Photo courtesy of Sky Sports
The recent incident after the final of the Women’s World Cup Football event highlighted some issues that are not likely to be glossed over or erased. The behaviour of Luis Rubiales, President of The Royal Spanish Football Federation, in forcefully grabbing a member of the winning team, Jenni Hermoso, and kissing her on the mouth without her consent in the glare of the global television audience ensures that his action was seen and commented on by millions of spectators.
Hermoso is on public record as saying she did not give her consent to this and that she has been pressured behind the scenes to back down; her defiance, supported by her team members, has ensured that the issue of consent is in primary focus. But underlying it in this public forum is the entitlement men feel to interrupt, interject, overshadow and hijack the limelight from talented and dedicated women and tainting their rightful pleasure in their achievement.
Australian media commentator Jessie Stephens has pointed out that the behaviour of Rubiales was a demonstration of power and that this assertion of his presence at the expense of the women who are being recognised in their industry and by their global fans is felt as “undermining and mortifying” and a “distraction” from what should have been the focus of the event. Annabel Crabb commented that “The women of the World Cup displayed nothing but merit. Extraordinary feats of skill. Good behaviour on and off the pitch. All for about a quarter of the pot available to the men in Qatar last year. And yet, they were overshadowed again and again by second rate blokes.”
The second class status accorded to women in patriarchal societies is very evident in Sri Lanka. But women who have achieved success and recognition in the country are not known to speak out against unwarranted acts of male assertion. They do not want to be labelled as “difficult” or “making people uncomfortable”. People pleasing is part of the social acceptance that women sign up for at birth in South Asian countries: to smile and be continuously understanding, gracious, self effacing and forgiving while men throw tantrums all around them.
Such concessions to substandard male behaviour have of course only consolidated its acceptability and normalised the occurrence of it, both in terms of micro aggressive behaviour, such as men continually interrupting and talking over women in a corporate or academic discussion session or taking up too much time on a panel and leaving no space for the women present to show their capability and expertise.
Many of the notably few women who are in positions of authority and leadership in both the public and private sectors in the country are also not trailblazing on a daily basis on behalf of the rights of women. They have often reached their high positions by adopting male codes of behaviour and by sinking their differences or grievances without trace and burying hatchets rather than contesting harassment or belittlement and by playing by these rules are publicly held up as examples of their organisation’s progressiveness.
The Women’s World Cup incident is being called a significant part of Spain’s #MeToo movement and as such is being seen as evidence that progress and evolution are needed in the country’s traditional attitudes towards the gender roles. The winning teams were all playing a game which is seen as traditionally masculine and the action of grabbing a winning athlete and kissing her on the mouth is being seen as a way of putting women back in their place.
And what was their place? Not standing triumphant on a podium but being manhandled and pushed aside, effectively diminished at what should have been a moment of triumph and pride.
Taylor Swift, the phenomenal young American musical artist, was in the middle of her acceptance speech at the VMA ceremony in 2009 when Kanye West pushed himself onto the stage and literally took the microphone from her to dramatically state: “I’mma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the greatest videos of all time”. Beyoncé herself was visibly shocked by his words and actions and he clearly was not authorised to speak for her. So he was belittling both women at the same time, whatever he may have thought he was doing on that stage. Beyoncé later on invited Taylor Swift on stage during her own speech to accept the acclaim which was denied to her by Kanye West’s rudeness and offensive entitlement.
Kanye later released a song “Famous” in which he claimed that he “would still have sex with Taylor Swift” and that his actions had made “that bitch famous”.
We could see this kind of behaviour as the last gasps of a dying and dreadful culture. And the responses of both Swift and Hermoso have added a great deal of value to the awareness of the unacceptability of such conduct. Swift is now dominating the popular music culture on a record breaking tour and her words are no longer being interrupted but listened to in interviews and documentaries. In one of these interviews, she revealed that on that night of the VMAs, it was hard to hear on stage and in the fury of the moment, and when she heard the booing coming from the crowd she had thought they were booing her, not Kanye. As these are awards voted for by the public, she was devastated at a moment that should have been a career highlight for her.
On another occasion, Taylor Swift had been standing for a photograph at another awards night when a music executive put his hand under her dress and groped her body. She filed charges against him, with statements of eye witnesses and photographic evidence, and successfully sued him for harassment and sexually inappropriate behaviour.
Swift is now in her thirties and she started writing songs and recording in the music industry when she was 14. She also recently turned the tables on Scooter Braun, who had sold the masters of her early music when the contract she had signed was fulfilled, selling her songs, among that of other artists signed to that company, for $300 million, thus denying her control over her own work.
Swift re-recorded her own albums and called them Taylor’s Version and took back control of her music. It was a great decision both in terms of business and branding but also personally as an artist; she could revisit the songs on the records she had made on her journey as a singer-songwriter and understand herself in that former state and enrich her delivery of them in the present day. Swift does not need a record company or music executives as she deals directly with her fan base, which is so large that it numbers hundreds of millions of fans all across the world, and is a voting bloc in the upcoming US election.
Similar leverage is being exerted by the Women’s Football team in Spain, who are refusing to participate in any further events until Rubiales resigns. He has gained points in the short term amongst the masculinity warrior movement for defiantly refusing to resign but has been suspended by FIFA. He is not apologetic. Defiance, after all, is a sign of strength in masculine culture and apologising is seen as weakness. Unapologetic is regarded as admirable but it is also problematic.
Change in behavioural codes in such a public sport as World Cup Football, which has a devoted fan base and is seen by many as almost a religion to its devotees, will be publicly significant. What happened this year was a public affront.
In Sri Lanka, it will probably take longer to raise the standards of acceptable conduct by men in positions of authority. And it will happen not so much on a public podium but in the everyday processes of professional life, in the various industries in which skilled and dedicated women are now taking a more prominent and visible part.