Trophies without winners


TRYING to explain the national obsession with football, a fresh-faced young woman says innocently, “It’s something nice for people to believe in.”
That is the first and last time innocence appears in the documentary Footy Chicks. For the most part, the people who are its subjects detail with artless vulgarity the pornographic sexual pastimes of players and the often painfully young women who are their groupies.
This film’s material is fascinating, if appalling, but it has been pulled together in a way that is ultimately shallow and unsatisfying. It could even be argued that it exploits the young women to whom the filmmakers had wanted to offer a voice.
Director Rebecca Barry has said the idea for the film came from news of allegations of sexual misconduct by professional footballers, which “really disturbed me. Whether or not the allegations were true, it became apparent that in the footy world, there were real problems in players’ attitudes to women.”
Barry found the media reporting sensationalist and was frustrated not to hear from any women who were part of the game’s off-field activities. She made Footy Chicks – with the help of producer Michaela Perske, who also did much of the camera work – as a way of redressing that imbalance.
The documentary, scheduled to screen the night before the AFL grand final, portrays a Darwinian world in which footy players are hunted by young women who see them as the ultimate trophy males (“as close as you can get to prime beef, I suppose”, says one male sports journalist). The women’s comments back this up: they talk of wanting to have sex only with big strong men who have great bodies. One woman displays a picture on her mobile phone of a naked young man and says, “He loves his body. I love his body.”
An 80-year-old woman who is a veteran fan of the Manly Sea Eagles in the NRL says the women to whom the players are attracted also tend to be a type: tall, slim (“anorexic of course!”), with hipster jeans and dirty blonde hair. There are stories here of gang bangs, of rape and near-rape, of the infamous “pig on a spit” phenomenon. This is a culture fuelled by youthful insecurity, booze and narcissism, in which the men and the women use sexual scoring to prop up egos apparently frozen in adolescence. For the men, it’s the age-old confusing of dominant sexual behaviour with manliness. For the women, it’s the same equation employed by middle-class suburban trophy-wives: they derive their social status from the men to whom they attach themselves, however briefly.
In several of the anecdotes told, moral and legal lines are badly blurred: encounters that began as consensual ended up with women feeling violated, or a woman who had sex with one player found herself unexpectedly accommodating half the team.
One retired player describes a scene in which “a young lady known for having enjoyed the attentions of more than one bloke” was drunkenly vomiting over a balcony at a party. A player came up behind her, pulled down her knickers and began having sex with her. The story-teller seems confused about his own moral stance: “I don’t think there was anything malicious in it – but of course there was, she wasn’t consenting and was being sick. The last thing you want when you are being sick is to have some bloke come and shove his willie up you.” But his voice is uncertain and he laughs awkwardly. It’s like he can’t find the words to express his disquiet and so pushes it aside.
This film seems to do the same thing. In some ways it lacks a moral compass. The only value endorsed by those analysing the phenomenon is rejection of the sexual double standard that judges women more harshly than men. Is it as simple as that? Does perceived equality mean that it is now impossible to criticise women for conducting themselves as some men do, for aping the worst of male behaviour?
That the women consent and pursue these encounters disguises the underlying power dynamic. The men still regard them as spoilt goods, unfit material for being brought home to meet mother, in a different category to their wives and real girlfriends. The women say they’re OK with that – but they also say they are looking for something more, for a “real relationship”. The women talk about how they have to know “where to draw the line” so as not to be abused, but the film does not explore what that line is or how women enforce it. It ignores some very uncomfortable questions about the risky behaviour of women who could be seen as “asking for it”.
Several of the young women are photographed and their first names used. All of the men talking about personal experiences do so anonymously (at their own insistence). The unintentional result is that it is women who will bear any odium associated with this venture.
There are also many things this film does not tell us. What kind of class or family background produces a footy chick? Where does she go when her time is done? Does she find that this phase of her life was psychologically destructive?
And how universal is this behaviour among the players? Would a competition for best and fairest off the field have few contenders?
This is a sad film but worth watching with your teenagers as a talking-point. The moral that mine drew from the story is that it might be “nice” to believe in football, but it would be emotionally healthier if these young people believed in themselves.
Footy Chicks screens Friday at 10pm on SBS.

First published in The Age.