Gender and the AFL are currently in the spotlight due to the popularity of the AFLW. However, the AFL have received attention for in the past gender issues that were not as positive or progressive. It is difficult to tell if the current progressive narrative represented by an increase in opportunities for women is indicative of a broader cultural shift in gender politics in the AFL. However, news media representations of female romantic partners of AFL players suggest that there is still a long way to go in addressing issues of sexism in the AFL. Here, I discuss the dominant themes in media representations of AFL players’ female romantic partners, more commonly known as ‘WAGs’, at the Brownlow awards ceremony and contextualise these representations in broader representations of women in the AFL. This post is based on a journal article that I recently published in Continuum, you can read it here.
My research involved a media analysis of the themes in newspaper articles that mentioned wives, girlfriends, or the acronym ‘WAG’ during the two months that bookend the Brownlow Medal awards ceremony. The Brownlow Medal is awarded to the ‘best and fairest’ player in an AFL season as judged by umpires in a points-based system. In recent years, the televised coverage of this event has showcased a dichotmous split between the red carpet arrival sequence and the actual awards coverage. The former sequence focuses on fashion worn by the women who accompany players to the event, similar to film and television awards ceremonies. I focused on this event because I had found that wives and girlfriends were generally absent from news media coverage, with the exception of Brownlow coverage or a scandal (i.e. Tania Hird during the Essendon Supplements Saga).
The way that news media discussed ‘WAGs’ focused on their appearance, sexualised them and reduced their achievements in favour of their male partners, invoking a ‘trophy wife’ trope. These examples depict Roughhead and Murphy’s partners as prizes because of their beauty. This is problematic because it reduces these women to objects and does not acknowledge that the bond between these men and their partners might be based on more than appearance, invoking entrenched gendered stereotypes.
‘[Marc] Murphy [of the Carlton Football Club] has won bragging rights from teammates Shaun Hampson and Chris Judd for No.1 WAG at the Blues’ (Herald Sun, September 9, 2012)
‘HAWTHORN’S Coleman medallist Jarryd Roughead … has his eyes on the biggest prize of all this week. He has already won the heart of girlfriend Sarah Dunn, who will accompany him to tomorrow night’s Brownlow Medal at Crown.’ (Herald Sun, September 22, 2013)
This type of representation is something that some women, particularly Annie Nolan and Haylea Cooney, have vocalised as facilitating and encouraging the bullying of ‘WAGs’ on social media during Brownlow coverage. Nolan says:
… [T]he night has become about the judgement of the appearance of these women. To see how ‘good he did for himself’ and the ‘arm candy’ he has ‘scored’ from being an athlete … With very few women in attendance given the opportunity to speak unless answering the question ‘who are you wearing’ (one that always makes me laugh as I picture the skinned designer as a leather dress.) And as we saw in the 2011 rotisserie style ‘WAG wheel,’ the women are at times offered as much dignity by the media as a pig on a spit. (Nolan 2015)
I argue that these representations highlight that the state of gender in the AFL is marked by the continuation of a clear separation of the roles (and opportunities) available to women and men. Women are continue to be sexualised, despite their increased involvement in the AFL. This is a process that is unfortunately not limited to ‘WAGs’ and is evident in some recent representations of AFL sportswomen, Erin Phillips and Tayla Harris.
In 2017, Erin Phillips was photographed sharing a kiss with her wife, Tracy Gahan, after being announced as the inaugural Best and Fairest winner for the 2017 AFLW season. Phillips was a highly decorated player during this season and was frequently singled out for her professionalism and athleticism. However, the photograph of Phillips and Gahan was used to spark titillation and to suggest that women were better suited as sexual objects than sportswomen. The kiss was described as ‘ … a touch sensual for a number of men’ (Robinson 2017) by a Herald Sun chief football reporter, and was remarked on in social media as ‘sexy’ along with suggestions that attendance at AFLW games could be increased if the women were playing on ‘muddy grounds’.
Tayla Harris was recently the subject of a media furore over responses to an image of her delivering a particularly impressive kick that resulted in a goal for her team in the final round of the 2019 AFLW season. Comments included references to Harris’ genitals, the use of slurs such as ‘slut’, and suggestions that Harris should ‘get back in the kitchen’ or ‘stick to netball’. Harris was vocal in decrying these comments and described them as sexual abuse. Other athletes, including male AFL players, defended Harris and decried the comments. However, the continuation of sexualising female athletes seems to highlight that public attitudes have not changed despite male athletes’ support for their female colleagues.
The sexualisation of AFLW players downplays their athletic talents and achievements, a process which is occurring across sporting codes and is part of a broader societal context in which women are still vulnerable to violence and denied professional opportunities. The lack of legitimacy afforded to AFLW athletes reflects the limited and sexualised representation of ‘WAGs’. This trend in representations of women in Australian football suggests that cultural change around gender issues is yet to occur and that more must be done to assert the legitimacy of women in this traditionally male preserve.