When my friends and I took our daughters to the premiere of Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” on Friday night, the US women’s national soccer team was playing their opening game against Vietnam at the World Cup. The US team clearly won. Still, one of us moms had to be dragged away and when we got to the cinema we all watched the game on our phones until the movie started.
From the World Cup to Barbie, it felt like a triumph of feminism. With the added benefit of popcorn and twizzlers.
Especially when America Ferrera’s working mom, Gloria, delivered her now-iconic monologue about how impossible it is to be a woman, how women can “never brag, never be selfish, never fall, never fail” in the film’s second half. ‘ Did we cheer Gloria with those words? You bet.
We just didn’t expect to be reminded of her truth almost immediately in a large public forum.
Three weeks later, as “Barbie” and her message continued to dominate the box office, the USA women’s soccer team lost to Sweden on penalties and were eliminated from the World Cup, which they had won a record four times. In the round of 16.
It was a big disappointment for the many fans of the team. But beyond the disappointment, something else was quickly humming: shock, disbelief, outrage, anger and, in certain conservative circles, glee.
Donald Trump used his platform as the most impeached President in American history to bring up homophobia, racism and misogyny, tweeting that the team deserved to lose for being too “woke” and “WOKE = FAILURE ” may be.
As you might expect, this was confirmed by the usual suspects (Megan Kelly) who see the commitment to racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights, and equal pay expressed by many US gamers (especially Megan Rapinoe) as a threat to their way of life.
From such sources, this kind of “kick them when they’re down” tactic is annoying but not surprising.
At least not as surprising as the question “how did this happen?” The disbelief of many sports and culture commentators, including former US soccer player Alexi Lalas and Taylor Twellman – incredulity, which often came with an equally disturbing sexist subtext as the schoolyard raspberries of the right.
I guess Lalas who called the US women’s team “Unsympathetic to a part of America” because of its “politics, concerns, attitudes and behavior” has so far failed to squeeze through a screening of “Barbie.”
How could that happen? let us Count the ways. When we went to the World Cup, we all knew that USA had injuries that would keep some key players off the field (Becky Sauerbrunn, Catarina Macario, Mallory Swanson) and some (Rapinoe, Rose Lavelle) from playing at full strength play.
More importantly, we all knew this side was going through a major period of transition, with a mix of finals and debut players that would challenge any coach, especially one who, like Vlatko Andonovski, was making his World Cup debut.
Add to that the increasingly intense world of women’s football – in large part a by-product of the USA team’s success – and the prospect of this team, as in previous years, coming through the opening rounds with flying colors and finding the odd challenge or two in the finals of just magical thinking .
But apparently a lot of people think of Team USA Is Magic. That seems like a compliment, but it’s not. The women on Team USA are athletes, not magicians, and subject to the same rules of physics, age, experience, human fallibility, and questionable coaching as their male counterparts.
And that’s okay. Gloria and “Barbie” did their best to explain that women don’t have to be magical, superhuman, or perfect to be successful. They are allowed to falter, make mistakes, and fail, even with everyone watching, without the world expressing complete shock or deriving a larger message from that failure about what women are capable of.
Men are allowed to fail because they have a longer history of failure. Of course, male teams and superstars also suffer shock and outrage when they lose, but they have a multitude of historical peers who prove that losing, even in a big game, is only part of the bigger story.
In far too many fields, including professional sports, women don’t have that history to lean on; They write their narrative over time.
In many ways, sport is more forgiving than other parts of the culture; Gymnast Simone Biles reaped her share of hatred when she decided she wasn’t in the right mood to compete in certain competitions at the Tokyo Olympics, but everyone cheered as she recently dominated the Core Classic.
Despite what some commentators may think, nobody will stop watching women’s football because Team USA didn’t win a record-breaking fifth World Cup this year. But given the history of women directors in Hollywood, Greta Gerwig had better hope her next film either grossed $2 billion or won seven Oscars; otherwise her career would be viewed as a shift to the detriment of aspiring female directors.
Team USA’s loss to Sweden was heartbreaking, especially as Team USA seemed to be back on track after a lackluster game against Portugal that ended in a draw, dominating possession and firing shot after shot very well, the each time was thwarted by the Swedish goalkeeper Zećira Musovic, who had a really spectacular game.
The game ended in a shoot-out and a Sweden penalty, apparently blocked by US goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, was ruled over the line by sensor. Sweden advanced to the next round, the USA did not.
Nothing could be further from the “humiliation” or “shocking departure” some headlines tout. It was very sad for those of us who wanted Team USA to play more games at the World Cup and for the broadcasters that benefited from those games, but the time-space continuum was not destroyed, nor did the world of women’s soccer collapse.
Did people think Team USA would win every world championship from now and forever? That despite injuries, retirements, young players and new coaches, there could never have been a less spectacular year?
In a culture that revels in sports metaphors, we seem to have forgotten a fundamental truth: if you play, sometimes you will lose. It depends what you do next. No magic involved.