When I was younger I called myself a ‘tomboy’, though I’m not quite sure I like that word any more. I used to play four-square with the boys on the road and I had a skateboard with Bart Simpson on it. I wore skirts and dresses, but only on Sundays when I had to go to Mass, and I tried to make sure none of the boys would see me. I remember once I painted my nails, but when one of the boys noticed, I tried to pretend I had been doing some painting in the house and accidentally wiped some on my nails. (I don’t even…!?) I was embarrassed of being a girl. I liked sport and I wanted to be like the people who liked sport.
But apart from some minor hiccups, there were a few years when I was the same as the boys on the road. They weren’t old enough to be physically stronger than me, nor to have prejudice against me for being a girl, so we got on with our football-playing careers. My biggest worry was being in goals, which rarely happened, so I knew they considered me an equal.
I’m not quite sure when I realised I couldn’t dream the same way they could, though. They had David Beckhams and Ryan Giggses and Roy Keanes whose shoes they could imagine stepping in; whose lives they could imagine living. They could play for Man United, one day, if they were good enough, and they used to picture stepping out in front of a packed stadium, or filling shops with jerseys with their names on the back. I borrowed these dreams. But there was no equivalent for me.
I know there were, and are, women out there as talented and successful as David Beckham. But I didn’t know their names. And their lives didn’t have the amplitude of the lives of the men out there, not in the eyes of a young dreamer anyway.
I doubt any of us could’ve become famous footballers at the end of the day. We would have had to have the right mix of talent and drive and luck and support and the gods of fate and choice and sacrifice would’ve had to deem us worthy. But that’s not the point at all. In fact, someone like me, who never had a chance of making it, is a much better test subject for this article than a real budding star. Sport is full of dreamers and so it should be. It breeds confidence and hope and determination. But the media makes this sort of hope far more possible for males than it does for females.
Between 2002 and 2007, the number of images of sports women in Irish newspapers decreased from 2.78% to 1.2%. This statistic is drawn from a tellingly titled DSRC report named ‘The Increasing Invisibility of Women in Irish Sport’. Thenceforth the ‘National Women’s Strategy 2007-2016’ was put into action, objective number 113 being to “[p]romote participation of “Women in Sport” by highlighting opportunities and good practice on Irish Sports Council website and in mass media.” It would be interesting to examine the visibility of women in Irish sport at this stage in time. One would hope and assume there have been positive steps since 2007. But even if there have, it is arguable that these changes are due to remarkable women – the likes of Katie Taylor, say, or the Irish women’s rugby team – rather than remarkable changes of attitude in the media.
I am lucky enough, now, to be involved in a sport which values women as equals. Athletics has one of the most positive attitudes out there towards women in sport. Sonia O’Sullivan has flown the flag for a long time for Irish sports women and most people would have no qualms about placing her beside the likes of Brian O’Driscoll as one of our all time sporting greats. What is more, spectators of athletics rarely criticise women’s races for being inherently slower than men’s, while in soccer, Gaelic Games and many other sports, this seems to be a common argument.
In my opinion, the more the media value women’s achievements and ability in sport, the more people can get behind them. I know that most of my male counterparts in athletics look on the likes of Jessica Ennis-Hill, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Price or Tirunesh Dibaba with the knowledge that they could beat the majority of men out there. Paula Radcliffe, at one stage, was the fastest marathoner in England – faster than any man or woman. Similarly, most Irish men would not step in a ring with Katie Taylor. But I wonder if they feel the same about the Irish soccer team, for example, or the Cork camogie team – sports in which women are equally fierce yet less well represented in the media.
The media must get behind people (the BBC are far better at doing this than any Irish media outlet) and then the public will follow. And when women and men alike admire female sportspeople (just as women and men alike admire male sportspeople) then we can argue that sport is having a real impact in our country. We can argue all day that women have the same opportunities as men. But until they can have the same dreams as men – until they can reach for the same stars; become stars (real stars, not invisible ones), there’s no point in telling girls to stop being lazy and shy and ‘girly’ and leaving it up to the tomboys of the world to defy all odds. Why should we need to defy anything?