Monday, May 28, 2012

Taking a look at While The Men Watch

A couple months ago, Sports Illustrated put together a slide show entitled "A salute to NHL puck bunnies", in which they made the mistake of lumping all female hockey fans into the "puck bunnies" category. Due to feedback/outcry, the slide show quietly disappeared off the SI website. No apologies to female hockey fans for the mislabeling; but this really shouldn't surprise anybody who knows that SI's top-selling issue is the one that isn't about sports at all, but rather their annual bathing suit issue.

This past week, CBC announced that its show While The Men Watch would provide coverage during the Stanley Cup Final series.

SkinnyFish on Pension Plan Puppets wrote a thoughtful take on the WTMW show, pointing out that female sports fans are defined as "females first and fans second", and that this kind of show suggests that women do not value sports for the same reasons as men. SkinnyFish also highlighted that when it comes to hockey, CBC, who funds WTMW, only keeps two female hockey commentators on staff (Cassie Campbell and Andi Petrillo), who are frequently "kept to the sidelines". It should be noted that Campbell played competitive hockey for many years. She is a three-time Olympian, and who also was Captain of the Canadian women's hockey team when they won gold both in 2002 and 2006. This is a woman who knows hockey just as well as her male counterparts - and therefore, is worthy of equal facetime as male colleagues.

Julie Veilleux wrote on Puck Daddy about the frustration women might feel towards WTMW, discussing the inherent misogyny in the show, and talking about how the show seems to shoot for a narrow target demographic.

As a blogger who regularly writes about the female point of view in hockey, I had a few different people ask me via Twitter or email if I had seen the WTMW hoopla. I think some expected me to come out all pumped up on the side of feminism and how women get treated in sports - which, I will admit, I was readily expecting to do. I was all geared up and set to hate - or at least dislike - whatever this "While the Men Watch" thing was. The conclusion I came to just might surprise you.

Prior to this weekend, I had not seen the site or any of their clips, so I took time to review their site, etc. - not every single page nor every sport, but focusing mainly on the hockey section.

The hockey-focused articles (and remember, they're discussing all sports, not just hockey) on their site includes such titles as "Sex on Game Day: Does He Lock it Up or Love You Down?", "Haute Hockey: The NHL’s Best and Worst Dressed List", "Top 10 Elimination Excuses & What They Say About Him", "Love Me Like Lundqvist: 5 Sex Games for Hockey Season Pt 1", and "7 Phrases to Yell Out if You Don’t Follow Hockey".

Some are saying that WTMW is "Sex & the City" meets sports. I'm starting to get the feeling it's more like Cosmopolitan decided to plunge into sports and this was the result.

Now, I will 100% agree with both SkinnyFish and Veilleux that female sports fans tend to be defined as females first and fans second; this has always been the case, and there are many of us women out there trying hard to change or at the very least improve that perception. Sports, as a whole, are male-orientated and male-dominated. And of all professional sports, considering that women have played hockey in organized leagues for almost as long as the sport has been - well, organized - the sport is, in fact, remarkably misogynistic. Female coaches (even assistant coaches) are rare to nonexistent - even among women's leagues. Likewise, there's a notable absence of females among ownership and even training staff. (While many NHL owners are married, very few of them have ever listed their wife on the Cup as co-owner of their teams.)

When it comes to media, it is only recently that women have begun moving from "token female" towards "accepted analyst or commentator". Oddly enough, the NHL Network has been more progressive than CBC for this. While Heidi Androl was on NHLN last season, she rarely took center stage; she was usually positioned off to the side, and not really called upon to "carry" the show. As noted above, Campbell on CBC doesn't really have a starring position for hockey coverage. This season, Kathryn Tappen, formerly of NESN, has anchored NHL Tonight on NHLN. Tappen is a strong, smart woman who knows her hockey. She also happens to be an attractive blonde, which no doubt helps appeal to the male demographic, and she's one of two women who regularly appears on NHLN. (Deb Placey, who hosts Cisco NHL Live, is the other.)

Here's the thing when it comes to WTMW, however. The women who run the site/show - Lena and Jules - do not claim to be sports fans. In fact, their site's tag line is "where girl talk is a sport". The "about" section of their website says it aims to "keep women entertained during football, hockey, basketball, baseball games and more", and bring it "from a woman's point of view".

In other words, women like myself - women who love and adore sports for the sport that they are - are not exactly their target demographic.

In fact, the more I surfed around their website, and checked out their videos, it just reinforced that idea that WTMW is "Cosmo meets the sports channel", with a dash of MST3K thrown in for snark.

Canadians are very die-hard about their hockey, so yes, perhaps it's surprising that a Canadian media outlet would want to pick this show up and run with it. But let's think about this for a minute.

The Canadian stereotype would be that "every Canadian loves hockey". But saying that is like assuming every European loves soccer, or that every American bleeds for baseball and football. (And here's where I provoke a lot of gasps and vehement denials.) So hey, maybe, just maybe, there's Canadian women (and even men) who just don't like hockey!

Some of our top "celebrities" right now have names like Snooki, Kardashian, and Paris; shows like The Bachelorette gobble up ratings. And so help me, despite seemingly everybody I know constantly making fun of these people, it never fails that when their shows are on, Twitter is awash with commentary - which means people are watching. (Humans like to gossip -- who knew?!) So why wouldn't a show that has a bit of fun with sports find its niche and have the potential to become popular? Are we taking ourselves just way too seriously when it comes to our favorite sports?

Let's face it, women (and yes, even some of you men): if you sit there and read this article and try to deny that you have never-ever made comments about hockey (or whatever your sport of choice is) that weren't 100%-related to pure sports technique, skill, and performance, you are lying to yourself. When it comes to sports, personally, I'm all about the sport - hockey, especially. When the players are on the ice, I could care less what they look like, I just care what they play like. But -- and this is a big BUT -- I'm not going to deny I'm a woman, and I'm not going to deny that women discuss sports differently than men do.

Yes, women will talk about which players are good-looking. Yes, we'll swoon for them (seriously or not). Yes, some women fall into the "puck bunny" (or other sport equivalent) category. Yes, we'll talk about which players are a hot mess when they're photographed in public wearing sloppy clothing.

And you know what? That's ok. (P.S. Men do too, but they might try to deny it.) And for us to say it's not ok for a blog/show like "While the Men Watch" to exist, but for us to do the exact same thing when we're offline, is clearly hypocritical.

Am I going to continue reading their blog or watching their show? Probably not. It's not really my style or my demographic, clearly. But it is somebody's (obviously, or CBC wouldn't have picked it up), so it has just as much right to air/internet time as what I write or what PuckDaddy writes or some ex-player who's now on NHLN talks about on the air.

Everybody's fandom starts somewhere. These women might not consider themselves "sports fans", but who knows? If they watch enough sports (with or without their men), they just might find one that they actually *gasp* like.

In the meantime, women as sports fans clearly have a long way to go, especially when it comes to hockey. Women have extraordinary buying power and influence, which most major league sports don't recognize. Instead of simply taking what is shoved at them, women need to start asking for change. There have been strides forward, but there is still a lot that can be done. But if the networks and leagues and so forth don't know that fans are unhappy, nothing will change.


While WTMW may not appeal to "true, die-hard" sports fans (a mostly self-defined category, by the way), it does have its niche. CBC recognized that and decided to back the show.

You, as a viewer, do not have to choose to tune in.