Women Who Watch

I didn’t want to write this article. When I first heard about While the Men Watch, CBC’s new alternate audio feed that claims to “look at the game from a woman’s perspective”, my first thought was, Just ignore it. Remind people that what these women do doesn’t stand for all women and then just never fucking mention it again.  If you’re a woman who writes and you don’t want to end up writing about being a woman all the damn time, the best course of action is usually to ignore pink-ghetto topics. They attract trolls who bait you with silly sexist clichés and start long, winding, unwinnable arguments with men who feel like modern society is somehow wronging them. They put you in the awkward situation of either standing up for women’s right to be girly and being labeled shallow, or critiquing cultural notions of girlishness and being labeled humorless. The only way to win this game is not to play. So mostly I don’t play.

But as I listened to The Current yesterday morning, which featured a teach-the-controversy piece on While the Men Watch, I realized that this is going to affect me whether I want it to or not. Over the course of this program, it became clear that, as much as the CBC and the hosts themselves are trying to evade criticism by hiding behind the idea that this is just lighthearted fun with no implications whatsoever for the larger role of women in sports media, they actually have some rather grandiose ideas about what the program is achieving. The intro explicitly describes it as “commentary for women” and “from a woman’s perspective.” Lena Sutherland described WTMW as “mak[ing] people think” and “breaking new ground”, talking about how she and her co-host were doing something that’s “never been done before”. Cassie Campbell-Pascal suggested that “this is helping push women forward to a certain degree,” while Sami Jo Small was even more laudatory: “I see it as a positive: there’s more women involved in the sports world.”

Now, when WTMW was just two women doing their thing on their blog, expressing their own personal experience of the game in the vast marketplace of people-with-blog-ideas, that was wonderful. I fully support their right to have their blog and their viewpoint. I personally don’t care for it, I won’t consume it, but whatever: it doesn’t affect me just because these people happen to also have vaginas. But when the CBC takes this viewpoint and gives it a national media platform, when it explicitly characterizes it as representing women’s perspectives, when it is described as original and groundbreaking, when it gets talked about in the quasi-feminist language of helping women, then it becomes my problem. Because now the biggest major television outlet in this country, the only outlet that is broadcasting the Stanley Cup Final, is taking the Lena and Jules perspective and putting it on huge high platform with a giant sign that says THIS IS FOR WOMEN. Being as how it’s pretty much the only sign that explicitly mentions women in the hockey media, it is going to affect how people in hockey view women. It is going to affect, indirectly but emphatically, how some people view me.

It’s going to provide fodder for people who already view me that way. On her interview on The Current, Lena seemed perversely proud about how she doesn’t actually understand hockey, talking flippantly about how she can’t analyze a power play. On their first broadcast, Jules was pleased to tell the audience that she doesn’t even really watch hockey. This ignorance and indifference is being defined as a woman’s perspective, in stark contrast to male commentators who are invariably promoted as experts. I’ve had people, quite literally, respond to my articles by saying they won’t read them because everyone knows women don’t understand sports. Yes, those people are idiots, but ultimately they’re only buying a stereotype that is widely sold throughout the culture, and is now being given the CBC stamp of approval.

While the Men Watch participates in an astounding collection of stereotypes about women. Women don’t understand sports. Women don’t care about sports. If women watch sports, they only do so because a man pushes it on them. Women are interested in fashion, cleaning, shopping, and men. The show is essentially the traditional four Fs of pink ghetto journalism- food, family, fashion, and furniture- tangentially tied in to  hockey. It is Cosmo with a game in the background.

To understand why this show is so dispiriting and depressing for a certain segment of female fans, you have to understand the role that sports play in many of our lives. For all the substantial progress of feminism, the larger culture is still awash in portrayals of women that hew closely to the long-standing stereotypes, that push us to think about ourselves in terms of our attractiveness, our sexual appeal, our fashion sense, our youth, etc etc. These issues intrude, one way or another, into almost every facet of life- into our work and the beers after, into our family life and our relationships, into our education. There is always someone critiquing our bodies or our style. There is always someone trying to sell us a miracle skin cream or a pair of shoes or fucking yogurt or whatever on the grounds that it will make us more acceptably and attractively feminine. Now, we’re adults and we can handle it, but sometimes, frankly, the cultural stereotypes of heteronormative femininity are a pain in the ass. Sometimes one gets pretty fucking tired of being appreciated, shamed, warned, and appealed to ‘as a woman’.

Women have always used sports to escape some of the strictures of gender roles and experiment with redefinitions of womanhood and female identity. In playing sports- especially a gear-intensive, aggressive team sport like hockey- women participate in a zone where the normal standards don’t apply for a while, where it’s culturally acceptable to be sweaty and stinky and flushed, where nobody cares whether you’re wearing make-up and nobody notices how long it’s been since you shaved your legs. Hockey is where it’s always socially licit to be competitive, aggressive, and physical, where we can experience our bodies in terms of what they can do rather than what they look like. It’s one of the few major arenas of the social world where, historically, the stereotypes of about women have been less powerful and less influential.  Because of that, for many women playing hockey has feminist overtones of empowerment and liberation. At the very least, it can be a welcome haven for females during the moments in life when they don’t want to be feminine.

For female fans, too, sports can be a site of less-gendered social experience. Say I go to a pub by myself to have a drink and hang out. On a regular night, I get inundated with come-ons and pick-up attempts, and should I say that I’m really not interested in hooking up, I invariably hear something to the effect that it’s inconceivable that a single woman would go to a bar without looking for sex. But if I go when there’s a game on, I spend the evening talking stats and strategies and making Tortorella jokes, chatting with the other fans of both genders, and generally go all night without getting one single sleazy line. For many of the so-called serious female fans, watching the game is one of the best social avenues for meeting people and hanging out in a relatively ungendered way. Being into sports allows us to be guys, not in the sense of men, but in the sense of participants in a laid-back, friendly, easygoing social milieu that doesn’t feel defined by gender lines. Many female fans explicitly resist the category ‘female fans’, because for us part of what is great about being a fan is the sense that female or male doesn’t matter so much. The gender-neutral experiences we have around the game are precious exactly because gender can be such an intrusive category in other parts of life.

So when the CBC decides to throw money at a program that believes it’s ‘breaking new ground’ by bringing the most cliched, generic, traditional gender ideologies into sports… that’s not exactly a thrilling idea. Oh goody, finally, a sports program that gives me the opportunity to talk about important issues like getting grass stains out of pants and how to please my man in bed. Thank fucking God, because, as a woman, I really do not have enough opportunities to hear about these topics already. It’s so sadly neglected, the question of which male celebrity you’d want to be your boyfriend, it absolutely is not exactly the same thing that the culture has been throwing at me since I was eight years old.

“Oh,” but they say, “it’s not you we’re trying to appeal to, it’s not you serious female fans we care about.  It’s the casual fans, it’s the girly girls who don’t like sports that we want to reach out to.” I suppose this excuse is meant to be comforting to us, somehow- they’re not calling us superficial, they just chose to use our gender as a code word for superficiality and appeal to the superficial members of our gender instead of us. So silly of us to feel a bit insulted, yes?

No. There is an enormous constituency of hockey-mad females all over Canada, but when the CBC decided to reach out to women, it wasn’t us they thought of. It wasn’t the girls on the rinks and in the sports bars they wanted to talk to, it wasn’t the women who are passionate and obsessive and fanatical about hockey, who spend tremendous money, time, and energy on this game. Nope, it was the other women, the ones who don’t know the game and don’t give a fuck. Those are the women the CBC is interested in. While the Men Watch is to serious female hockey fans what the glow puck was to serious American hockey fans- an attempt to pander to the desires of those who don’t care about hockey rather than those who do, a sign that the network cares more about appealing to the lowest common denominator of the indifferent rather than the devoted core fan base. So yeah, if you are a member of that core fan base, it is pretty insulting.

We have a catch-22 here: for the ‘serious’ female sports fan, the male commentary is supposed to be enough, so anything that includes female as an explicit category has to be somehow lesser. Men get to be experts, women get to be eye candy and window dressing. We can either be ignored because of our gender or stereotyped because of it, and maybe, if we’re really really lucky, grudgingly respected despite it.  But we’re always on the margins, not quite a big enough percentage of women, not quite a big enough percentage of fans. We exist in a demographic no-man’s land.

This sounds like complaining, doesn’t it? This sounds like whining, or perhaps even envy. Those ladies got a parade, why don’t we get a parade too? she cried, stamping her foot angrily.

Fuck it, though, I’m tired of being quiet and hoping silently that the powers that be see fit to advance more women to the upper echelons of sports commentary. If they’re going to advance proudly ignorant women to the national stage, then hell yes, I am going to complain that they’re not advancing knowledgeable women whose hockey ideas are ten times more deserving of being heard. Where is our fucking parade, CBC? TSN? Globe and Mail? HUH? Women have been covering sports on the local level for many, many years now, women have written their way to prominence on the internet, but somehow they are still almost totally invisible in the national media. As men work their way up the food chain, getting ever bigger and better gigs, women tend stay where they are. It was six years ago when Cassie Campbell first lucked her way into color commentary on the CBC and she’s still the only woman to do color, and even she has trouble getting the opportunity to do it often. I have never seen a woman sitting at the far right of a long desk, being asked her opinion about where Luongo would be a good fit or whether Ovechkin should get more ice time. I have never seen a woman, other than Ms. Campbell, be presented as an expert voice in televised hockey.

Outlets will say, oh, we can’t find any. We can’t find any knowledgeable hockey women who are up to the exalted standards of our panel discussions. Bullshit. This is a field where the standard for intelligence is Mike Milbury and the standard for articulateness is PJ Stock. There are women who can meet those standards. If you can’t find them, you’re not looking. Glorious Leader Bourne has been running this site for less than a year and he found three female writers, whose work ranges from the silly to serious, impassioned to impartial, who are comfortable talking about the relative attractiveness of playoff beards AND the relative merits of goaltending styles. This is one site and it has women who can look at the game intelligently through the lenses of science, history, culture, and personal experience. I have no sympathy for editors and producers who complain that smart female hockey analysts are like fucking unicorns.

That’s the excruciating thing, the thing that makes the elevation of While the Men Watch to the national spotlight so acutely painful: it would be so easy to have done it the right way. The CBC wants an alternate feed for casual fans? One that brings a lighter, sexier, more playful tone to the game? Great. Find people who can bring that fun, irreverent perspective and also have the knowledge to back it up, who could talk about the hottness of players and explain a little bit about power play strategy while they’re doing it. It doesn’t have to be an either/or. Light doesn’t have to mean ignorant. And, if you’re aim is to turn non-fans into fans, wouldn’t light and passionate about hockey be a better marketing strategy than light and contemptuous of hockey? Wouldn’t it have been better for everyone to reach out to non-fans through the voices of people who love the game?

What’s done is done. The CBC, they paid their money and made their choice and there’s no undoing it now. Up in some high office somewhere, someone is looking at reports of all the media coverage this show has gotten and fairly coming in his or her pants with joy. The sponsors, I’m sure, could not be more delighted. In a way, by writing this, by participating in the conversation, I am contributing in some small way to the certainty of its survival.

So I’m not going to ask the CBC to take it down. Rather, I have a humbler request. Dear CBC: don’t lie to me. Keep up your party line, if that’s what you have to do to feel good about this. Say it’s fun, it’s light, it’s silly. Say it’s just a gag and it’s making a ton of controversy and controversy means ratings and it’s all good for business. Say you honestly don’t give a shit whether you perpetuate gender stereotypes or feed into already existing negative views of female sports fans so long as it gets ratings. But stop lying. Stop patronizing me.  Stop telling the world that this is groundbreaking or thought-provoking or different. Don’t wrap this show in reductionist gender imagery like fucking Christmas lights and then tell me it’s not supposed to represent female fans. Don’t tell me that giving hockey-broadcasting jobs to ignorant women with no training who didn’t pay any dues in the business and can’t even be bothered to actually learn about the game in front of them is somehow helping intelligent, passionate women make progress in the hockey media. Don’t tell me you’re honoring the female perspective by dismissing the women who have loved watching your broadcasts for decades in favor of those who only watch because their man does. Don’t tell me you respect serious female fans. If you did, you’d have found some.

If you haven’t read Julie Veilleux’s excellent, piece by piece takedown of the gender ideologies of WTMW, do so immediately.  I am indebted to her for both that article and her performance on The Current, which inspired this post.