Emerging Sports Writer Program participant Lauren McIntosh shares the unusual, yet valid avenue through which she was exposed to, and grew to love, women’s sport.
Do you remember the first time you laced up your ballet slippers? Passed a netball? Witnessed someone execute that impossible kick?
For me I remember all three. From being influenced into dance, then netball by family and friends, before finally finding my own love of soccer.
I was encouraged into dance from an early age by my mum. She recalls that she felt she missed out when she was a child, as all the other girls got to go to dance classes and she didn’t. Mum didn’t want me missing out on this same ’right of passage’ that dance has come to embody. From dance I transitioned into netball to play alongside my best friend in primary school. Which, when you’re both eight years old, you just know girls play netball.
The idea that women could compete in ‘masculine’ sports didn’t really exist. My versions of Sam Kerr and Megan Rapinoe were Anthony Rocca and David Beckham. I did want to be them at one point, and I tried, but neither Auskick nor my big local soccer club offered development pathways for girls beyond the junior levels. Girls had until we were 12 and that’s it. We were aged out.
At the time I was ten and I remember thinking, what was the point? Why learn when you can’t play?
It was easier to give up.
I first realised we can challenge these gender norms when I was exposed to other, maybe unexpected, narratives. The magic of film opened up a whole new world for me after watching Bend It Like Beckham when I was 13.
Writer and director Gurinder Chadha recognised the power of girls’ dreams and took the opportunity to leverage our shared challenges—in a male dominated industry—as a means to empower us.
“I think people underestimated the power of girls wanting to see films where they were empowered,” Chadha says now. “Those hardly ever existed.”via Devan Coggan from Entertainment Weekly April 5th 2018
For me this was the first time I witnessed women pursue and play soccer. The characters of Jesminder (Jess), played by Parminder Nagra, and Jules, played by Kiera Knightley resonated with me because they were just like me, an everyday girl with a dream.
Jess’ lack of awareness about access to women’s soccer was much like my own. I had been shut down once and allowed that to determine everything. Whereas Jules’ determination to find an opportunity for herself—and other girls—showed me it was possible.
Notably the film also delivers a message about the equal capability of women soccer players.
The easiest— because it is the most tangible—way to measure capability is trophies. Chadha plays into this by having Jules verbalise that the women’s team now gets “just as many trophies as the men’s side do”. And who doesn’t like trophies? I’ve still got my 2012 women’s soccer premier’s memorabilia. But there’s two truths you need to remember about trophies; they don’t come around often, and they are decorations. My current capabilities that allow me to play soccer in State League 1 have nothing to do with the trophies collecting dust in my garage.
A quick google search shows that true capability is defined by “the power or ability to do something”. We visually see this across the film through soccer training and moments of team support. However the most prominent example comes when Jules and Jess set off to America to play out their professional dream. It’s a moment that causes the audience to reflect. You see how their relentless power and determination has allowed them to achieve. And it’s told in such a way that you know it’s not the final trophy of either player’s story. For me it gives you that bit of hope. They did it, so why can’t I? I can learn to bend it just like Beckham.
The desire to empower women further extends beyond the storyline.
We fans further empower one another through the community we’ve built. When you find another fan out in real life—someone who gets you when you say “anyone can cook aloo gobi, but who can bend a ball like Beckham?”—there’s this indescribable immediate connection. In fact, during our welcome meeting for the Siren Emerging Sports Writer program, I mentioned Bend It Like Beckham and Kasey responded by showing me the sticker of Jules and Jess on her laptop. For me seeing Kasey with that sticker, that same affinity I drew with fictional characters, now translates into real life where I feel, ’yes, someone gets me’.
And feeling understood is a powerful thing.
Part of Chadha’s mission with Bend It Like Beckham was to pave the way for more female lead stories and productions. However from Chadha’s perspective this hasn’t happened.
“Time and time again, if I pitch a story, I’m told it’s too small — and that’s why Bend It Like Beckham didn’t get financed for ages. It’s a miracle the film even got made. I don’t think it would ever get made today.”via Devan Coggan from Entertainment Weekly April 5th 2018
Yet the story isn’t small. Bend It Like Beckham was fictional, yes, but it still holds an immense popularity today because unfortunately, the challenges were, and are still real. Whether you’re a returning or new viewer you can see we still face the same battles against sexism, racism, sexuality and cultural barriers.
How we overcome these challenges is a long road that has no clear cut answer. But we do know the power of a story. Stories which help grow the interest within a sport. Help tackle barriers. Show that women are equal and fearsome competitors. Stories which show our strength.
Match day investments give us access yes, but only if you know where to look. In partnering stories with film, television or streaming services, we can overcome access barriers and reach thousands. We can inspire capability, connection and commitment beyond the momentary excitement of a trophy finish.
We can change the landscape of women’s sport.
We can bend the rules.