The cultural conditions and social contexts of female sports fandom unveiled

Aage Radmann
Norwegian School of Sport Sciences


Kim Toffoletti
Women Sport Fans: Identification, Participation, Representation
157 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2017 (Routledge Research in Sport, Culture and Society)
ISBN 978-1-138-18927-0

In a previous review for idrottsforum.org, I started with “During the last few years we have seen a new form of fandom research arising – after more than 60 years of hegemonic male dominated supporter research, the field has been enriched by female scholars doing research on female football fans. One of the leading academics behind this trend is the sociologist Stacey Pope, a Senior Lecturer in Sport in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University, UK. Her book The Feminization of Sports Fandom: A Sociological Study highlights the fact that a significant number of women these days watch, and love, football. Female supporters have been largely ignored by academic research, and the growing body of publications on the topic of female fandom creates curiosity and raises questions. Why has female fans been ignored all these years, and how come that there is a change at this point in time?”

At this point we may have to re-consider this issue since several books and articles have been published within the research area of female fandom during the last year, and now another excellent book is out, written by Kim Toffoletti, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Deakin University, Australia.

Toffoletti has a broad perspective in her book, where her aim is to “investigate the cultural conditions and social contexts (globalisation, the use of digital networked technologies, consumerism, neoliberalism and postfeminism) that enable a seeming legitimisation and valorisation of women’s voices, experiences and representations as followers of sport” (p 2).

The author states that sport fandom is gendered, classed and racialized – these terms are used to tell us about “who can lay claim to legitimately being a sport fan, and which bodies and practices are deemed outside the norms of sport fan identity for certain sports and in relation to specific sporting events” (p.2).

Inspired by a critical feminist perspective to investigate what it’s like to be a female fan she asks for more research and knowledge regarding:

    • experiences of women supporters from diverse cultural backgrounds:
    • more empirical research devoted to women fans of women’s sport;
    • experiences of being a sport fan for women who identify as lesbians, queer, transgender and transsexual (p 3).

Already in the introduction, Toffoletti both asks and answers the question if more female sport fans will lead to changes in the sport-gender order or if it will consolidate existing power relations. She concludes that “embracing women as sport fans primarily occurs in ways that do not threaten the primacy of male audiences or contest the gender status quo in sport” (p.4).

The book is structured through different key issues: fan identification, the performance of sport fandom, sport support and consumer activity, digital technologies in sport, representation of sport fans.

Today, sport is a transnational experience, Toffoletti says, and gives several examples of research topics being discussed within this transnational context. But there is a lack of gender understanding and gender perspectives in most of these studies, she says; and I agree with her, even if we during the last few years have seen examples of transnational gender studies also focusing on female sport fans. The commercialisation and globalisation of sport is a driving force to attract women as sport fans. The above-mentioned English researcher Stacey Pope discusses female fandom in UK in her book The Feminization of Sports Fandom. Pope discusses how the commercialisation of sport also have had an important impact on the diversification of the supporter landscape in UK – ‘/…/ the club now markets itself towards a more diverse range of supporters, with greater sensitivity towards gender, as well as other intersecting issues of inequality such as ‘race’ and ethnicity, class, sexuality, religion, disability and age’ (Pope, p. 133). Toffoletti discusses these issues as well but at a transnational level, not (only) a national level, as Pope.

Since female sport and female fandom is underrepresented in traditional media, Toffoletti highlights the importance of social media to express alternative viewpoints and foster female networks on a transnational scale.

Transnational feminism is used as a theoretical and analytical tool to better understand and explain the new globalised sport landscape. Toffoletti highlights the importance of geopolitical and socio-cultural contexts related to gender, sexuality, race and class. One of the main aims of the book is to “recognise and problematize the masculinist, heterosexist and ethnocentric assumptions inherent in definitions of sport fandom” (p 17).

Toffolettis research fills a huge gap when it comes to female sport fandom on a transnational level and her findings are new and give a deeper understanding of sport fandom in general. She also challenges the assumption that female fans don’t follow female sport athletes, showing figures from in-home television audiences from 2015 women’s Football World Cup in Canada. These figures show that women were in majority in many countries: South-Africa (68%), Japan (52%), Korean Republic (51 %). And for the male Football World Cup 2014 in Brazil the female viewing figures for in-house television were; Brazil (49%), Korea republic (48%), Argentina (48%), Colombia (47%), Mexico (45%), Japan (44%) and India (43%).

This data exemplifies one of the must fruitful outcomes of Toffoletti’s excellent book; it is one of the few academic books discussing sport fandom and gender that actually has a global perspective with relevant examples. and the comparison per se creates new and useful insights.

In chapter 2, “Identities, Performances and Pleasures”, she discusses how women identify as sport fans using examples from Africa, Australia, Europe and North America.

In chapter 3, “Consumption”, Toffoletti questions Stacey Pope’s position that the feminisation of fandom is a positive development (p. 66-67). This shows that things are changing when it comes to research on female fandom – two leading scholars, Toffoletti and Pope, both with recently published books and articles about female fandom are bringing the research forward and challenging each other’s findings and perspectives.

In chapter 4, “Representation”, the author asks the rhetoric question who has the right to define a “real supporter”. She discusses the changing cultural contexts of gender and in which way mass media represent female fandom in different countries.

The media representation of female fans has a dominant place in this book, and the author asks how media reproduce relations of domination and exploitation in sport along the intersectional axes of gender, race, class and sexuality. In chapter 5, “Digital networks”, she explores how female fans use social media and how the new technology facilitates individual and collective identity. Since female sport and female fandom is underrepresented in traditional media, Toffoletti highlights the importance of social media to express alternative viewpoints and foster female networks on a transnational scale. She puts a lot of trust into the role of social media to promote empowerment for female fans: “…empowers individuals to create their own content and publish their own content and publish to a global audience, allowing female sport supporters to bypass media gatekeepers and represent themselves” (p. 102).

In the sixth and last chapter “ The Postfeminist Sport Fan”, Toffoletti focuses on the question on how “female fandom are produced, legitimated and responded to by women sport fan themselves” (p. 126).

There are, though, a few instances where I think the author is simplifying complex phenomena – on p. 74 in her conclusion for the “Consumption” chapter she writes that “[i]t is clear that practising sport fandom, for men and women, relies on consumption”. Yes, part of football fandom relies on that, but you also find the opposite to be true.

In many European countries there are strong protests against the commercialisation of football, and hundreds of thousands of fans will deny that their love for their club has anything to do with commercially driven consumption. Try to Google “against modern football” and you will find resistance to the commercialisation (but interestingly, you will also find t-shirts with the text “against modern football…).

Another aspect is that male fandom is not about a singular male fandom, i.e. the rough, hard anti-feminist violent kind. The male supporter landscape has never been as diversified as it is in 2018. You find male supporter groups fighting for HBTQ-rights, for refugees, and for human rights. Football and football fandom is actually a quite successful Esperanto, even if there is still a lot of sexism, corruption, and, yes, also commercialisation.

I learned a lot reading this book and I was inspired by Toffoletti’s theoretical framework. I will try to implement some of her findings into my own research and analysis of female fans in Sweden.

Copyright © Aage Radmann 2018

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