Did you watch 21 Thunder? Did you even hear about it? It’s okay if not. 21 Thunder, a Canadian drama that follows a U-21 men’s team for a fictional MLS club called the Montreal Thunder, has thus far only run for one eight-episode season, first showing on CBC Television in July of 2017 before landing on Netflix. The show’s writers made a decent mix of standard young beautiful people TV drama fare with actual real-life topics from Canadian soccer, including the lower-league match-fixing scandal from a few years ago. It was mostly fun popcorn television.
They also had a plotline about the first woman to coach in MLS, introducing “Christy Cook,” former Canadian women’s national team player and new assistant coach for the U-21s. Cook, played by Stephanie Bennett, is a national team hero, five-time player of the year (only five?), and Olympic medalist. As she’s introduced, one character murmurs to another, “The Americans broke her nose and she still beat them three times. 20 million people watched that game.” Ah, the magic of television.
Cook is clearly a Christine Sinclair stand-in, a patchwork of Sinclair’s own larger-than-life narrative and the show’s dramatic need for both a leading lady and a foil to the team’s sorta-sexist-but-doing-his-best head coach. On the drama side, the show has an unfortunate tendency to have Cook perform a lot of emotional labor for the men around her, from her head coach to an aging Scottish import trying to keep his high-profile contract with the senior team. She’s also somewhat one of the moral centers of the show; she stands up for the players and refuses to give in to the match fixing when she finds out about it.
But the show has also filled in the personal details of Cook’s life by dipping into Sinclair’s well. Cook has a mother at home who, the show implies, is recovering from a stroke. Her mother’s mobility is impaired and she needs in-home care. Sinclair’s own mother has multiple sclerosis, a detail she held close until deciding it was important to be open for the sake of increasing her MS activism.
Given how notoriously private Sinclair has been over the course of her career, including only revealing that her father passed four months before the 2016 Olympics once the tournament was long done, perhaps it would be something of an unpleasant surprise to see how closely 21 Thunder hewed to the publicly available details of her personal life (assuming she’s watched the show). Perhaps Sinclair has much, much better things to be doing than binge-watching Netflix shows, or she prefers Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.
For those of us who did watch, it’s interesting to see how well (or how badly) the show manages to mimic the realities of what it’s like to be a national sporting icon, a professional female athlete, and a retired player. Someone on the writing staff has at least done a cursory Google search of juicy topics in women’s soccer in the past decade, and that comes through in the broader strokes. Cook talks to a friend about a team she played on that folded, “the long-gone Charleston Voodoo,” and says the owner was an auto parts guy who would “have all of us players over for these lavish meals, ply us with Courvoisier, try to get us to make out with each other.” It’s a clear reference to the similarly long-gone magicJack, a team whose owner’s alleged harassment of his players only added to the ignominious end of Women’s Professional Soccer.
The show is also aware of the paltry amount of money at play in women’s soccer compared to the men’s game. “Not a lot of rich dudes signing checks for women’s soccer,” Cook says, explaining why she put up with the Voodoo situation. In the same conversation, a Thunder first team player tells Cook that he signed a $5 million contract, to which Cook scoffs that the amount is more than double the salary of the entire women’s national team, and that she also never made the kind of endorsement money the male player did.
When you dig down into the some of the finer details, though, you get the sense the writers only know what they got from the first page of their Google search. In one episode, Cook is scrolling through an article about herself and seems surprised when the comments quickly turn sexual and misogynistic. She’s taken aback at being asked to do more social media PR for the team to help boost their progressive image for hiring a woman in MLS. She frets over the team’s old-school male head coach not taking her seriously, as though that too was a surprise. It all contrives to make Cook seem hopelessly naïve for someone of her stature and background. To be fair, she gradually asserts herself as a coach throughout the season and by the end has the confidence to unapologetically take charge of the team in an emergency situation. But her wide-eyed innocence in the face of the club’s politics and personalities just doesn’t ring true of someone who’s presumably been at the highest level of the game for her entire adult life.
The reality of women in soccer is often that by the time they reach any level of prominence, they’ve already encountered plenty of career roadblocks, whether it’s less access to coaching courses or just straight up misogynist resistance to their authority and expertise. And where were Christy Cook’s former teammates? Her allies? The show depicted her as a woman quite alone, whether it was in taking care of her mother or trying to forge a path in her post-playing career, and her exasperation that she couldn’t simply come in and be given the chance to prove she was competent was an oblivious hole in the writing.
Most women in Canadian soccer are probably all too aware of how hard it can be to climb the coaching ladder, let alone in the men’s game. As a former pro and international player, Cook would probably have at least a USSF C-license or its UEFA equivalent, and to be quite frank, you simply don’t survive as the captain of both a national and club team without at least being aware of the politics that can come into play. The show wanted her to struggle for dramatic reasons, but made the struggle a little too manufactured, a little too neatly resolved when the head coach’s own problems paved the way for her to take over. In reality, working harder and being smarter than everyone else is no guarantee that your superiors will see your worth if you are non-male, non-white, non-cis, non-straight, non-able bodied. But it’s TV, and perhaps on TV, we should get to see a woman triumph without having to climb through a hundred miles of muck first. Sometimes you don’t want to see your own life struggles laid out in exact detail; you want something aspirational that shows how things could or should be.
If 21 Thunder gets a second season, here’s hoping for a confident, in-charge Cook and a writer’s room that has a little more nuance. There’s not nearly enough stories about women in sports, fiction or otherwise, and that makes it more important that they get Cook’s story right.