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Opinion: The Body Politics of World Cup Coverage in Vietnam

In late June, a popular subscription television channel caused controversy by featuring a bikini-clad female show host on a prediction segment aired before a men's FIFA World Cup match. Another television network — Vietnam's Television (VTV) — was also criticized for including "beauty queens" whose outfits were revealing and whose football knowledge was questionable. While these media tactics are not new, the discussion surrounding these incidents is an example of how the public discourse of increasing gender equality is less often a positive sign than a glossy veneer for an ugly core.

While a few pointed out the overt sexism and objectification of women on these programs, most of the discussion regarding the shows has focused on whether they were a sign that women's bodies are liberated, or an act incompatible with Vietnamese traditional culture and customs.

Despite being on two different sides of the debate, both arguments posit the same ideology that objectifies women's body as a spectacle catering to a masculinized audience. What differs in the two arguments is the idea of how the image of a woman should be represented — the 'against' camp was influenced by the Confucian ideal of the women's body and the 'for' camp follows neo-liberalism thinking that emphasizes the liberation of the body and the individual. The latter often serves as a rationalization for the commodification of the female image. The woman is still — according to British film theorist Laura Mulvey in her 1975's essay 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' — a spectacle "displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controller of the look."

The fact that the bikini-clad show host was featured on a football-related segment opens other territory that often goes unchallenged: sport and its relationship with women.

Ever since the 1982 World Cup in Spain was broadcasted live on Vietnamese television, watching the tournament has become deeply entrenched in Vietnamese television culture. My introduction to football was watching the 2002 World Cup hosted in Korea and Japan on a little television with my family — one of the rare occasions here when staying up late wasn't required for the tournament. The World Cup spectacle came into my and other Vietnamese lives as a commonplace ritual, its celebration unquestioned and obvious.

Sport and mediated sport, albeit advertised as games, carry more social and cultural baggage than we'd like to believe. The values of competition, aggressiveness, speed, determination and stoicism found in football are all markers of a traditional paradigm regarding masculinity. Football and mediated football hence are ground for a 'correct form' of masculinity to be practiced and consumed. This goes hand-in-hand with the capitalist ideology of production and the physical exploitation of the body found in modern sport, which is brought up by Marxist sociologist Jean-Marie Brohm.

Thus, it is safe to say that the essence of watching the World Cup in Vietnam instills the aforementioned values, while football fandom serves as an imagined community where its members share the practice of hegemonic masculinity celebration. However, the process of constituting an 'us' also relies on the othering process of a 'them.' Commercial football spectacle relies on the image of a castrated woman in order to signify the symbolic masculinity it represents. In the words of Laura Mulvey, "it is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence."

The media is a major contributor to this naturalization of the gender binary and the male gaze. The plethora of sexualized female bodies represented in football-related advertisements and media programs, as well as the recent bikini debate, are concrete examples of this.

Sexual appeal tactics in football also reinforce the erasure of female football fans. In recent years, VTV's pre- and post-match panels — which previously only included men — added women to its round table. The women that VTV has decided to include often have limited knowledge about football and get asked questions related to a male player's appearance and her appreciation for a player's masculinity. When female football fans came into the picture, the male dominant football sphere found ways to reconcile the disruption of the gender binary and sexual difference by using tactics that discredit women as real fans, or pretend that female fans don't exist. 

It is all the more bitter that these incidents occurred at a time when public discourses surrounding gender equality in Vietnam are often peppered with success stories of female entrepreneurs and a greater percentage of women in managerial positions. However, those stories are often sugar-coated meritocracy myths. Feminism and gender theorist bell hooks called this a "faux feminism" that only benefits women who are already in the top of the social hierarchy. Angela Davis shares the same opinion, calling such commercialized feminist fairy tales "glass-ceiling feminism" and "bourgeois feminism."

The reaction to these bikini-clad World Cup programs is a reminder of the fact that the condition of women cannot be solved with the promise of neo-liberalism and laissez-faire capitalism that is often built on the back of women's body. It is high time we question the societal impact of football, the celebration of a "correct masculinity," and the system that favors profit and virality at the expense of women's agency.

[Photo via MyBataz]

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