Australian Rules Football, the national game of Australia, is linked strongly with hetero-normative values. The game at its elite level, is dominated by men. The game’s legendary players – Jack Dyer, Ron Barrassi, Leigh Matthews, Dermott Brereton, Luke Hodge etc – played the role of physical enforcers as well as exhibiting some of the best skills in the sport. Throughout the history of the sport, it has been manliness that has been celebrated as well as the ability to baulk, weave, tackle or execute a drop punt. This is common to many sports worldwide and is hardly limited to Australia (Hern 2013, p.43). Throughout most of the 20th century, and the early part of the 2000s, footy was only imaginable as a men’s game. Moreover, the game’s commentators, officials and administration are overwhelmingly male. Misogynist commentary and behaviour – exemplified through the behaviour of Eddie McGuire and Sam Newman in particular – have been par for course. Wayne Carey, recognised as ‘the game’s greatest ever player’, has also been convicted of multiple counts of violence against women. The idea of women playing it was trivialised and condescended to – despite women playing the game in increasing numbers (Lenkić and Hess, 2016). This paper looks at discourses on gender and inclusivity as have been propelled by the arrival and emergence of Hannah Mouncey, a transgender female athlete.
The AFL, as the peak organisation of the elite level of Australian rules has a duty and obligation to provide a sporting landscape which is open and inclusive of Australia’s diverse demographics. The AFL, moreover, has to keep pace with other sports and leagues in making the game open and accessible to women (Wedgwood 2005, p.397). As such, the game is at a transitional moment in which more and more of the game’s administrators are aware of the need to be inclusive. The game’s leaders and administrators are being tested as to whether or not they are properly committed to a more diverse competition, or a simply ‘diversifying’ the market as a means of generating stronger market-share and revenue gain. The AFL has also been accused of being unclear and inconsistent in regard to its support for the competition itself. Player and commentator, Daisy Pearce has labelled the 2019 format as ‘gimmicky’, while Alana Schetzer writes, “the change in format is dramatic and appears to belittle the integrity of the growing competition. But not only does it show the AFL isn’t listening to fans and players, it also demonstrates that it doesn’t know what it’s doing” (Schetzer 2018).
The launch of the AFL’s women’s competition in 2017 heralded a moment of gender-related euphoria and enthusiasm. Numerous books have been published focussing on the roles, achievements and diversity of women in administrating, playing and contributing to Australian rules football culture (Asher 2017; Hope 207; Lane 2018, Symons & Wroby 2018). Popular podcasts have also emerged – such as the Outer Sanctum. Many commentators, players and administrators proclaimed the inauguration of the AFLW as a coming of age moment in which female players were finally being awarded adequate recognition as sporting beings. This portrayal did not, however, reflect the reality of AFLW athletes’ part-time employment status and incredulously small financial remuneration — particularly, in comparison to their male counterparts. The AFL, through its CEO, Gillon McLachlan, launched the AFLW as a means to show that the game is now more accommodating of women. The problem for the AFL was however, that a dichotomous split between ‘male’ and ‘female’ cannot be neatly followed: gender politics have become more complex and critical (Hern 2013).
Modern sports are easily embroiled in gender-based controversies as they are bounded by strict definitions of gender (Bianchi 2017; p.229). Hannah Mouncey, a transgender woman, upset the AFL’s apple-cart of a narrative on a ‘progressive gender policy’ through pointing out the complexity of her position and the discrimination she was facing. As Matt Hern argues: “we have to get over whatever fixations we might cling to about hard boundaries and recognise that there is a spectrum and that the vast range of human biological variation is inconsistent with two-sex ideology. […] The simplest answer is an end to gender segregation in sports entirely” (Hern 2013, p.59).
Amidst the commentariat’s celebration of progress, few have asked why we look to the corporate body of the AFL to commission the game that women across parts of the country had played for over a century. This question became even more pertinent when the AFL promoting its AFLW competition as an indication of its ‘inclusiveness’ and as a symbol of its ‘diversity’, marginalised and sidelined Hannah Mouncey —a transgender sportswoman proficient in both handball (at the national level) and Australian rules football (at the semi-professional level). Kate O’Halloran (2017), writing in The Guardian, pointed to the AFL’s inconsistency in advocating ‘inclusiveness’, while excluding Mouncey. O’Halloran writes, “[the decision to exclude Mouncey from the 2018 draft] is a serious and damaging about-face for an organisation that so recently threw its support behind the marriage equality campaign in an effort to demonstrate its respect for all LGBTI people involved in the game, including its players”.
Mouncey herself was angered by the decision for her to be excluded from the 2018 draft. She states, “There was a bit of anger … when the AFL decided to review [my] nomination. Because they had already accepted [it]. […] Melbourne had asked the AFL if it was okay for [me] to nominate for the draft. And I think back then Simon Lethlean was still in charge and it was approved. […] There were no issues. He said it was okay to nominate for the draft.”
The importance of the AFLW is evident in Annual Report of the AFL. The shift in awareness that the game needs to be more inclusive can be seen from the difference between the 2005 Annual Report with that of the 2017 Annual Report. The 2005 Annual Report provides no information regarding the playing of the game by women. Instead, the AFL reports on its ‘respect and responsibility’ program in which players and staff are guided towards acting in a non-sexist or predatory behaviour to women. In contrast, the 2017 Annual Report cover gave equal prominence to the 2017 Premiers: Richmond (AFL) and Adelaide (AFLW). Women were featured and celebrated as participants in an elite form of the game, rather than merely being an object whom needed to be protect from the behaviour of men (as in 2005). The 2017 season was also notable for the emergence of Erin Phillips as a star capable of creating a social media frenzy through kissing her partner, Tracy Gahan. The apparent media comfort in celebrating non-hetero-normative sexuality, however, was upset by Hannah Mouncey’s stance in rejecting the AFL’s control over the narrative of who should be allowed to play women’s football.
Mouncey’s emergence as a much-problematised player has seen the AFL and a multiplicity of media-commentators using anecdotes and an evident lack of awareness to define both sex and gender as fixed and clear-cut. Mouncey, rather than being silenced by the intense media scrutiny has proved open and articulate regarding the challenges she faces and opportunities she is making for herself. The athlete’s resilience in the face of media’s sensationalist reporting of her personal story yields an illuminating rupture between sedimented perceptions and lived experience of gender.
Mike Sheehan, in an interview with Hannah Mouncey, represented a viewpoint which conflates sex with gender (Tagg 2012). The following exchange, which took place on ‘Open Mike’ indicates this perspective as well as Mouncey’s unwillingness to provide a clear-cut answer. Mouncey doesn’t answer the question about ‘gender realignment’, but, rather argues that it is not the primary determining factor in gender identity. The dialogue is as follows:
Mike Sheehan: Your genitalia is still in-tact, is it not?
Hannah Mouncey: I’ve never commented on it. There have been times when I have said something and it has been taken out of context. […] I will never answer that question – unless I’m about to have sex with someone.
MS: Wouldn’t that be the ultimate show of faith – to have a sexual realignment? Wouldn’t that remove any doubts people might have?
HM: I’m not out there to prove anything to other people.
MS: Is the sexual realignment question intrusive?
HM: Yeah, I think it is. But I know it is something people are going to ask. I think over time people will realise that it is a question that is not really appropriate to ask.
Mouncey, presumed to have an advantage over other players in the VFLW, was also put in the position of having to explain the complexity of the bodily processes which mean her physical advantage is not so clear cut – by virtue of her height (6’2) and her weight (about 100kg). Mouncey outlined to Sheehan as follows: “I know I look quite big. But the medication reduces the testosterone to zero. So, less than the women I am playing against. […] Your endurance disappears, but you’re still carrying around this sort of frame. Anything that is a power-to-weight ratio – like jumping. I can’t really jump. Because I’ve got much reduced strength, but I have still got all that weight to push up. The girls are by and large a lot quicker than me. Their endurance is a lot better. Their ability to jump is a lot better. Their recovery is a lot better. […] The fact that I am bigger – it is not a help in a lot of instances.”
From my own watching of Mouncey’s participation in a Darebin Falcons (VFLW) game, she seemed to have no clear and distinct advantage over the other players. Although Mouncey was one of the larger players on the ground, other players were indeed more adroit, faster and more skilful. Her team, the Darebin Falcons, occasionally tried to isolate her on the field so that she would be able to make the most of her height and weight, but that was only one aspect of their tactics. The opposition were able to run the ball quickly out of a defence as a result of Mouncey’s slowness. Football tactics and individual advantages are complex and fluid; in one moment what seems like an advantage, is, at the next moment, a disadvantage. Commentators are willing to recognise this in the men’s game, but, in the case of the VFLW, Mouncey is reduced to a cliché and a fixed stereotype of “a woman in a man’s body” – who, like all players, has a unique mix of strengths and weaknesses.
The transition from the Andrew Demetriou to the Gillon McLachlan era has indeed seen a change in the approach and interests of the AFL. McLachlan has sought to implement a values-based culture at the AFL – even if this is poorly and unevenly applied. The AFL has increasingly advocated for women’s interests and for equality between male and female genders. This dichotomy is easy for the AFL to support: they are yet to formulate a clear position in regard to transgender (male-female) just as the IOC has trouble with athletes of in-between gender, such as Caster Semenya. These changes, however, don’t indicate any real societal progress, but rather progress within the fishbowl of the AFL and Australian rules sporting culture in general, which is founded on strong heteronormative and misogynistic values. The AFL has broadened and opened professional (and semi-professional) Australian rules as a means to reach a new market and to strengthen its position in the sporting mediascape. The AFL has become more open to female participation, as have its media partners, yet, these changes are based on market, economic and financial interests, rather than any firm or clear commitment to gender equality. The AFL’s fumbling of its lines and exclusion of Hannah Mouncey proves this.
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 Curiously, Simon Lethlean was removed from his position as Chief of Football Operations owing to ‘integrity’ issues; issues that were never made transparent as to what codes he had transgressed. His decision to accept Mouncey’s application may have caused some embarrassment at more senior levels within the AFL and thus caused some friction between himself and McLachlan.