Sex Sells? An Ongoing Battle in Ghanaian Women's Football
Growing up in a staunchly conservative culture where gender roles are taken seriously, most female footballers in Ghana are under constant scrutiny regarding how they act and look.
Caught in the whirlwind of "having it all," these girls strive to be athletic, feminine and sexy to attain approval, debunk societal assumptions of their sexuality and the constant mockery of their physique.
The question is, when these boxes are ticked, will that attract more fans to the women's game?
The age-old stereotype
Traditionally, football has been about entertainment. Despite the strides made around the globe to attract fans, progress in the Ghanaian women's football scene has been slow-paced. Initiatives like a signed broadcasting deal and title sponsor aimed to make a positive impact, but fan engagement overall for most clubs is in decline.
The disconnect in Ghanaian women's football can be attributed to several factors, the most prominent being the pronounced portrayal of perceived masculine traits.
Speaking to DW, Patricia Mantey, goalkeeper for the Ghana National Women's Team, confirmed people assume she is a man simply because she plays football. "In our system, if you are a young lady and you start playing football they see you as a man," she explained.
Vivian Konadu, a striker for Gokulam FC in India and for Ghana's national team, told DW a similar story when highlighting the stereotypes most Ghanaian female footballers face. "For me, it was very irritating when people stopped me on the road randomly and ask you whether I was a man or a woman."
At 23 years old, Vivian Konadu is seen as one of the rising stars of women's football in GhanaImage: Privat
Does sex appeal matter in women's sports?
In a study conducted by Dr. Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in sports, sexualizing their bodies made women bigger celebrities, but that didn't necessarily translate to a deeper interest in their sport of choice. In the words of Nicole LaVoi, a member of the Tucker Institute, "Sex sells sex, not sports."
Athleticism is still considered a male trait amongst the audience Ghanaian women's football is trying to capture. "Everybody has a unique body system, my system developed like a man, but I am not a man. I am just too good at being an athlete," Patricia Mantey explained.
Off the pitch, many players still feel intimidated by the prospect of being seen as unfeminine and worry that they might not get brand endorsements because they don't tick the conventional beauty standards. Only a handful of Ghanaian women footballers have earned brand endorsement deals and most of them ply their trade internationally.
"I used to wear lady's clothing when I was younger but when I started playing football, I stopped. This was mainly because I looked funny when wearing ladies' dresses. Even my sisters used to laugh at me when I wore them so I decided to stop," explained Vivian Konadu.
Marketing in the modern age
The players aren't the only ones struggling in the battle to break down barriers. "As a club CEO, it is quite unfortunate for me to say this, but sex really does sell in women's football," began Cleopatra N. Nketiah, CEO of Ghana Women's Premier League club, Ridge City FC.
"Women's football accounts have been in existence for a long time, but the ones getting attention are those who are portraying how sexy they are and unfortunately that's what works."
"The posts I believe have done well on our social media have nothing to do with the girls on the pitch. It's either them posing, being fun, being flirty and looking sort of sexy. And those are the kind of things people like to see."
Nketiah believes women's football thrives more on the attention of men because they're more likely to be won over as supporters of the game. "If we were to leave Women's football in the hands of female fans, women's football is not going to thrive."
Cleopatra N. Nketiah, a co-founder of Ridge City FC, wants to see the women's game progress in GhanaImage: Privat
"The only way we can overturn the need for sex appeal in women’s football is to get more women interested. This is mainly because if women go out to watch a game, they are not there to see how sexy the players are."
Making the game more attractive
While most male Ghanaian fans DW talked to referenced the need to make the game more visually appealing, one fan, Nelson, put his own twist on the view. "I think if the sport is promoted well and there's avid competition in the women's game, I will not have any problem watching it."
"If they act masculine, I believe that will boost their ability on the ball more and I believe their appearance can help boost interest in the game because, for men, we are attracted by what we see but what will interest us more is seeing more competition in the league."
Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter drew a lot of criticism for suggesting women footballers could draw in more fans by wearing, amongst other things, tighter shorts back in 2004. In more recent times, the women's game has progressed for the better.
The recent Women's Africa Cup of Nations and the Women's EUROs produced record-breaking attendance figures without altering their dress code. Ghana hope to emulate that progress, but will first have to win the battle against old-age stereotypes.
Edited by Charles Penfold and James Thorogood
Esther Owusua Appiah-Fei Sport's writer
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