It is near the end of peak August. The lanes are clogged with very large cars laden with roof boxes, surf boards and bicycles and full of hopeful holiday makers unable to reverse. Our internet – already slow and of limited capacity is overwhelmed by touristic download demands. Sadly, and despite the RNLI’s best efforts, the sea takes its annual cull of unwary beachgoers. As our local life-saving club president says ‘there’s no such thing as a freak wave – it’s just one that came along when you weren’t watching out for it’.
Still, we have had the Olympics to divert us. In the Old Doom Bar the television is on full time, although we pay it only cursory attention. Real sport addicts stay at home for the big events. Nonetheless there have been moments of shared delight. The general consensus is how well the British women have done in a surprising variety of sports. The women’s hockey team would have been pleased by the attention paid in our small group on the night of their gold medal win over Holland in a penalty shoot-out.
We agreed that over the past few years women’s sport has come a long way in viewer appeal – especially at the national level. Jokes about beach volley ball seem ill-judged when you are watching high calibre rowing, cricket, football, Tai Kwando or even boxing. Respect is called for; and we agreed that watching females allowed us to be focused on technique rather than the more raw physicality of male competition. This perception in no way detracted from appreciation of the quality of fitness required to compete at this level.
There was a particular charm about the way the British hockey girls celebrated their win. Although the sport is officially billed as ‘women’s’ hockey, the team members referred to themselves as ‘the girls’; much as males talk about ‘the lads’. One of our group (who claimed to have studied sociology) remarked on the semiotics of these descriptors. It was evident that female sports had to be described as ‘women’s’ – neither ‘female’ nor ‘ladies’ were options because the former was too clinical and the latter plain old-fashioned. But would it have been acceptable for third parties to refer to our heroines as ‘girls’?
In truth, the simple and unaffected joy of the team as they jumped and hugged did feel very schoolgirl and all the more moving for that albeit in a jolly way. ‘But’, our resident militant feminist interjected, ‘why are we talking like this at all? We’ve stopped talking about black athletes as black, so why discriminate about women?’
It was an irritating remark. ‘Taint discriminisation, ‘tis admiration’ Ted in the corner said, while we struggled to respond. ‘And they look prettier’ from elsewhere ‘except Tom Daley’ – whose prettiness (and indeed that of male divers in general) we all agreed about. Nonetheless we were forced to deal with the issue of ‘the male gaze’ – is it inevitably predatory and sexual?
If we had been a seminar we would have broken up into groups. But we weren’t, so we filled our landlord’s pockets with gold while we worked it out. The concept of a male gaze felt like a feminist reduction of the concept of male hegemony. It was a useful way of suggesting victimisation. We wondered if there was such a thing as a female gaze. That is a woman’s way of appraising men. To judge from our female members’ comments on various male athletes (tennis players’ legs and rowers and yachtsmen in general were specifically mentioned) there clearly is. But we don’t hear about it often. Is this because men control the media, or that women are reluctant to share their perceptual map with men? The men agreed it would be a good thing if they did.
The girls said that might be a mistake. Men were tender plants with fragile egos; whereas women had become inured to a degree of thoughtlessness from men. This was demonstrated either through neglect of spontaneous compliment of their partner’s appearance or spontaneous and often vulgarly expressed remarks (critical or appreciative) of another woman’s personal presentation. But as Ted had earlier observed, admiration even if discriminatory, was always pleasant. We were unanimous about the value of inter-gender appreciation.
There was also agreement that too much feminist concern about the male gaze would lead ultimately to the sort of fiasco we had seen on the beaches at Cannes. That is to say, women had the right to choose how to dress on the beach as elsewhere. Only the social context should suggest – but not impose conventions. It was as absurd to force a woman on the beach in a hijab to divest herself of clothing as it would be to insist all women went topless. The conventions of modesty imposed by specific cultures were broadly speaking up to their sufferers to protest if they chose.
Luckily, the French courts have ruled the hijab ban erroneous. Our local beaches suffer more from dogs than they do from alien cultural invasions. In any case we don’t have any police around to say ‘allo missus, get yer kit off’.
Before we were chucked out of the bar, we raised a glass to Britain’s female athletes. They are our girls and we love’em.