Matildas fever has swept across the country. People of all ages, genders, cultures and backgrounds – sports fanatics and those who’ve never watched a game – are coming together in streets, homes and pubs to cheer them on.
But the optimism and hope that’s gripped us isn’t strictly tied to the results of the finals. It’s bigger than a game. After decades of hearing the phrase “you play like a girl” being hurled as insult, to see women’s sport exalted on the world stage is a significant moment. A glimmer of what a future where women are safe, equal and respected looks like.
This year’s Women’s World Cup has changed the way we talk about women’s sport. It’s not tokenistic, or a second thought after the men have had their turn. It's exciting, it’s refreshing, and it’s powerful for young girls and boys alike to see the utter celebration of women kicking goals (figuratively and very, very literally).
So what is it about the excitement around the Matildas that feels so inspiring? Why does this moment feel like more than just a game?
Sport and the power of culture
Perhaps nowhere in Australia do people understand that sport is a culture the way that Victorians do. It unites us like almost nothing else... even when we barrack for opposing teams. We know it’s the little things that shape a culture – a pregame kick-to-kick, a club song, a coloured scarf whipping out the car window on the way home. But it’s also the big things that shape a culture – sport is a way to connect with your family and mates, it’s part of your identity.
Like the culture of sport, our wider culture is shaped by little things and not-so-little things. Language, rituals, traditions, beliefs – they act as signals, communicating who is valued, who is included, who gets to play.
And right now, violence against women happens because our culture allows it. Those little things and those not-so-little things: a rape joke brushed off as locker-room banter. A dad discouraged from leaving work early to take his daughter to her game. A local club not having change rooms for the women and girls who play there.
These are all signals of a culture that shape a narrative about men and women. And preventing violence against women is inextricably linked to these signals.
From the little things – like sharing your love of sports with your daughters, and speaking up when your mate makes a sexist joke, to the big things – like policies that support dads to be primary carers and closing the gender pay gap in sport – these are the parts of culture we have to shape to prevent violence against women.
The language we use, the standards we accept, the policies we create, the people we cheer on - all those things signal who and what is valued.
Preventing violence against women is a team effort. And each of us has a position to play in shaping each of the cultures we’re a part of. Our shared joy in the Matildas’ success is a powerful reminder of what’s possible – a future where all Victorians are safe, equal and respected.
This article is adapted from part of a speech Respect Victoria CEO Em Maguire gave at this year’s Carlton Football Club’s Respect Round.