AFLM name change debate shows again how men are considered ‘the norm’

Kate Seear, Associate Professor in Law, Monash University

A shorter version of this was first run in The Guardian on 12th February 2020

“How long until AFL headquarters formally commits to renaming the men’s competition AFLM?” This was the question I put to Nicole Livingstone, the head of women’s football, and Steve Hocking, head of football operations at the AFL, on my ABC radio program, The Outer Sanctum, ABC last weekend.

The debate on social media – over both the question and the answer – was swift and polarised. It took a further three days for it to make its way into the mainstream media. When it did, the conversation exploded.

Predictably, many condemned the suggestion that the men’s competition should be renamed. Some argued that we shouldn’t mess with over 150 years of tradition, seemingly forgetting that before the AFL was the AFL, it was the VFL, and before that, the VFA. Others argued – without further elucidation – that this was yet another case of “political correctness gone mad”. A tired slogan all too often advanced without any attempt to explain it, the argument is supposed to be self-evident. What is the point, though? Are we being told that any attempt to question the words we use and the meanings they make is an illness of mind, a kind of “sickness”, a pathology?

I can’t help but see an irony, in any event, in that those who accuse others of being overly sensitive about the strictures of language would cling so dearly to it once it is opened up to critique and challenge.

Other critics noted that the men’s competition is the “norm”, meaning that there is no need to distinguish it from the women’s. To do so would be an insult to the men’s game, since we already know that “AFL” is synonymous with men.

Proponents of the “M” are of course well aware of its normative status. This is precisely the problem they want us to reflect on.

Mark Robinson, writing for News Corp, called the debate “silly”. Without detailing any of the arguments in favour of a change, Robinson asked “Why are we even having this debate?”, before answering himself: “AFLW is the women’s. AFL is men’s. End of discussion”. Robinson went on to say that “It’s OK for the AFL to champion causes but it does pick and choose”. Without irony, Robinson then picked and chose a cause of his own, suggesting that while the “scourge” of gambling was an important issue worth addressing, the AFLM debate was not.

Let me explain, then, why so many footy fans have chosen this as their issue. Given Robinson and others may be unaware of the context, let me explain why we are having this debate.

First and foremost – as the debate itself reminds us – language matters. Language does not simply reflect society but shapes it. These issues have been the subject of academic analysis by experts in semiotics and linguistics for decades.

For example, language can produce and reproduce hierarchies, especially through what the Algerian-French philosopher Jacques Derrida called ‘binary logic’. He argued that binary pairs – such as mind/body, reason/emotion, objectivity/subjectivity, order/chaos and masculine/feminine – dominated Western language and thought. Each word in the pair derives its meaning from the other, meaning that language is relational.

These pairs also happen to be hierarchical: mind is valued over body, reason over emotion, objectivity over subjectivity, and masculine over feminine. The pairs are also connected, with women historically associated with the subordinated ‘other’ of each binary pair (emotion, body, chaos, subjectivity).

This is just one example of the way that language reflects and reinforces meanings, shapes systems of thought and social norms, including the things we come to value and devalue. Our values and norms are shaped by the repetition of these words and the relations between them. This is what the philosopher Judith Butler meant when she once described the “reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains”.

There are other ways that language has shaped and constrained how we come to think of women. This is best summed up in the classic observation by feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir, who said that:

“In actuality the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity.”

Our language has long been dominated by words that position men as the default or norm. Words such as ‘mankind’ and ‘manmade’ are used to denote humanity as a whole. They reinforce the notion that this is a world by, for and of men. Many of us who sit outside these norms feel our absence acutely, and frequently, in ways that those who occupy the dominant status may never notice, be aware of, or appreciate. To us, it matters.

Laws and other canonical documents often referenced only men, raising questions about whether women (and others, such as non-white men) existed in the eyes of the law at all. In some cases, the absence of references to women meant that they had no rights in law, and could not benefit from them. For those ‘others’, language really mattered, in a very tangible way.

These tendencies in language – to privilege men and erase or omit women – are pervasive, widespread, and continue to linger today. And one need not be excluded from legal rights to care about these omissions and erasures or to feel that our lives might be made just a bit better if our language was more deliberately inclusive.

Of course, the addition of an M reinforces a binary of its own (men/women) which many might consider itself problematic. This is an important observation, and one that could be addressed by the AFL if it were to consider a gender-neutral approach to the naming of the elite competitions. For now, however, we are stuck with AFLW and a binary approach to sport. And so as long as this persists, we have a problem. It is – crucially – also a problem of the AFL’s own making. It chose to differentiate between the two elite level competitions in such a way.

The debate over AFLM cannot be separated from these histories and the injustices that language helps to perpetuate. It matters that the sport’s governing body (the “AFL”) is wholly synonymous with the men’s competition (the “AFL”) so that the men’s competition remains the default, or norm. What message does this send to women, men, boys and girls about the value placed on both women and women’s sport? It signals that we are lesser. This is repeated in every other aspect of the sport’s governance: from inequalities in pay and resourcing, the shortened season, the difficult conditions under which many athletes compete, and the long fight to even get a women’s competition in the first place.

The subordinate status of AFLW is produced not just by historic inequities, differences in resourcing and pay inequities but by the continued positioning of women’s sport as an afterthought: a symbolic and literal ‘other’ to the men’s. If this week’s debate is anything to go by, many people think this is ‘just a fact’ and prefer it to stay this way. But that is a backward-looking view; one which clings to old linguistic and structural patterns. It is a view that must change if the game is to grow, and if gender equality – in sport and society – is to ever become a reality.

When leading sports commentators dismiss the “M” debate as silly and meaningless, then, they demonstrate an ignorance of language’s constitutive power, the historic privileging of men as the norm and the force and significance of linguistic repetition.

It would be a small gesture to add an “M”. It won’t fix everything, but I’m not sure that anyone is claiming it will. For many of us, it would be a profound and meaningful step. One that will harm no-one, but mean a great deal to those of us so often on the outside. This includes future generations of girls, who do not yet know they are the ‘other’. Let us hope they never need to.

Kate Seear, Associate Professor in Law, Monash University

A shorter version of this article was originally published in The Guardian. Read the shorter article.

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