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The ‘Missing Woman Fan’: Ideas about Sports Fandom and Sexuality

As soon as we think of sports, we also think of fans. But the nature of fans has most often been gendered, particularly for team sports like football, cricket and basketball, where it is seen as heavily male-dominated. For instance, it was only in the recent past, that is, in 2018, that women were first allowed to enter stadiums in Saudi Arabia to watch a soccer game. Even in other more liberal societies, it is primarily men who are seen as sports fans, and it is their needs that are targeted. For example, the cheerleaders in the Indian Premier League (IPL) are women (mostly white women) who are inevitably sexualised by men, be it the players or the fans. The main audience of cheerleading as a practice itself are heterosexual men.

According to the Gamba Insights Global Sports Fan Research of 2020, women now form 47% of highly engaged, passionate sports fans. But although the gender gap in sports fandom is closing, it still remains a largely male-dominated space. For instance, in a cricket-obsessed nation like India, the representation of fans in media and popular culture is mostly male. While Bollywood has produced several sports movies like Chak De! India, Mary Kom, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, etc. over the years, women have not been adequately represented as fans. The ‘woman sports fan’ is a missing character.

In instances when there are female representations, women are not seen as beings who can enjoy sports for what it truly is. They are seen as unfamiliar with technical aspects of sports and assumed to be superficial fans. They are also depicted as ‘distractions’, who want their husbands and partners to watch romantic movies and shows with them instead of the matches. For example, very recently, the T20 World Cup cricket match between India and Pakistan on 24th October 2021 was also the date when Karwa Chauth was celebrated. Social media was full of memes and jokes about how it was going to be very tough for the fasting women to get their husbands’ attention on that day because of the match. The implicit assumption in these jokes was that only men watch cricket, and that cricket comes first. Similarly, women fans who express their attraction for sports stars are perceived as casual fans with less knowledge and not as real fans. This perception is, of course, also a social reality and not just a fictional representation.

An example can illustrate this argument better. Both of us were fortunate to attend the 2016 Davis Cup match between India and Spain in the R. K. Khanna Tennis Stadium, New Delhi. Although we love the Indian team, it was the first time we were watching Rafael Nadal, one of the greatest players of all time, live and hence were supporting the Spanish team. A fellow male fan, quite distraught at our choice, tried to lecture us on how we should be supporting India. He assumed that we were not “really aware of the technicalities of the ongoing match”. We, however, made it clear to him that we have been following the sport for years and know very well whom to support.

This is not an isolated incident. Although we have grown up as avid tennis fans since childhood, when we talk about sports or tennis, people are often surprised at our ‘knowledge’. Some of our male friends and acquaintances pass remarks like “knowing about one player is not being a fan of the game” or, “let’s see how much you know about sports, answer this question”. Many others joke about what women do with the last page of the newspaper as it is dedicated to sports. Some others are pleasantly surprised that “women are so interested in sports” and think of it as a virtue.

However, in recent years, there have been changes in the nature of the fandom. Apart from people who watch a game or a match in the stadium, there are large online fandoms dedicated to particular sports and players. Having grown up as enthusiastic tennis fans, we too are part of the ‘tennis twitter’ fandom that engages with tennis.

But even in the digital fandom, there are assumed ways in which a fan should behave. Even as a digital fan, one is supposed to only comment on the player and the sport’s technical aspects. Fans, particularly women, who express their romantic or sexual attraction for sports stars through tweets or photos are not taken seriously and are not considered to be ‘real fans’. Although Twitter has made it possible for more female fans to engage with their favourite sport, they are often judged and trolled for their choices. Fans, particularly women, who express their desire for certain sports stars are judged as ‘lesser fans’.

However, notwithstanding these judgments, there are several women fans who openly advocate their sexual desire for sports stars. They resist these stereotypes of ‘real’ versus ‘casual’ fans and argue that men cannot govern the ways in which the nature of fandom should operate. Some of this resistance is expressed in fan fiction, which are open and detailed expressions of female sexuality and fantasy. They are vocal about their right to enjoy sports in whichever way they want.

Many of these digital fandoms, including tennis twitter, also have heated discussions on several issues – ranging from racism to sexism within and outside sports. These digital fandoms, particularly of women fans, are accused of diverting attention away from the sport to ‘other’, ‘irrelevant’ issues. The presence of women fans is seen as distracting by others, mostly male fans.

While men are seen as the real sports fans, women are only seen as casual fans. Although more and more women are taking an increasing interest in sports, they are still seen as secondary fans. Online fandoms replicate most of these perceptions but also allow some resistance to them. Sports fandoms, thus, allow us to look at interesting ways in which ideas of gender and sexuality are expressed.

Cover Image: Pixabay

Article written by:

Rituparna Patgiri teaches Sociology in Indraprastha College for Women (IPCW), University of Delhi. She has a PhD in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Ritwika Patgiri is a doctoral student in the Faculty of Economics of the South Asian University, New Delhi.

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