Female fans: It's personal

By Amanda Woodard

Fiona Allon shines a light on the history and experiences of women rugby league supporters.
Image of Fiona Allan

I remember being quite shocked at how passionate the women supporters were, the way they shouted abuse as well as encouragement if there was a player they weren’t quite happy with.” Fiona Allon is recalling seeing the St George Dragons rugby league team for the first time in her early 20s. Taken along by her avid-supporter boyfriend, Allon now shares that passion, going to watch the team at least a couple of times a year. “I always pick the important matches, when they’re playing old rivals Easts or Souths.”

Having grown up in the Sutherland Shire in Sydney’s south, where if you didn’t spend time playing sport you were watching sport, Allon says supporting a rugby league team reflects a sense of connection and belonging to a community and place.

Allon, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies, is more aware than most female sports fans that supporting your team is not always an easy role for a woman. The writer and critic, who specialises in analysis of contemporary Australian culture, has contributed a chapter to a new book, Sport and Its Female Fans (published by Routledge), which examines the history and experiences of women rugby league supporters in particular.

Perhaps more than any other sport, rugby league has been and remains a male-dominated environment. Allon says that, historically, “men often regarded these spaces as a sanctuary away from domestic interference of women and families. That division between public and private spheres in male and female culture in Australia has always been deep and entrenched.”

Nevertheless, women were making their presence felt in rugby league as early as 1910. Allon found a photograph of a game in that year between Balmain and South Sydney that reveals “a sprinkling of women spectators”. Allon says she was surprised at the number of untold stories about women fans that she came across during her research. Stories such as that of Millie Burge who was a passionate follower and attended matches with her mother where she met her future husband, St George rugby league star Frank Burge. Or the account of the female supporters who loved the game so much they decided to play it and established their own competition in 1921 – despite much opposition.

Misconceptions about women’s knowledge of the game were routinely propagated in the press, says Allon, and female fans were treated with derision and ridicule. “Newspaper cartoons especially trivialised women, portraying them as not understanding the rules or as decorative appendages for their husbands.”

Nothing has prevented the female fan base from growing over the years and today more women attend rugby league matches than ever before – around 40 percent of spectators, according to Allon. She thinks women are interested in watching sport for the same reasons as men: the competitiveness, performance, skill and athleticism – but says in league there is another dimension.

“Many women are attracted to the sheer physicality of rugby league and to the performances of strong male bodies.”

“I think many women are attracted to the sheer physicality and toughness of rugby league and to the performances of strong male bodies. When Tina Turner was used to advertise the NRL competition, she encapsulated something quite specific about women’s relationship to rugby league. She was a strong, physically fit and sexy woman celebrating rugby league. I think many women responded to that association.”

The darker side of Australian obsession

For some, the so-called ‘footie chicks’, it’s an association that they seek to consummate. “There’s an interesting phenomenon of young women who follow the players and become the equivalent of groupies. They want to get as close to these men as possible and talk openly and explicitly about their sexual interest in these men and their bodies.”

Underlying this, says Allon, is a tension that exists between an aggressively physical style of football that is a celebration of rugged masculinity – depending largely on the exclusion of women – and the desire to create a sport that is inclusive and recognises the positive influence of women on the game or at least their de facto presence in the game’s broader culture.

“A real paradox exists between the fact that although more women are following the game and there’s been a deliberate ‘feminisation’ of the game’s image more generally, incidents of sexual abuse and violence towards women continue to be made against many rugby league players in the 21st century,” she observes. “I don’t know why this is happening but I’m sure teams are under more public scrutiny than in the past. We don’t know if these behaviours have always existed and not been targeted before.”

Allon has a penchant for examining the darker side of other Australian obsessions. Her book Renovation Nation (2008) explored the distorting effect of the real estate game and the transformation of a nation into a population of grasping property speculators. “I wrote about the whole housing boom when it was at its peak and the way real estate became a way of making money and began to dominate popular culture. If you went to a dinner party, it’s all anyone talked about,” she recalls.

Her interest in cultural transformation is the subject of another current project: the financialisation of everyday life. Allon has been awarded an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship grant to research and write a book, titled Home Economics: Speculating on Everyday Life, which was prompted by the impact of the GFC. “I think it’s important that we have a cultural debate about the increasing dominance of economics and markets in social life. As the state retreats from its previous responsibilities there has been a huge transfer of risk onto the ‘household’.

“Ordinary people are required to take responsibility for their savings, retirement funds, education, health insurance and welfare needs in general. This ties everyday life into market volatility in quite new and unexpected ways.”

The notion of the ‘good life’ has been completely transformed in contemporary Australia, says Allon. “The home, for example, is no longer seen as a sanctuary or just somewhere to live, but as an investment, something that can be leveraged in all kinds of ways. Everyday borrowing, savings and credit networks are all now completely interconnected with global financial markets.”

While people are expected to be for more financially literate than in the past, Allon’s forthcoming book poses two questions; one explicit, the other implied: do we recognise the financial risks our decisions now carry and if so, what are we going to do about it?

If there’s anything that gets people up in arms, it’s the value of their home and the cost of living. Perhaps the only subject they might feel even more passionate about is their favourite sporting team. Allon seems to have struck the trifecta.