‘Sexy’ Women and the Men’s World Cup: (Mis)Representations of Female Football Fans

By Dr Stacey Pope


Do you think the This Fan Girl project is important and why? What impact could it have on female football fans?

Media coverage of female fans typically represents them in subordinate ways, for example, a cursory internet search for ‘female fans’ or ‘female sports fans’ brings up numerous sexualised images of women. Television coverage of FIFA World Cup tournaments also typically focuses on those women who are young, conventionally attractive and glamorous and who are typically wearing revealing clothing. Therefore, projects which aim to portray more ‘ordinary’ images of female fans are important. This Fan Girl recently launched a campaign with Carabao to get more representative images of women to the top of the search engine using the hashtag #WeAreFemaleFans. Jacqui McAssey’s Girlfans project has also been instrumental in using photography and football fanzines to capture the diversity of female fans in England.


Media coverage needs to reflect the range of female sports fans, for example, by including women of different ages and ethnic groups, as well as portraying more ordinary or ‘everyday’ images of female fans instead of typically focusing on highly sexualised images of young women. The sexual objectification of female fans at men’s FIFA World Cup tournaments serves to reinforce gendered notions that football is a ‘man’s game’ and the World Cup is a male spectacle, whereby sexualized images of women are presented for the pleasure of the male gaze. Such images also serve to undermine women’s status as ‘real’ sports fans.


This Fan Girl claim that female football fans are misrepresented today, as the media have the tendency to focus only on sexy and young female fans. Is this something you have also noticed in your work?

Media representations of sport typically focus on women in non-athletic roles. In men’s football this has also included a focus on the players’ wives and girlfriends or the phenomenon of the WAG’s. This contributes to women’s inferior status in sport as the ‘manliness’ of active male players is contrasted with images of heterosexually attractive women in non-athletic ‘feminine’ roles as wives or girlfriends. Media coverage of female fans similarly focuses on women in highly sexualized roles. This presentation of women as sex objects has been the case at previous men’s FIFA World Cup tournaments as well as at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, where TV coverage ‘naturally’ pans to young, conventionally attractive female fans during gaps in play, serving to reinforce the notion that football is a ‘male sport’. The sexual objectification of female fans is often accompanied by sexist media reporting which assumes that women will have no interest in football, such as newspaper articles providing tips for ‘World Cup widows’ to survive the World Cup period, whilst men are busy engrossed in the tournament.


Why do you think this representation of female fans happening and what effect can it have on women?

This sexist reporting can be largely attributed to the media being a male dominated institution; women are underrepresented in top management positions in the media across the globe and women continue to make up a small proportion of sports journalists.


This type of reporting can serve to reinforce hierarchies of men as authentic or ‘real’ sports fans and women as ‘inauthentic’ or inferior sports fans. My research on female football and rugby union fans has shown that women have to routinely ‘prove’ their status as ‘real’ fans – usually to male supporters. Common stereotypes of female sports fans include that they lack sporting knowledge, are only interested in the sexual attractiveness of (male) star players and are not as passionate or committed as male fans. Media coverage which only focuses on sexualised images of female fans does little to challenge the perceptions of women as inferior sports fans.


Has your research shown the number of female sports fans increasing in the UK and why is this the case?

I argue that there has been a feminization of sports fandom, with increased opportunities for women to become involved in sport as fans today. I suggest that, in recent years, there have been increasing numbers of active female fans at sports events, so women now make up an integral component of the sports crowd. This is supported by statistics which have shown that in the UK women now make up a fairly substantial proportion of fans – for example, around one quarter of football Premier League fans and one fifth of rugby union Premiership fans. I argue that this can be attributed to two key factors.


Firstly, major transformations have occurred in women’s lives in the areas of work, education and within the family. For example, there are now less gender segregated roles and the size of families have reduced with access to birth control. This is likely to have led to greater equality between the sexes and consequently more opportunities for women to engage in sport as fans. Secondly, major changes have occurred in professional sports which have arguably created a more welcoming environment for women. The move to all-seater stadia in men’s English football following changes implemented after the Hillsborough Stadium disaster of 1989 and improvements in stadia and facilities after men’s rugby union professionalised in 1995 have played a part. Some women have of course been attending these sports throughout their histories.


What effect can men’s FIFA World Cup tournaments have on women’s interest in football?

Evidence from a number of countries suggests that global (male) tournaments, especially the FIFA men’s World Cup finals, can generate interest in sport for female fans. In my research, some women were first introduced to football through the men’s World Cup and some female fans discussed how successful men’s national teams (such as the 1966 and 1990 FIFA World Cup Finals) helped to generate their initial interest in football. Such major competitions represent national occasions, whereby football’s traditionally masculinist frame is relaxed temporarily and women can become part of the national celebrations. The men’s World Cup can therefore provide opportunities for females to become involved in this traditionally male dominated sport, who have perhaps not had the same opportunities to experience watching live football as male fans.


Female fans described how there was a sense that ‘everyone’ watches the World Cup and this prompted feelings of national unity and national pride because it involves the ‘whole country’. Women’s interest in the FIFA men’s World Cup is supported by statistics; for example, in the UK women made up just under 40% of the television audience at the 2014 men’s World Cup and at the 2018 World Cup one survey found that millions of women are enjoying the tournament, with over half watching the tournament on a daily basis.


Findings are based on the book The Feminization of Sports Fandom: A Sociological Study. London: Routledge.



Dr. Stacey Pope

Associate Professor, Durham University



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