Many of the 5.5 million humans who watched Team USA beat the Netherlands on Sunday may have only a slight idea of how the game of soccer goes. It doesn’t matter. The intricacies of penalty kicks and yellow cards took a backseat to what the game represented for American women. For many of us, it was a moment to talk about the wage gap, rampant gender inequality—and a chance to piss Donald Trump off.
For his part, the president tweeted a hollow congratulations to Team USA, writing that “America is proud of you all!” This came after Trump criticized the team captain, the lavender haired powerhouse Megan Rapinoe, who said her team would not visit “the fucking White House” should they win the World Cup title.
Trump’s not-so-secret admirer Piers Morgan also criticized Rapinoe in The Daily Mail last week, writing that the midfielder “must surely be a candidate for most annoying woman in world sport.”
The most annoying man in world broadcasting took particular exception to Rapinoe’s much-memed celebratory pose, describing it as “inhaling presumed adulation like she’s Lady Gaga at the Oscars.” (Morgan bravely went on to confess that he ultimately found the “inner strength” to accept that “USA players are better at women’s soccer than anyone else.”)
For her part, Rapinoe told Good Morning America that her stance is merely a “funny, playful pose.”
That might be true. But the significance of her victorious posturing—arms in the air, hands balled into fists—catapulted the photo into instantly-viral territory.
“The unspoken message of her posture and smile is one of pride and defiance to all the critics and naysayers,” Blanca Cobb, a body language expert, told The Daily Beast. “Standing tall and talking up space signaled her confidence that nothing was going to stop her.”
While many fans found Team USA’s well-won joy one of the few things to celebrate during this particularly soul-sucking Fourth of July weekend, criticisms of how these women should celebrate have dogged them all season.
Forward Alex Morgan earned condemnation from some who took offense at a tea-drinking gesture she made after scoring against Team UK. Lianne Sanderson, a former British footballer, called the act “distasteful.”
Quite how those criticizing the U.S. women's team want the players to behave is a mystery. Should they celebrate each goal with a birdlike "yay" and a soft high-five? Male footballers are not known for holding back, going for full-on kisses, and sometimes jumping on one another to form one gyrating mass of bodies. Oddly this is deemed perfectly acceptable, while the women's exuberance gets slated.
Weeks ago, the women were maligned for, quite literally, doing their job too well. After beating Thailand 13-0, and setting four world records for the sport including most goals scored in a match and largest victory margin in history, party poopers called their celebration unsportsmanlike.
Good sportsmanship? Like when Doug Baldwin pretended to take a shit at the Super Bowl to mark a touchdown. Or how British footballer Robby Fowler fake snorted a line of coke after scoring a penalty kick. And that time Reggie Miller punctuated his 39 points against the Knicks by flashing a choking gesture at super fan Spike Lee.
Such was the reaction of many to claims that Team USA should shut up about the whole winning thing, with professional and armchair critics alike crying sexism. At the very least, the backlash against a few fist pumps suggests a discomfort with women owning their victories, and celebrating them with the same swagger that men traditionally have.
It’s a fact Morgan herself pointed out this weekend, after getting inundated with complaints regarding her tea sipping.
“I feel like there is some sort of double standard for females in sports to feel like we have to be humble in our successes and have to celebrate but not too much, or do something but always in a limited fashion,” Morgan said in a statement. “You see men celebrating all over the world in big tournaments, grabbing their sacks or whatever it is. And when I look at sipping a cup of tea, I am a little taken aback by the criticism.”
Even without the obvious misogyny, it is a little bonkers to suggest that players tone down the more human moments of a game. After all, the chance to see Morgan pantomime or Rapinoe do anything is a prime motivation for spending hours on a Sunday watching the game at all.
Professional sports will always be performative. Players know this. Even Rapinoe said of her pose, “You're sort of on the stage, so I guess I'm looking at myself as a performer and trying to entertain.”
Though Morgan was “taken aback,” luckily the outcry did not give her enough pause to stop having fun for the cameras. Videos taken after Sunday’s final game show the team’s buoyant locker room party, where Morgan twerked (sort of).
Rose Lavelle, a name virtually unknown to casual fans, gave her team the second of two goals on Sunday. After scoring, the 24 year old dropped to her knees and pumped her fists, mimicking the famous pose that won Brandi Chastain instant fame in 1999. (Sans visible sports bra—a year after the photo was published, FIFA prohibited players’ removal of jerseys.)
A quick note about double standards: at a post-game press conference, Rapinoe told reporters, “I’m made for this. I love it.” Months ago, 2020 Demoractic hopeful Beto O’Rourke was rightfully lampooned for telling Vanity Fair he was “born for this” (meaning the presidency).
Why do we jab Beto and retweet Megan? Simple: Rapinoe won. Twice.
Last week was a particularly good one for women in sports; 15-year-old Cori Gauff became the youngest ever Wimbledon player. Unlike members of Team USA, the teenager reacts to each win with more disbelief than celebration. When she beat Venus Williams, a stunned Gauff’s eyes widened and mouth dropped open.
“I don’t really know how to feel,” Gauff told the BBC. “This is the first time I’ve cried after a match, after winning.” A respectful, unpretentious response from a newbie, sure, but not the only way to celebrate.
On Monday, for example, Romania’s Simona Halep knocked Gauff out of competition. Of course, the Americans rooting for Gauff didn’t want that to happen and didn't love seeing Halep blow a kiss in the air to mark her victory. But anyone with some sense understands: that’s what winners do.
When Martina Navratilova, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, won matches, her proud joy was as emphatic as any male player’s—and just as liberating for women playing that sport.
Different winners celebrate differently: all the U.S. women's soccer team wants is be allowed to celebrate their success in the ways that feel right for them.
On Wednesday, we can expect to see more of their exuberance when the victorious women's soccer team return from France to a ticker tape parade in New York City. It will be as loud and brash as a winning World Cup team deserves. Let's hope they act up to the occasion however they wish—and not be criticized for doing so.