Monday, 19 January 2015

This Girl Can (point out some stuff)

 This fab embroidery is from the Mo Makes Stuff Tumblr. I suck at Tumblr and hope I've attributed this work correctly.

So, many of you will have seen Sport England's new campaign to get women into sports, This Girl Can. The "sassy celebration of active women everywhere". You might have read some articles about it, too - maybe here at The Conversation or the same piece at The Guardian. The Times asks "Can you keep up with these women? and tells us that the women featured are "normal". The Independent celebrates it as "not body shaming". Fellow Bear Vikki wrote about it this morning and after a brief chat on Twitter I realised that this video is a bit of a Rorshach Blot - we're all seeing different things beause of who we are, where we're from, the sports we're into and so on. Vicki and I both agree that initial thought - encouraging more women into sports - is a good one. There are things about the video that are great, and I will absolutely give that credit where's due. So don't tell me to shut up and appreciate the crumbs that have been dropped, the "at least it's got women in!" schtick - I see those, thank you very much.

I'm not taking offence here, this is not me waving my arms and complaining. It is a positive step. But I've watched it a number of times now and I have questions. And a few comments.

Let's take it apart word by word, shall we?

Ok, which this are we talking about? I see white women, I see black women (hurrah for this piece of inclusion!). I see some wobbly women (tick box), I see a young woman who appears to have Downs Syndrome (again, hurrah). I see the age split is around 90% skewed towards women between the ages of 20 and 30 - there's an older runner, and I give you my huge and delighted hurrah to see the Mersey Mermaids, a group of swimmers who sometimes frequent my home puddle and are friends of friends (we've probably shared a changing tent from time to time!). As an aside, I of course am thrilled to see Open Water Swimming represented. I'll come back to age representation in a minute.

Here's the but: where are the Asian women? I don't see a single other skin-colour group represented here. This is a huge sticking point for me; given that I live sandwiched between Blackburn and Bolton, it was immediately obvious that this section of women is just completely absent. Would it have killed Sport England to find a brown face? Or even, heaven help us, any woman in hijab (without conflating race and religion)? Because you really can get all sorts of sportswear that takes account of that requirement, whatever the current ignorant wrangling over it at Olympic level. You try telling Elham Asgari that you can't do sports in religious dress. And not only a lack of brown faces, but no-one from an ethnic group originating from further East than that either (apologies, I know that's very clumsy but I'm stuck for the right word). C'mon, we all know Britain is more than white and black.

Another but: yes, there is one girl with Downs and that's great, I'm so glad she's there. But...she is pretty much able-bodied. Paralympic sport is huge and well-respected by the general public in the UK, it's not like it's unheard of. Were only "normal" numbers of arms and legs and amount of mobility required? Several of the groups of women in the video are shown more than once - was there really no room to cut eg one Zumba scene for one shot of a wheelchair user? Someone with a cane? Someone using the pool hoist? After the success of the Paralympics, I feel it's even more important to include folks who aren't able-bodied just going about their "ordinary" sports for fun - you can't just wheel people out on the telly to get medals and be done with it. Not everyone is about the competition (and don't get me started on "inspiration porn" - watch or read Stella Young's fantastic TED talk on it if you've not come across that before).

Another representational but: I've got no answers for this one but would like to hear/read debate: how do you ensure inclusion of various sexualities/gender status in a visual medium? How could you make the video say to lesbian, bi and trans women "yep, you're welcome, come play sports!" I don't think this video allows itself to do that because as the writers of the article in The Conversation point out, the language used is that of sexual attraction - it's speaking from the male gaze AGAIN: "Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox".

And yet what we actually see - particularly from the lovely Mersey Mermaids, which is my favourite bit, but also in various other parts - is women, together, creating friendship and having fun. This is the best thing about sports, for me (and not necessarily just with women, either!). Even if you run alone, you enthuse with other people about it. Does anyone give a crap about how sexy they are when they're about to plunge into freezing cold water? I bloody don't, I'm having a laugh with my mates and thinking about cake, ffs. I know I look flipping silly in my gi, everyone does. Only Bruce Li makes that stuff look good. Ultimately, this language slapped over the top is why I haven't shown the video to my daughters. They're four and nine years old and they LOVE their sports. They don't give a flying rat's ass how other people see them, let alone whether anyone finds them attractive whilst they're doing it. Why introduce that concept at all? You could take those words away, focus on a few more faces rather than wobbly bits, and have a much more appealing, approachable film. In fact, Sport England have done posters as well which are much better in terms of gaze:

But it still strongly suggests there's something to hate about bodies in the first place, which isn't a message I want to put in front of children.

Well, this properly set my teeth on edge; I dislike the term applied to all women in general. "Girls" are my children; the children I train with at karate; the junior tri club that blasts past me in the Quays every Summer. I know some people like it as an in-group word amongst friends - I probably use it myself from time to time, although I tend to say "ladies" and more often "people" or "folks". But to use it in a national, government-sponsored campaign to describe half the population? Doesn't work for me. It's automatically exclusive of older women (I am 38, I haven't been a "girl" for a long time. And don't you "calm down, dear" me, Mr Cameron, this whole thing smells of you and your mates). It's interesting that Twitter suggests "patronising" as an autofill after "#thisgirlcan", so clearly I'm not the only one that this has irritated.

I'm sure it was intended (again, as the authors of The Conversation article suggest) to suggest light-heartedness, but it's been used so many times to infantilise and dismiss women's sport that it really was the wrong choice here. It can also be read as only appealing to the age group most represented in the video - the 20-30y group. Where are the actual girls? Large numbers drop out of sport as they hit tween and teen years, so it's particularly disheartening not to see anyone from this age group in the video. My karate class contains girls from 4-18 years old - these are girls who really can! And there are plenty of us women, too, including our sensei. These women can, too.

Whilst I'm on that particular point, what's with the "I kick balls, deal with it" line? Even in the dojo and the boxing ring, women taking part in sport is not a threat to men, why imply that? Unless there's some terrible underlying fear that allowing women's football to get some limelight will decrease male footballers' salaries (please insert :rolleyes: here).

I've already taken issue with the subject of outright disability representation, so I want to look at other problems with accessing sport.

Ability: The women in this film are almost all working quite hard, with the exception of the swimmers, who are having fun. The others are "sweating like a pig", in fact. There are plenty of women out there who simply cannot do that, and lots of sports which help your health without sweating til you drip. Now yes, aerobic exercise is good and fun and all that. But this heavy emphasis on cardio bothers me. Where are the yogis? The walkers? The tai chi practitioners? The power lifters? The tango dancers? Women, particularly older women, need strength building exercise to protect bones and build flexibility and balance to prevent falls. That's a whole component of exercise left out. Why? Because I guess it doesn't fit the narrative of sweaty=sexy.

Time: Women are disproportionately child-carers, senior-carers, and in lower-paid and/or shift pattern work. When I look at my local leisure centre timetable, I'm frequently disappointed to see classes at tea time and childrens' bed time (6-8pm) - I suppose that suits people who go straight after work, but it's a barrier to me. And hell, I'm enormously privilaged to have a partner who gets home generally on time and frees me up several nights a week to attend Masters. I know instructors have a life too and aren't keen on teaching late classes. But time - and timing - is a problem.

Cost: Again, I'm very privilaged in this regard. Not as much as some folks - I couldn't afford a triathlon bike, to travel abroad to swim, to have a one-to-one coach or diet plan. Event prices scare me and I have to save up for them. I can pay for four classes a week, website access and all the kit I need (and some that's nice to have!). Even I balk at the PAYG price for the gym, though, and that's with a subsidy - nearly six pounds just to run on a treadmill for half an hour? A monthly fee is of course cheaper if you can get there often enough to make it pay for itself, but if you work shifts and care for kids or an elderly person (or both, as is becoming more common), or you have unpredictable health issues can you justify paying up front for it?

You could of course take up running, the ultimate "low cost" activity. Which still needs decent trainers, enough kit to keep you warm/cool enough, and a babysitter if your work hours are the same as school hours. Some people just don't have this money available: if you have to choose between heating and feeding your kids, trainers are off the table. May I point you towards A Mile In Her Shoes if you have spare kit?

Safety: Look really, really hard at the video. Tell me how many of those women are outdoors, alone, and not in an inhabited area. I count one. Everyone else is penned in (courts, halls, pools, lighted pitches, leisure centres, housing estates), and with other people. Even the swimmers go out in a big group, which is the right thing for them to do because cold water carries a risk, of course. All the cyclists are in spinning class, not out on the road. So how about women who live in unsafe areas? Any area can potentially be unsafe - even I've had a driver pull over to ask directions and then shout abuse at me when I ran past, not realising he was attempting to speak to me, and that was on a main road with lots of traffic and housing. My husband has had similar in quieter spots and I don't feel comfortable running the routes he does because of that. I'm scared silly of cycling where I live because it's so narrow, hilly and overparked that I just don't have the fitness or the awareness to get around safely.

That brings us back to cost and opportunity - you may not be able to afford a running club membership so you can go out in a group, or be available at a time you can find a companion to run with. Or you might be a misanthrope like me and prefer your own company, but be unable to go alone. Women-only sessions can be helpful for this aspect but that very much depends where you live - there are none at my local leisure centre and you can't even search the town's website for women-only sessions anywhere in the borough. But overall, like the lack of actual girls in the film, I'm saddened to see sport represented only by what you can afford and limited to indoor, group activities in the main.

In conclusion, I'd love to say I was thrilled with this campaign. I think it's more than needed, I think it's a stab in the right direction and they've made at least some attempt at inclusion. But there are some mistakes and omissions here that need attention. I would like to point out that Sport England got £10 million quid's worth of funding for this. I've worked alongside local sport inclusion projects in the past (alongside, meaning: I followed their money and accountability) that got far less cash and managed to be more thoughtful, and that was ten years ago. So what gives, Sport England?

ETA: Please note that it's not my intention to attempt to speak for or represent any of the "missing" groups I've listed here. It strikes me that if *I* - who hasn't worked anywhere near the area of sports inclusion for a decade - can see glaring omissions of intersectionality, then a body paid such a lot of money to do it right has no excuse not to. And it's up to me to lift my voice and ask those questions of that body: as a woman, as an older woman, a parent, a neighbour, a compatriot, and not least as a person who enjoys sports.