Neither Monsters nor Amazons:
Futbolera Gives Women in Latin American Sports the Voice They Deserve
Review by Sara Rauch
“It’s hard to imagine a more direct exertion on children than school programs instructing them in how to move their bodies,” write Brenda Esley and Joshua Nadel in the introduction to Futbolera: A History of Women and Sports in Latin America. This sentiment feeds directly into Esley and Nadel’s thought-provoking analysis of how women’s physicality has been controlled and manipulated via socially acceptable physical activity in Latin America. Fittingly, this engaging social history takes its name from those who have struggled to gain equal access and representation on the field—Futbolera comes from a term used to refer, simply, to a woman who plays soccer, though over the years it has been used more generally as a shorthand for women who have pushed cultural boundaries.
The book, published by University of Texas Press this May, focuses particularly on women’s place in sports in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Mexico, but covers other nations—Uruguay, Costa Rica, El Salvador—as well. As is the case in many Western cultures, the roles women have been allowed to play in Latin America has been severely circumscribed by nationalist, patriarchal values, and the narrative Esley and Nadel weave is one of direct state and bureaucratic control over women’s bodies. Futbolera delves into the archives across Latin America, seeking to fill the gaps of women’s exclusion from the record and providing a more balanced portrayal of women’s interest and participation.
Beginning in the 1800s, physical education gained ground in Latin American countries by way of Swedish influence, first as a way of “bettering the race.” But it didn’t take long for “experts” to deem certain physical activities as better suited for women. Tennis, swimming, track and field (often with distance or weight modifications), and even basketball were usually considered acceptable for women to play, but more often things like dance or calisthenics were promoted “to stop the development of women’s muscles” and appease the worry that strenuous exercise would harm women’s physique and hormonal balance. While these “experts” advocated for “vigor and action” in men’s activity, they recommended exercise as a means of maintaining a woman’s beauty and preparing her for motherhood. Women who desired to play sports for their own sake were viewed—by politicians, educators, and even the general citizenry—as unnatural, or “monstrous.” Their sexuality was called into question: because “sports had been defined as essential to building and exhibiting proper masculinity, it constituted a dangerous terrain in terms of its potential to masculinize women”; alternately, sportswomen were “exoticized... as Amazons who existed outside of normal development.” Even female fans, coaches, and referees were considered dangerous.
As might be expected, football (aka, soccer) plays a main role in the history of women’s sports in Latin America, and it is in the particular exploration of this group sport that the authors find their stride. Though there is evidence that women continued to play football despite the declarations against it, their social exclusion from the sport provides insight into the cultures’ prevailing ideas about sexuality and gender. Sports are fertile ground for understanding how race and class divisions are enforced within a society. The chapter “Policing Women’s Sports in Brazil” notes that as soccer became increasingly identified as Brazil’s national sport, “women’s exclusion... was part and parcel of marginalizing them as active agents of the nation.” In Brazil, the attitude that constrained women’s participation in physical exercise as a method of promoting beauty also “included a focus on whiteness.” Football, which gained popularity among working-class and black Brazilians in the 1920s and 30s, was particularly perceived as “violent,” thus furthering the idea that women shouldn’t play. In Brazil, and elsewhere across Latin America, “the exclusion of women [from football] took place at the very moment when the narrative of the sport as a democratizing and unifying force of national identity, particularly in terms of race, took hold.”
What helps make Futbolera so interesting is that many of the struggles that women in sports have faced continue to linger. Consider that as recently as 2017 “the entire women’s [football] team of Club Nacional in Uruguay accused their coach... of gender discrimination.” The entire team! Sexism—which, among other things, dictates the type of physical body a culture deems attractive—remains rampant in the sports world of Latin America as well: in 2017 Adidas unveiled Argentina’s new team jerseys using male footballers... and female models. Examples such as these help expose underlying ideas about femininity, and women’s expected role in the public sphere—ideas that remain entrenched despite social change elsewhere.
Futbolera may focus on Latin America, but it’s not hard to see parallels with the current state of women’s sports in the United States and globally, where women continue to fight for equality. Think of the ongoing debates over Serena Williams’ actions and outfit choices in the United States, and it’s easy to see that women in sports are still the victims of patriarchal values that seek to keep them fit into a certain mold.
The overarching history of women in sports in Latin America may be one of obfuscation, mistreatment, and mismanagement, but there are signs that the times are changing. Women’s teams in Uruguay, Argentina, Ecuador, and elsewhere are gaining in popularity and increasingly able to advocate for better access to facilities and financial assistance. Youth teams for girls are being promoted in Argentina, and in Ecuador, Vanessa Arauz has held the head coach position for the women’s national team since 2014.
As feminism continues to make strides in all aspects of life, a book like Futbolera helps illuminate the ways in which patriarchy has historically, literally, exercised control over women’s bodies. This well-written and meticulously researched history helps us understand the past, moving the female body out of the silence enforced upon it. History may have attempted to write women out of the story of sports in Latin America, but Futbolera puts the ball back in women’s possession.
Futbolera: A History of Women and Sports in Latin America
Brenda Eisley and Joshua Nadel
University of Texas Press