On Friday night, I got to watch the inaugural Women’s State of Origin footy match on national TV. It was a historic moment, as it was the first time in the rebranded format after almost two decades of being played in relative obscurity as the Interstate Challenge.
And although the women aren’t yet fully professional (heck, they’re barely even semi-professional) and the Origin is contested over a single match instead of like the men’s three-game series, it was a joy to watch a women’s rugby league match on a Friday night in prime time.
NSW won the match which, as a maroon-blooded Queenslander I’m still raw about, but it was bigger than the women who actually played the game, so I’m prepared to overlook the result – for now.
It was about all the players and coaches and administrators who came before, setting the stage for a cracker match. It was about all the girls and boys in the crowd and watching on their TVs at home having new role models to look up to and to sign their jerseys and caps and footballs.
All-in-all, it was a great advertisement for rugby league, especially seeing the crowd swamp the field and the players after the game, getting up close to their new heroes, who seemed to be just so stoked and honoured to be there.
I say all this as a rugby league agnostic. I’m not a fan of any single team, and I pay attention to rugby league only during Origin, sometimes during Tests and World Cups, and if a Queensland team (including the Storm) makes the final 8. Other than that? I don’t go out of my way to watch it during the season.
But I also say this as a woman who played soccer for over two decades back in the 80s and 90s and into the 00s when we had to use the men’s hand-me-down jerseys every season and be thankful to get an hours training run before the youth and men’s teams took over the fields. We got to use the dressing sheds only when the men or youth weren’t playing, or when we made finals. Other than that, we changed in the toilets or on the sideline.
Back then, we had to be grateful to even be playing in our own competition. We never aspired to be more because we never knew we could.
Watching that game Friday night was less about the game itself, and more about seeing women elevated to the same stage as men. We’re not fully there yet, but we’re on our way.
The one single thing that grated on me just a bit was the use of the word ‘girls’ when commentators were talking about the players.
I know, I know, it’s such a small, seemingly insignificant thing in an otherwise amazingly magical moment in time. But it’s something that once you become aware of how often the word ‘girls’ is used in relation to adult women, it’s not something you can unhear.
So why does it annoy me?
As an author, I know how important word choice is. My editor asks me to ‘be specific’ when choosing words and conveying my ideas because the wrong word can totally change the meaning I’m trying to get across. Even unintentionally.
That’s why I think the connotation of the word ‘girl’ is important in the commentating context.
A girl is a female child – not an adult. Not someone with their own agency. Not someone who can make their own decisions yet. Not someone who is ready to go out into the world and make their own mark.
I know that’s not what was meant with its usage Friday night, but I really wanted to make a point about why it’s problematic, and how easy it is to fix.
When I made this comment on Twitter:
it was quickly pointed out to me that Ruan Sims, (the injured NSW player who did a great job on sideline commentary), as well as Karina Brown (QLD captain) and Maddie Studdon (NSW captain) all referred to their players as ‘girls’.
That was right, of course, but this is down to context.
For the record, I don’t think women should refer to other women as ‘girls’, and we shouldn’t refer to grown men as ‘boys’, but that’s just my opinion, and each to their own.
I do, however, think there are certain circumstances where calling women ‘girls’ and men ‘boys’ is acceptable. We see it all the time in team environments and amongst friends and family. Familiarity, and being part of the team is the key.
Karina Brown referred to the QLD team after the game as ‘my girls’, and that’s because she’s part of the group. Maddie Studdon did the same thing when referring to her team for the same reason.
But you wouldn’t have heard Karina refer to the NSW team as ‘girls’ because she’s not part of that team.
To make things a little clearer, because I know that explanation isn’t the best, consider when men use the word ‘boys’. Listen to any football coverage, and a player in a team will refer to his own teammates as ‘the boys’, but wouldn’t refer to opposition players as ‘boys’.
Used in this way, it’s a term of endearment and familiarity.
The word ‘girls’ as used by male commentators, (or just one, actually) as it was on Friday night, is something else entirely.
However, I’m prepared to give that commentator the benefit of the doubt, because I really think the use of ‘girl’ when he was calling the game was more about not really knowing what he should call the players. That’s understandable with him not having had the opportunity to call women’s matches much (if at all).
I mean, every summer we hear male commentators fumbling over the word ‘batsman’ during the WBBL and women’s internationals when it’s simply just ‘batter’. Fieldsmen long ago became fielders, and bowlers, well, they’re still bowlers.
The only exception in cricket, of course, is 12th man and third man, which are fielding positions and it would be pretty silly to change them to 12th woman or third woman. Although I do recall a commentator asking the question as to whether he should be referring to those fielding positions with ‘woman’ instead of ‘man’. I distinctly remember the female commentator at the time assuring her colleague that ‘man’ was fine in that regard.
So what could the commentators have used instead of the word ‘girls’ on Friday night? ‘Women’, ‘team’ or ‘players’ would have been perfectly fine.
But in reality, they could’ve called on anything they would have used when calling a men’s game. There are plenty to choose from – ‘backs’, ‘forwards’, ‘pack’, ‘wingers’, ‘halves’, ‘centres’… You get the idea.
I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that language matters and having commentators, particularly male commentators, refer to women as ‘girls’ instead of ‘women’ or any other term they could have used, perpetuates the stereotype that the games aren’t as serious as the men’s competitions.
That’s definitely not the intention – I know that.
I guess the key is to just treat a football player, or a cricket player or a soccer player or [insert sport here] player, whether male or female, as a player. Use the same words when referring to women when commentating on a game as you would the men. They do, after all, play in the same positions and play under the same rules (mostly – I’m looking at you AFLW).
It’s not that hard really.
** NOTE: I’ve left the comments open on this one because if you’re reading this, I know you probably have an opinion on this subject, as I do. I’d love to hear it because I enjoy intelligent and reasoned debate. Be aware though, that if you play the player and not the ball, you’ll get a quick send-off and suspension. Cool? Cool. Drop your thoughts in the comments below. **