By Jessica Heaven, Fellow, National Women’s Law Center
In a surprise upset on Wednesday, the Spanish national soccer team, ranked second in the world heading into the 2010 World Cup, lost 1–0 to Switzerland in its first game of the tournament. Even more surprising was the reaction from upset fans, who have found a way to pin Spain’s loss on...wait for it...a woman.
Yes, this is the men's World Cup (the women will take the field next year). So who is this superwoman who has the power to change the outcome of a soccer match in which she does not play? Enter Sara Carbonero, a sports reporter for Spanish TV station Telecinco, who also happens to be dating Spain’s goalkeeper, Iker Casillas.
Various news outlets are reporting that some Spanish fans are blaming Carbonero for their country’s loss. Apparently her mere presence at the Spain–Switzerland game—which, as a sports reporter, was required for her job—was too distracting for Casillas, causing him to let in Switzerland’s one goal.
Let’s put aside for a moment some of the obvious responses to this suggestion, such as "Wait a minute, but didn’t Spain score zero goals? How is that the goalkeeper’s fault, much less his girlfriend's?" or "Did you see the goal? Because I'm pretty sure the Spanish defenders and midfielders deserve most of the blame."
Instead, let’s examine this through the good old gender lens. Blaming Carbonero for Spain’s loss is just the latest in a long tradition of blaming women for men’s failures. The iconic pop culture example is, of course, the hatred and blame directed at Yoko Ono when the Beatles broke up. First, Carbonero, as Ono was, is ambitious and successful in her own right—which is all well and good until it is perceived as getting in the way of her male partner’s ambition and success.
BBC notes that the wives and girlfriends of the Spanish soccer players are prohibited from attending the World Cup (an interesting factoid that I will leave for someone else to dissect). Carbonero’s job demands the opposite, and in a head-to-head conflict between a man’s career obligations and those of his female significant other, I’m afraid society often fails to value them equally. Spanish fans' blame game demeans Carbonero's legitimate role as a journalist and relegates her to playing the part of Important Sports Figure's girlfriend who just had to tag along and spoil the fun.
Next, we have the Sexy Women Distract Men problem. Our prime example here is the blame heaped upon Jessica Simpson a few years ago when her then-boyfriend Tony Romo put in a few poor performances as quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. When she showed up to a game and the Cowboys lost, it was her fault. When she and Romo took a weekend trip together and the Cowboys lost their next game...still her fault. This concept is so bizarre that I’m not sure I fully understand it, but I think the idea is that when a man has an attractive girlfriend, and especially when the attractive girlfriend is within a 100-yard radius, the man loses all ability to focus on whatever it is he’s supposed to be doing. And somehow, this inevitable loss of concentration is not his fault, but rather hers, as if sexy women are surrounded by some sort of magical brain-wave-sucking magnetic fields.
Finally, the Carbonero/Casillas story is problematic in a much more insidious way because it is reminiscent of a different kind of woman-blaming: that of victims of violence. This week's news is just about a sporting event, but for me it brought to mind the deeper undercurrent of misogyny. From the idea that men can't do their jobs when women are around, it is just a few steps to the idea that men can’t control themselves when women are around. And so we hear things like women being blamed for their own beatings and rapes. If she hadn’t worn that skirt, or led him on, or made him so mad...he wouldn’t have groped her, or raped her, or hit her. The same argument is used for why women shouldn’t serve in the military: because the male service members would either want to protect the women or have sex with them, but either way, the women would be a distraction.
Running through all of these scenarios is the underlying view that men are the rightful occupants of public space and women are the interlopers. Women have made incredible gains in access to various professions, positions, educational institutions, and sports that were once open only to men, but we clearly have some progress left to make.
And come on, Spain, let Casillas and his teammates take responsibility for their own performance. Blaming Carbonero for the loss isn’t just disrespectful to her—it’s also disrespectful to both the Spanish and the Swiss teams to suggest that off-the-field flukes, rather than skill, preparation, and capitalizing on opportunities, could determine the outcome of a World Cup game.