The AFLW (Women’s Australian Football League) has happened and we couldn’t be happier about it, even if that happiness is often expressed in joyous weeping. There’s something quaint and precious about this beginning – the huge grins on the players’ faces as they run out, the excitement of the fans, and the homegrown, back-to-basics, good-old-days feeling of walking into a suburban footy ground to stand on the terraces and watch the match. It’s not only the presence of the women players. In the opening season we have seen female field umpires officiating matches, watched Bec Goddard coaching Adelaide, and been introduced to many women sports reporters and commentators. Media coverage has also focused on women involved in AFL administration, many of whom have patiently pursued a national women’s competition away from the spotlight for many years. The AFLW has attracted thousands of fans, and corporate sponsorship and TV rights deals are in development.
The joy has also come from the impact of the women’s league on the mainstream media. So often stories about women in the media are focused on them as victims, or as objects of desire (or undesirability, as the case may be). Over many years women have campaigned for changes to the way in which violence against women is reported, which often focuses on women as objects not subjects of the story. ‘BODY IN THE BUSH’ screamed the front page of the Herald-Sun, sensationalising the brutal murder of Karen Ristevski and rendering her absent in the coverage. The sight of women as athletes, as diverse individuals with complicated lives, is refreshing to say the least. The coverage of the AFLW has seen women presented and discussed in ways usually reserved only for men, from match reports to fan posters to advertising.
These women are discussed as the heroes of their own lives. For instance, the recent Holden ads featuring Moana Hope ‘unscripted’, where she discusses growing up in a working-class family of 14. We see Hope not only as one of the leading elite footballers, but as a woman living a life full of beauty and challenges, and with views on social issues like gender roles and dis/ability. ‘I run a traffic management company full time,’ says Hope, and ‘I love my job because it puts food on the table and I take care of my family. If I don’t work, [my sister] doesn’t eat.’ She also presses the point that stereotypes need to be challenged – and not just for women. ‘We are not out there to be models, we are out there to be footballers,’ says Hope, adding that, ‘if a male wants to be a ballerina, he can be a ballerina.’
There has also been the matter-of-fact reporting of the Husbands and Partners of the AFLW players, HAPS as opposed to WAGS, with Adelaide co-captain Erin Phillips’ American wife featured alongside the male partners of other players. There’s no doubt that homophobia is rooted in an attempt to police and control gendered roles. That players are ‘out’ in the AFLW is not revolutionary, but it is brave and it publicly challenges ideas about women’s identities and experiences. This also comes in the wake of the AFL’s first Pride round, organised by St Kilda last year, which will travel to their opponent Sydney’s home ground this year.
But as the AFLW is increasingly professionalised, and the players hopefully (and deservedly) receive the spoils of working in a lucrative industry, will the women’s game lose something of what has been uncovered in this first season? Channel 7 executives are reportedly over the moon at the TV ratings and, according to a report from Caroline Wilson, each game is now worth around one million dollars in advertising revenue. However, the competition began with a lousy pay structure, and the success of the opening season only underlines how badly the players are being exploited. Even with corporate sponsors reportedly clamouring to sign up players, pay rates will only rise marginally in 2018. Alternatively, even in the midst of the success of the first season the prioritisation of the men’s pre-season competition has resulted in some crappy timeslots for the AFLW. And, as a number of commentators have pointed out, the proportion of Indigenous players in the first year of the AFLW is less than might have been expected.
There are causes for optimism, though. Danny McGinlay, the comedian behind the text on the Western Bulldogs’ banners, came up with a beauty that day the Dogs men’s team played a curtain-raiser for the ALFW team: ‘Men can play this game too? Good on ya boys for giving it a go. But seriously, get off the ground before the real match starts!’ Surely any club that can countenance this kind of irony, combined with support for their women’s team, will fight hard to create an equal playing field in all respects. At Carlton’s season launch, the Outer Sanctum reported that players from both the women’s and men’s team were announced together when their number was called. And the AFL reports that in the last three years, 617 women’s and girls’ teams have been formed across the country.
Perhaps the most beautiful thing for us is that girls and women are celebrating what their bodies can do, and partaking in a deeply satisfying endeavour of working together.
As fans know, the AFLW has not even been about ‘our’ team. The joy and agony of the opening season seems to have been more important than whether the players are ‘yours’ or not. Mel Hickey, wearing a shiner, beaming as she sings the song with the Dees. Erin Phillips, mobbed after kicking ‘that’ goal in Adelaide’s come-from-behind win against the Blues. And the irrepressible, instantly iconic Darcy Vescio, who reels off feminist Instagram one-liners while leading the competition’s goalkicking. These are moments belonging to all fans of the AFLW, and we have players who are absolutely rapt to be there – enthusiastic and in love with the game. And we’ve fallen in love too, not least of all with cult figure Sarah ‘Tex’ Perkins.
As Vescio put it quite simply in a recent interview:
It’s a pretty beautiful time to be involved in the game – the fact we get to experience the inception and how it’s received by the public … I feel really lucky to be here, but I suppose the girls that get to be involved 20 years down the track will be even luckier. The players now deserve to be heroes, and all the little girls out there playing now deserve to have role models.
Hear, hear, Darcy Vee.
The inaugural AFLW grand final is this weekend, and we know it’ll be just brilliant (and that there might be a little more joyous weeping from the both of us).