covered were not as gender-biased as the stories in other parts of the paper (like news, features, etc). The sports writers were able to write stories of women’s games without feeling the need to mention the player’s marital status. (We would have done that on my floor. A story focusing on the woman as just an actor, on my floor, would never make it to press.) It made sense you know because a fan is a fan. He is going to get the game and the woman’s having a husband or not is really nothing to do with her technique. When he reports on the game, it won’t feature. In the entire paper, this was the one place that women were written about in a way that I was comfortable with. I thought we all needed to take notes from the sports desk.

    So while there was a definite need for more female sports writers, I came to regard the desk with a certain amount of respect. It seemed like the women were able to be actors in those stories and I liked that.

    But you’re right about the exclusive space that sports is. I sort out a female sports writer who has been in the field for a while and currently works in Rwanda. I talked to her about writing for the desk and also being a co-host on a radio sports show, and it seemed to me she arrived to the same thing that you did: she loves sports and it is her job to write. And that is just what she is doing. On a different level though, I sensed that she earned her spot with the male giants. She must have worked more than the other men that are just accepted because they were men. But she is good, she is really good. Because sports is also a lot about the game itself- understanding it and following it- the people that interact with her have been able to put aside her sex and enjoy her as a fellow sports person.

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