If you woke up this morning and saw "Rugby War Goddess" trending, you're not the only one. Georgia Page, an Aussie player for the rugby sevens team at Missouri's Lindenwood University, became a viral sensation Monday when she scored herself a spectacularly bloody facial injury — a bloody nose — in the first few minutes of a rugby game against Notre Dame. Page kept playing, even with blood streaming down her face, and the image of her gore-smeared blonde self has swept the sporting world. She's being called the Rugby War Goddess and an inspiration — but behind all the positive hype is a troubling commentary on women, sports, and why a "tough" bloodied female rugby player is considered so extraordinary in the first place.
As a former player, I've seen some pretty amazingly bloody injuries at girls' rugby matches. One teammate got her braces snagged on her inner cheek; the result was a bloodfest reminiscent of a Halloween slasher flick. Be under no illusions: rugby, which has a huge world following (the Rugby World Cup 2015 will be broadcast in 207 countries), is a tough, physical game — whether it's played by men or women.
But the reaction to Page's front-page-cute face covered in blood has been interesting in its hysteria. Does it mark more acceptance for women in sports, or is it a mark of an audience still rife with prejudice and misconceptions?
Women in sports have faced a truly ridiculous fight for equality and consideration — and our status is still nowhere near equitable. The Battle Of The Sexes, where Billie Jean King thoroughly slaughtered Bobby Riggs in a tennis match in 1973, was seen as a watershed moment for women declaring their ability to take on men on their own turf. But with rare exceptions (like Wimbledon), women's sports still see less funding, fewer audiences, less prize money, lower-quality venues, and press coverage that's cursory at best. The Page reaction feeds into that.
It’s undeniable that the way we’re all celebrating the image and raising Page onto a pedestal represents a massive step forward — but it’s still problematic.
Women with a sporting edge have had to fight against accusations of being "unfeminine" for a seriously long time. Not long ago, the Page images would have been met with horror that she was doing something so masculine, let alone succeeding and being a badass at it. A woman covered in blood? Fetch my smelling salts.
It's undeniable that the way we're all celebrating the image and raising Page onto a pedestal represents a massive step forward — but it's still problematic. Here's why: women who play rugby, and play it seriously, get these injuries all the time. Blood, concussion, bone-crunching tackles — they're a regular part of any game. (Some of Page's compatriots ribbed her on Twitter for this, asking why she got the Goddess tag when they had far more dramatic injuries just last week.) We just don't see those injuries. And that's because women's sports still don't make the front pages.
Page's face and injury may be remarkable to us, but it's certainly not remarkable to her or any other woman who plays rugby. They observe it regularly; the usual sports-viewing public, on the other hand, is so rarely exposed to women's sports that they may have never clocked how full-on it becomes.
Page brought up this disparity of coverage herself on her Twitter feed, tweeting: "Many of you have seen my video on the Internet when it could've been live TV. Very disappointing that the CRC7s [Collegiate Rugby Championships Sevens] tournament that this happened at did not air that game or our final. Instead men's." More media coverage means women with bloody noses and big grins become a far less remarkable occurrence on ESPN.
The fuss is also, frankly, slightly condescending. A male rugby player isn't lauded as "indestructible" by a sports show simply because he got his nose dramatically broken; that's seen as part of the job. The Rugby Six Nations competition earlier this year involved a huge swathe of injuries, some horrific, all reported as simply matter-of-course by the media.
I'm not saying Page isn't an excellent player or thoroughly badass — she obviously is (and you have to be, to play at that level) — but the flabbergasted response to her no-f*cks-given approach bears a gleam of sexism. We shouldn't be so surprised that a woman is prepared to keep playing when she's got a nose half an inch away from its proper place. And we seriously shouldn't be surprised that she took up the potentially mutilating sport in the first place. (Hey, it's fun.)
Perversely, the upcoming Women's World Cup in soccer may see more injuries than ever before — because of sexism. Players have been complaining that they're being forced to play on Astroturf, which heats up to horrendous temperatures and can cause serious injury if a player falls, while male players did their matches on real grass. It's a stupid, sexist imbalance, but FIFA has refused to correct it.
The "war goddess" tag also plays into preconceptions of different genders and how they deal with injury. "Getting on with it," coping, spitting out the blood and carrying on, are portrayed as implicitly masculine, while weeping or asking for help are weaker, more feminine responses.
Perversely, the upcoming Women's World Cup in soccer may see more injuries than ever before — because of sexism. Players have been complaining that they're being forced to play on Astroturf, which heats up to horrendous temperatures and can cause serious injury if a player falls, while male players did their matches on real grass. It's a stupid, sexist imbalance, but FIFA has refused to correct it. Not surprising; after all, their now-ex President Sepp Blatter said in 2004 that women should wear "tighter shorts" if they wanted more of an audience. And that's just the tip of the sporting sexism iceberg.
The praise of Page's hardcore playing seems to be based on the idea that she's done something unusual, something "manly," and should be rewarded for defeating stereotypes. Really, however, we've just imposed your preexisting gender standards onto her — goddess label and all. She, and every other female in her sport, have been awesome all along; it's just that nobody was bothering to pay attention.
Images: Getty (1), Georgia Page's Twitter.