The U.S. women's soccer team's World Cup championship isn't just a sports victory. It's resonating across the country as a symbolic victory for feminism and progressive politics. The team, especially co-captain Megan Rapinoe, has been boldly political, standing up for both women's rights and LGBT rights and against Donald Trump, who so clearly works against both.
The USWNT, which wins more and draws better domestic TV ratings than the men's national team, is suing for equal pay. The famously cheeky Rapinoe jokingly told reporters during the tournament that, "You can’t win a championship without gays on your team." When the team won the cup, their official Twitter account affirmed the quote by saying, "Told ya" over a photo of three lesbian team members.
And perhaps most delightfully, when asked if she intended to make the customary White House visit if her team won the World Cup, Rapinoe laughed and said, "I'm not going to the fucking White House."
Unsurprisingly, right-wing media and conservatives in general, who conflate support for their agenda with "patriotism," are incensed. But since they're unable to make serious grownup arguments to justify this anger, they're instead turning to their favorite crutches: Sexism and inchoate culture-war grievances.
Most conservative attacks on the women's team, in fact, have relied heavily on sexist stereotypes that paint women as irrational, hysterical and unintelligent.
On Fox News, pundit Jesse Watters went into full mansplain mode, issuing a condescending lecture about how "the women are not helping their case [for equal pay] by their behavior" and predicting that people "aren’t going to watch" the team if they continue to "disparage the president and ... act in unpatriotic ways and then complain about not getting paid equally."
Watters evaded using the term "unladylike." But of course that was the clear implication of his complaint, that the women's team will drive away fans by failing to behave in the demure, ladylike ways he prefers.
Trump, of course, brags about how he likes to "grab them by the pussy" and has advised that the best way to deal with women is "to treat ’em like shit." But according to Watters, women still owe Trump deferential behavior. No matter how you word that or frame it, it's a deeply sexist belief. It's also completely silly, as people who expect women to be subservient to misogynists like Trump also aren't keen on women's sports at all. No amount of "ladylike" appeasement is likely to change that.
Moreover, it's quite clear that one of the most appealing aspects of this women's team is the opportunity to show that standing up for progressive values is patriotic. Which is why the American fans who had been chanting "USA!" during the final started chanting "Equal pay!" after the team won. That's also why a clip of flag-draped U.S. fans chanting "Fuck Trump" and declaring they were going to "get that racist out of the White House" on Fox News went viral — and, unsurprisingly, made our snowflake president mad.
Watters was not the only conservative pundit to lean into sexist stereotypes as a way of dismissing the women's team or undermining their victory.
Conservative radio host Neal Boortz tweeted that they're not "great logical thinkers," which only makes sense as a sexist stereotype. Realistically, it's quite logical for these women to disapprove of a president who undermines women's rights and LGBT equality at every turn.
Multiple conservative outlets, including National Review and Rush Limbaugh, portrayed the women's equal-pay suit as a matter of the women not being smart enough to understand the economics of sports, rather than as a legitimate complaint about making less money than the men's team, who aren't as popular (at least not right now) and didn't even make it to the last World Cup tournament.
"There just isn’t as much — gonna whisper this — there isn’t as much overall interest in women’s soccer," Limbaugh said, portraying women as oversensitive ninnies who can't deal with hard truths about their own inferiority.
That may be true on a global scale. But in the U.S. — which is what we're talking about, right? — the women's World Cup final had 22% more viewers than the men's final from Russia last year.
Along with portraying the women's soccer team as dumb, conservatives have also ginned up a false story claiming that Rapinoe "stomped" on an American flag during the post-game celebrations.
Right wing pundit Jonathan Gilliam tweeted a video of the women celebrating, making this "stomped" accusation, calling it "unpatriotic narcissistic behavior" and declaring that Rapinoe "is neither a hero or a role model."
Unsurprisingly, this claim is a flat-out lie. The video shows the women, in their joy, accidentally dropping the flag and Rapinoe's foot brushing it. There was nothing more to it than that, but the flagrantly false meme spread like wildfire, feeding on both the conservative desire to equate patriotism with slavish devotion to Trump, and also on deeply-rooted conservative sexism.
Rapinoe is a famously proud athlete, known for her jubilant post-goal celebrations that are common and totally unremarkable among male athletes but still ruffle the feathers of those who believe it's "unfeminine" to take pride in one's accomplishments. This false "stomping" accusation allowed conservatives to attack Rapinoe's self-assurance — which has been inspiring to women across the nation — as toxic and narcissistic. It's simply an excuse to bash a woman for having a healthy sense of self-esteem for a job well done.
It's upsetting to see how many people were eager to line up and take potshots at the U.S. women's team. But despite all this, there's actually reason to believe things are getting better. In the past, the sexism and homophobia directed against these athletes would be even more blunt and more widespread. Nowadays, however, even right-wing pundits feel the need to cloak their attacks with false pretenses and evoke sexist stereotypes through insinuation, rather than the frank misogyny they would have used in the past.
This suggests that many conservatives understand that they've lost the larger war when it comes to women's athletics. The public at large has gotten over many of the hang-ups about women playing sports, and is now happy to cheer for female athletes without much self-consciousness about it. So the right is relegated to picking marginal fights and trying to chip away at the edges, but cannot mount a meaningful attack on the core issue of whether women's sports should be considered real sports. Who knows? By 2023, they may give up trying to stigmatize the women's World Cup altogether.