Looking at these images, I am reminded of how important the game is to the women who play it, in no small part because it radicalizes one’s experience of the body. It is one thing to see the body transformed in Bacon’s painting. It is another to feel one’s own body transformed within and by the athletic gesture itself. As much as women are taught to have (or that they should have) a strategic relationship to their looks, we aren’t always encouraged to develop physical awareness of the embodied self–the kind of awareness that is paradoxically won when self-consciousness is lost. But the spaces in which that self-awareness looks and feels natural are somewhere else. They are not on television, not in the newspapers, and not in the movie theaters. And they are not here, in these photographs of an antiseptic locker room. Here we intrude, and the players stand in formation against us.
Lovell pairs each of the Belles individually with the team’s coach. In this juxtaposition we are invited to see difference–in gender, surely, and in age and authority. But when the English FA banned women from its pitches, it also banned male FA members from supporting the women’s game as referees, linesmen, etc. The ban wasn’t just an attempt to regulate women footballers out of existence. It was an attempt to ban the re-wiring of men and women’s relationship to each other that women’s athletics invariably brings about. It was an attempt to undo the queering effects of the women’s game on gender and sexuality, on the bodies on and off the field. Lovell’s images are anxious and claustrophobic when compared with traditional portraits of footballers. Instead of picturing the athletes outdoors, on the field, and in play, in Lovell’s photographs, players and their manager are instead backed into a locker room corner. In place of grass we have antiseptic tile. In place of open sky, we have a ceiling hanging low above their heads. In place of movement we have a stance.
The coupling of player and manager draws attention to the biggest threat to mainstream visual culture posed by women’s football: seeing lesbians everywhere. Mainstream representations of the female athlete are muted, carefully edited, and constrained. Commentators step over references to their personal lives. A press release announcing the new U.S. Women’s Professional Soccer League uniforms uses the word “feminine” twice–as if to reassure people that these women will look like women. When the female athlete steps into the public arena, she is asked to straighten herself out. Or, she is straightened out by the camera. Out of the public’s eye, however, on Sunday afternoons at Hackney Marshes (where my former London teammates play), you can actually see something like what Whitman saw, and what Jo March imagined she might enjoy: a rowdy bunch of players forgetting themselves, and finding themselves in a sexy dream having a “capital time” enjoying a deeply embodied form of communion.
In representations of men at play, intensely homoerotic scenes flourish under our noses but only with the promise we not “see” the erotic currents that animate them. The “obviousness” of the queerness of women playing together–their butchness, their boyishness–means that we are barely allowed to see them play at all. Lovell’s portraits register the ambivalence with which the female athlete approaches the public sphere. They manifest the pressure to “straighten” the female athlete, to reassure the spectator by forcing us to read these women via the mediating presence of the manager. This scenario isolates each from the other, triangulates them and us through the male managerial body, and edges the game, too, out of the frame.
Take one of these portraits and perhaps you see a couple. look at the installation series, however, and the male body becomes a superfluous and awkward presence nearly as out of place as Whitman’s 29th bather. The mediation of the spectacle of the men’s game seems to provide the artist-fan a distance that gives him permission to adore his subject. Without that visual archive, without the spectacle of the spectacle filtering us from them, the task of representing the female athlete is more charged, and more overdetermined. Zidane can act like the cameras aren’t there. His self absorption–in himself as athletic spectacle–lets him get on with his work, and lets you look at him without the particular discomfort of fearing that somehow he might look back, as if he knew what you wanted. In the world captured by Lovell’s camera, when the lens is trained on her, the female athlete doesn’t move. These women do not have the luxury of disavowing the camera’s presence and all that it implies. The spectator is an unwelcome presence in this space, in much the same way that these women are unwelcome within the deeply patriarchal and homophobic spaces of English football. It is as if these women–at least these women as I want to see them–are really somewhere else. As athletes, their field of play is off the visual record, and, perhaps, on another planet.
Jennifer Doyle is an Associate Professor of English at the University of California Riverside. She is the author of Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006) and is finishing a book on difficulty, emotion, and contemporary art (forthcoming from Duke University Press). The preceding essay began as a short essay on Moira Lovell’s photographs in New Works: Pavilion Commissions 2008 (Leeds, 2008), and is part of Uncoupled, a work in progress exploring forms of intimacy and belonging outside the space of the romantic couple. Doyle writes From A Left Wing (http://fromaleftwing.blogspot.com), a feminist blog about soccer which she shares through the website Women Talk Sports (http://womentalksports.com). She is the treasurer of the Union Football league in downtown Los Angeles. This essay is dedicated to the Hackney Women’s Football Club, for whom she proudly played left back on the reserves squad in 2007-2008.