I know almost nothing about soccer. So when I read about the indefinite suspension of the University of New Mexico’s Elizabeth Lambert, for pulling an opponent down by the ponytail during an intense semifinal game against Brigham Young University, I had no idea how to judge the egregiousness of her rough play. Nor could I evaluate the assertions that the referee and Lambert’s coach should have seen the widespread aggressive play in the game and intervened earlier by issuing penalties or pulling Lambert from the game. In fact, it’s been two weeks since this incident took place, and despite the media firestorm, it came to my attention only today, when I saw an interview with Lambert in the New York Times.
I may not know soccer, but mixed messages and mass hysteria about femininity—that’s my wheelhouse. Although Lambert clearly admits that her conduct in the game was unacceptable, she has been shocked and dismayed by the intensity of the public and personal responses the incident has provoked. Vitriol and personal attacks have proliferated, including the publication of her parents’ home phone number and one person’s suggestion that “I should be taken to a state prison, raped and left for dead in a ditch.”
What about this incident could have inspired such intense hostility? Was the young woman downed by the hair-pulling physically hurt in the process? I have yet to read any coverage to that effect (although she remained down on the field, many argue this was a tactic to draw the attention of the referee and a penalty call). Did the hair-pulling give UNM an unfair advantage in the game? No, Brigham Young still got the win. The imagined injury, as I see it, is only to our propriety, our attachment to the limits of normative femininity.
Here’s the other response that has shocked Lambert: messages from strange men saying, “Hey, we should meet up some time.” Some media accounts and web comments have cast the incident as a sexy catfight, and accused Lambert of acting out of pent up sexual aggression. The objectification of women’s physical aggression, even channeled into what is generally perceived to be an appropriate venue (i.e., competitive sports), is a form of trivializing—the flip side of vilification. A decade after cultural commentators were undone by the sight of Brandi Chastain’s sports bra at the 1999 Women’s World Cup, people still don’t know how to reconcile women’s physical strength and aggression with women’s physiques. Put another way, many folks and much of the media accepts women’s aggression and strength only by interpreting it as existing for men’s pleasure. A physically aggressive (and, not incidentally, physically attractive) woman is still guaranteed to provoke fear. And it’s the fear, in turn, that leads to hostility and sexual objectification. And while I don’t know much about soccer, I know that none of this has a thing to do with “sportsmanlike” conduct.