THE ULTIMATE TROPHY: What the Phenomenon of Sports WAGS tells us about Sexism, Race and Beauty
“In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.” -Tony Montana (Scarface)
WAGS (Wives and Girlfriends) is an acronym coined by the British tabloids to refer to the wives and girlfriends of British soccer players. WAGS has now been expanded to refer to the wives and girlfriends of male athletes in all major sports. Viewing the featured images of athlete’s significant others in British tabloids, Vogue Magazine which put together “WAGs “R” Us: A Style Guide to World Cup Soccer Wives and Girlfriends,” this recent listing by the New York Daily News “The hottest WAGs of the World Cup” and a website’s list of “The 11 Most Desired Wags of Mexican Soccer,” leads you to believe that every soccer player is either married to a Sports Illustrated model, Victoria’s Secret model, playboy playmate, or pop singer, actress who coincidentally is 99% likely to be white. Of the over 50 soccer player’s wives and girlfriends that the Daily News showcased, only four appear to be black. Of the 12 women selected by Vogue only two were non-white, Japanese player Misako Honda’s wife Keisuke Honda, and Inter Milan player Mario Ballotelli’s girlfriend Fanny Neguesha who is of African descent. According to a 2012 article in the British newspaper The Guardian “25% of premiership players are black or from ethnic minorities.” There are significant numbers of black players or players of African ancestry playing in the soccer clubs of Europe. Here in the United States 78% of NBA players are African-American and about 68% of NFL players are black, now even if only half of these players were married to or dating a black woman, that is a significant pool of black WAGS for the media to showcase. However, one rarely sees the black wives of professional athletes showcased in the non-black media, with few exceptions. Actress Gabrielle Union who is engaged to Miami Heat Player Dwayne Wade is among the few exceptions.
These WAG lists tend to remind me of the Robert Palmer music video “Addicted to Love,” from the mid-1980s, where make-up and clothing was utilized to make the multiple women standing behind Palmer resemble clones of each other. The WAG lists and the Palmer video both reduce women to one-dimensional sexual objects, whose sole purpose is to be desirable and appealing to men. These lists also serve to support the notion that there is a singular form of acceptable female beauty; white and thin. After Tiger Woods had his public adultery scandal, Elin Nordgren after divorcing Woods was featured on the cover of People Magazine. I wondered if Elin had not been an attractive Swedish blonde would she have been on the cover of People Magazine, no matter how high-profile her now ex-husband was. What if Woods’ wife had been Thai like his mother or African-American like his father and his serial adultery was revealed in the same fashion would his Thai or black wife have been a People Magazine cover story?
Historically, societies everywhere have always tried to direct women’s aspirations towards marriage and snagging some version of prince charming. If Joan of Arc had visions of marrying the guy who would save France; rather than ambitiously saving France herself, she would not have been burned at the stake. From fairy tales like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty to modern Hollywood films like Pretty Woman, the myth of the happy ever has been packaged and sold to girls and women; all you need to do is find Mr. Right/ Prince Charming and all will be right with the world. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman had to be beautiful in order to be blessed with the attention of Prince Charming or in the case of Ms. Roberts character the attention of a millionaire. These WAG lists are modern versions of fairy tales, instead of princes of the realm, we have star quarterbacks, midfielders and point guards and instead of sleeping beauties we have fashion models, Playboy models and reality stars.
A beautiful woman is the ultimate trophy for a man who has achieved what society defines as success; rock star (see Tommy Lee), NFL quarterback (see Tom Brady and Giselle), billionaire (see Francois-Henri Pinault and Selma Hayek) or movie star (see George Clooney). Interestingly enough Clooney after dating countless models is set to marry a multilingual human rights lawyer. We have been conditioned to believe that beauty is a woman’s greatest asset; this is why Kim Kardishian and her predecessors like Zsa Zsa Gabor were able to become famous for being famous. Modeling is one of the few professions where women out-earned men by a wide margin. Giselle, the supermodel wife of Tom Brady has been estimated to make as much as $42 million dollars a year.
As an avid tennis fan, I can be guaranteed that whenever I am watching the Wimbledon tennis championship and Andy Murray is playing that I will be provided with multiple camera shots of his very attractive girlfriend Kim Sears. If the New England Patriots are playing, Tom Brady’s wife Giselle will definitely earn some camera time. The NFL just drafted its first openly gay player Michael Sam; I look forward to the start of the NFL season to see if during St. Louis Rams games to see if Sam’s boyfriend Vito Cammisano will be getting as much camera time as Giselle.
Secondly, if I may paraphrase George Orwell, All WAGS are equal, but some WAGS are more equal than others, it is clearer that there is a specific racial and aesthetic preference when it comes to the wives and girlfriends of professional athletes that the media showcases. During the World Cup, profiles of the wives of the players on the West African teams were conspicuously absent. When I searched the internet for images of the wives of African soccer players I was able to find multiple African-based websites that profiled these women such as kamerstories.com. However, outside of such African websites or black blogs one rarely gets to see black wives and romantic partners of professional black athletes. We get to see the romantic partners of African-American, Afro-European and Afro-Latino men only when those women are white or of some other non-black ethnicity.
I am disturbed by the media driven phenomenon of WAGS, first and foremost it objectifies women. Historian Maria Aparecida da Silva states “In a sexist society, women are seen as an object of consumption…and consumer goods confer status and power to whoever acquires them,” . The WAG phenomenon reduces women to objects whose sole value lies in their physical attributes. In order for those physical attributes to be considered valuable they have to meet the strict qualifications that have been set for female beauty, whiteness or near whiteness, thinness, long straight and hyper traditional femininity. It is very telling that so many publications can find editorial space to feature athletes’ girlfriends but cannot find editorial space to feature female athletes.
Just as magazines and television programs love to showcase the material possessions of wealthy athletes, high end cars, jewelry and mansions, they also love to showcase the women these athletes are dating. The women become objects just like the cars; after all, just like Tony Montana preached in the film Scarface, once you have the money and power, you get the women. The dangers of cultivating a culture in which women are seen merely as objects, was brought to our attention in the extreme case of Elliot Rodgers, the California college student who went on a killing spree stating “All of those beautiful girls I’ve desired so much in my life, but can never have because they despise and loathe me, I will destroy.“
All forms of objectification of women have negative consequences in our societies, mass murder is obviously not the typical response. What is common is the negative impact on the self-esteem of girls and women. It teaches men that women are objects that they are entitled to, and failure to acquire a beautiful woman is failure as a man. It is part of the whole consumption, celebrity driven culture that constantly tells us that the bar for our professional and personal lives should be like the lives of professional athletes, movie stars, pop stars and wealthy CEOs. This is something that is unattainable for 99% percent of the human population. People who receive and absorb this message spend their money to acquire products and to undergo surgical procedures to try to achieve this impossible goal. I know that I am not one right shade of of L’Oréal lipstick or nose job away from looking like Giselle and furthermore I have no desire to do so, and no woman should waste her time on such a quixotic pursuit.