One of my fondest memories from growing up is when Brazil won the 2002 World Cup. I remember still being in my pajamas when it happened, watching TV on the sofa wrapped in a Brazilian flag, my dad pacing back and forth watching the match, nervous as Brazil matches require you to be. At that point, we’d been crowned world champions four times, and it seemed to be the only thing we could claim as ours; an innate talent at playing football. I was 12, and I didn’t really understand the game, but I was able to follow the ball when the men dressed in yellow zoomed it past the German players, heartbeat speeding up, the adrenaline rushing into my head.
I can’t explain this effective transfer of football-love that is passed down generation to generation; when Brazil plays, we all stop to watch.
It’s problematic, of course, as everything is: FIFA has destroyed communities across the world for its competitions through forced evictions; Neymar (previously someone I loved to watch on the pitch) was recently accused of sexual assault and then exposed his accuser across social media platforms; the chants in the field are sometimes homophobic, sexist, and/or unwelcoming to those considered to be outside society’s norms; clubs are not ashamed to re-hire domestic abusers and convicted rapists. More recently, the Brazil jersey has been used as a uniform for Bolsonaro supporters, people who openly defend an oppressive status quo, a white supremacy that is truly dangerous, life-threatening. All while the national team drifts farther from its roots, its squad including only three players active in the domestic league.
While I grew up watching football, I did not grow up seeing myself on the pitch. Watching football was always a bonding activity with my dad, but we never watched women play—I just assumed there were no women’s or girls’ teams. Following the sport as someone who wasn’t, and did not want to be, a player has been a fraught experience for me.
“Explain the offside rule.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Women only watch the World Cup, it’s so annoying.”
When I asked, “Where are the women?”, I’ve been told women aren’t interested, so people don’t invest in women’s teams. I’ve been asked, “If you’re so worried about women’s football, why don’t you support it?”
We are given these responses when the structure is broken as hell. It is the women’s fault that women’s football isn’t taken seriously, it is the women’s fault that it receives no investment. But women’s games are not broadcast often, and their matches are not advertised like the men’s; often women players are forced to work part-time jobs on top of their training to make ends meet. And any fans of the women’s game must deal with the sneers of men when we speak about women playing.
Such a toxic environment would seem to not allow women to thrive. Yet, thrive they do, and it’s an incredible thing to witness.
Marta, for example, leaves fans consistently in awe of her strength.
She is 33 years old and FIFA has deemed her the best player in the world — multiple times — but despite her clear talent, the investment necessary to elevate her as a player simply doesn’t exist. While she’s scored more goals than Pelé, she is not given the love, attention, or recognition she deserves.
In her second match of the 2019 World Cup, Marta entered the pitch wearing a purple-toned lipstick that stayed unbothered during the entire match against Italy, despite her sweating and running. She scored her 17th goal in a World Cup, beating Miroslav Klose’s record of 16 goals in the same competition.
A Brief History of Femininity and the Brazilian Women’s Team
Brazil is known for having stellar (male) national football teams, having won five World Cups and exporting players like Pelé and Ronaldinho to Europe and beyond. In contrast, there wasn’t a Brazil women’s team until 1979 because women’s football was outlawed by president Getúlio Vargas through a presidential decree in 1941 that stated football was “incompatible with the conditions of the feminine nature.” By the time women were allowed to play football again in 1979, the men’s national team had already won three World Cups and was known as one of the best teams in the world.
When women were finally allowed to play, this relationship between femininity and sport had shifted; where femininity was once a barrier, it soon became a requirement for women attempting to play in the sport professionally.
And Sissi, a Brazilian footballer who played for the women’s national team from 1988 to 2000, certainly felt that pressure. After she shaved her head, Sissi reported prejudiced comments against her gender presentation within the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF). She told Dibradoras, a Brazilian website dedicated to women’s football, that when she had to give an interview to a magazine, they forced make-up and uncomfortable clothes onto her, in an attempt to make her more feminine. Sissi is sure that her bald head was at odds with the image CBF was trying to sell, but her talent outshone the rigid gender roles they forced on her.
“Because I was Sissi, they had to swallow the fact I was like that. I remember very well that other people were picked for the team because they were more feminine. But in 1999 they had to accept me because I was playing well, scoring goals, so journalists came and wanted to interview Sissi, they couldn’t say anything,” she told Dibradoras.
The Women’s Paulista Championship in 2001 demanded players look traditionally feminine; the rules handbook stated, “We should emphasize the beauty and sensuality of the players to attract male viewers.” This statement is damning: It tells us the people running the championship did not think women would be interested in watching women play football, and assumed the only interest men would have in watching women play would be related to the fuck-ability of the players.
Sissi stopped playing football in Brazil after the rule was issued, which is a tragedy. In a recent interview, the pain she felt at having to leave a sport she loved because it tried to force her to present as feminine is clear and saddening:
“I said: screw it, I don’t need this. Is it that hard to understand that what we want is to play and not show our beauty? We need to show our talent. They thought they would put the audience in the stadium just with beauty, but I think that didn’t work.”
Enforced femininity exists to attract male viewers, to soften the blow of women practicing a “masculine” sport, it exists to add normativity to the sport, it exists to exclude “masculine” women like Sissi.
Beyond the dis/empowering binary
In 2019 femininity on the pitch is still a problem, but not in the same way it once was. According to several men online who are self-proclaimed experts in the intersection of women and football, femininity is what stops the women’s team from playing well, from being more aggressive.
When the Brazilian team lost to France, the national newspaper O Globo published a cartoon of Marta angrily yelling at a big lipstick, blaming her makeup for the loss. The title of the cartoon, “Something Purple,” is an expression used to affirm men’s masculinity. It can also be understood as a placeholder for a more offensive expression, grelo roxo, a sexist expression used to demean strong, tough women.
Marta has been in multiple public relationships with women and is an incredible role model for queer Brazilian women. Yet although she never yelled — all she did was give a speech begging for investment in women’s football — the newspaper saw it fit to depict a black lesbian as an angry black women. Such a depiction is unquestionably anti-black and misogynistic. Her expression of femininity — her lipstick — is mocked, her race, sexuality and gender stigmatized, her achievements as a football player diminished.
In her groundbreaking book Queering Femininity, Hannah McCann argues that femininity has been historically viewed as either disempowering or empowering, a binary that stops us from queering femininity beyond these bounds, and prevents us from imagining femininity as a site for utopia. McCann grapples with feminist critiques of femininity that focus on women’s individual embodiment of it and the third-wave endorsement of the (capitalist) “choice” of embodying femininity. McCann writes that femininity is either perceived as a “masquerade”—an unfair assessment considering all gender presentation is a construction—or as an empowering “choice.”
“Choice feminism” is an insidious part of how we think of gender inequality today. The inherent flexibility of the idea that feminism is about giving women choices rather than fighting for their liberation is extremely useful for companies looking to sell products in a neoliberal, capitalist environment. Feminism is often viewed as a commodity rather than a movement for liberation, and many feminist critiques use expressions of femininity to demonstrate how this occurs.
Marta’s lipstick does not exist outside of this framework—after all, what does?—as Avon sponsors her wearing of their product. The lipstick is sweat-proof and long-wearing, and the two shades she wore to the World Cup matches look stunning on her.
McCann’s critique of the dis/empowering binary of how femininity is critical at a time where capitalism seems (and is) inescapable. And for Marta, a woman who has spent her career fighting for investment in women’s football in her country, capitalism is inherently the field in which she negotiates. Plenty of male footballers get sponsorships from “masculine” products—look at Neymar and his underwear sponsorship—and if they are criticized for it, it matters little. For the women’s teams, this revenue is a matter of survival in the sport itself; many female players still need to have a part-time job to make ends meet and be able to play at a professional level.
McCann’s dissection of femininity is eye-opening as it sheds light on how capitalism and its critiques fractures feminist and queer communities. Specifically, McCann suggests that the way queer femmes understandably distance themselves from heterosexual femininity still scapegoat femininity as a whole as oppression itself, paradoxically stigmatizing a femme femininity that might intersect with heterosexual femininity.
Her suggestion is to look beyond the dis/empowering binary, turning a critical eye toward the constructions that bind us to gender and recognizing our attachments to them so that we are empowered to negotiate our existence. Perhaps focusing on the pleasures of femininity while being critical of it, she writes, is a way of critiquing the structure rather than the women who remain attached to feminine modes of presentation.
Don’t Take the Red Lipstick Off
In Brazil, the phrase NÃO TIRA O BATOM VERMELHO (don’t take off the red lipstick) became a feminist cry in 2015, when vlogger Jout Jout explored her experience with abusive relationships in a video, recounting an instance where her ex-boyfriend asked her to take her red lipstick off because it was too provocative. It’s emblematic of the double-bind femininity requires of women in Brazil; it’s a standard imposed onto Brazilian women all the time, but it’s also mediated by the male gaze in case its expression becomes anything less than “pure” or provocative to the “wrong” man.
Marta is a black lesbian woman who plays football in a country where the women’s division remained outlawed only four decades ago. The institutions that rule the sport she loves so much have used femininity to ban her gender from playing, to question her talent, to objectify her, and to shame less feminine women out of the game. McCann argues that femininity is an effect of oppression rather than a cause; here it appears as a flexible tool to exclude, objectify, and measure women throughout their football careers.
There’s nothing about Marta that exists for male consumption, least of all her lipstick. McCann argues that instead of focusing on the trappings of femininity, a new question should be asked: What does the feminine body do? In this context, the question would be, “what is the application of that lipstick doing?”
In a field where femininity is often used as a tool to dismiss, oppress, and exclude, Marta wields it as a weapon. She is bringing femininity in her own terms into a “masculine” sport, where femininity is either objectified or read as frivolous and incompatible with the game. She is turning a performance that is normatively read as a sexual provocation into the provocation of a warrior. As the World Cup’s top goal scorer, Marta has nothing to prove, so she uses femininity as an affirmation that she is doing her work right where she is supposed to. As McCann argues, performing femininity can extend solidarity across bodies, and a recent Wired report reveals the importance of photographing women in sports indicates this can be true on multiple levels. The provocative red that Marta wore in the match against France and the purple-wine tone she wore against Italy extend solidarity towards other feminine (or feminized by force) bodies. Her performance is saying: we belong here, we will grow here, and you will not stop us.
Marta made her goodbye speech wearing a bright red lip, saying: “It’s about wanting more, it’s about training more, it’s about looking after yourself more, it’s about being ready to play 90 minutes and then 30 minutes more. This is what I ask of the girls.”
“There’s not going to be a Formiga forever. There’s not going to be a Marta forever. There’s not going to be a Cristiane.”
“Women’s football depends on you to survive. So think about that. Value it more. Cry in the beginning so you can smile in the end.”
And at the end of the day, the message was received: Don’t take the (metaphorical) red lipstick off.