Celebrations in Spain following the national team’s win at the FIFA Women’s World Cup have been marred by the behaviour of Luis Rubiales, president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation. Rubiales kissed Jenni Hermoso, one of the players, without her consent and made rude gestures in the stands while watching the match.
Despite criticism of his behaviour, Rubiales has refused to resign, defending himself in a lengthy and at times bizarre speech.
Throughout, Rubiales resorted to strategies that are commonly used by those resistant to gender equality. It was straight out of the anti-feminist playbook.
Sociologists Michael Flood, Molly Dragiewicz and Bob Pease set out a series of discursive mechanisms used to diminish feminism in a paper published in 2020. These were all on show when Rubiales took to the floor – from the most subtle to the most aggressive.
The first tactic is denial. This includes rejecting the idea that any problem even exists and denying the legitimacy of any case for change.
Denial is a very common element of resistance to gender equality. In Rubiales’s case, he said: “It was spontaneous, mutual and consensual. I have a great relationship with all the players and we had some very affectionate moments at this training camp.”
However, two days earlier, a statement issued on behalf of Jennifer Hermoso by her union didn’t seem to go in the same direction. It stated that the union was working to ensure that “acts such as those we have seen never go unpunished, that they are sanctioned and that appropriate measures are taken to protect women footballers from actions that we believe are unacceptable.”
In this context, disavowal amounts to refusing to recognise responsibility for addressing a problem or instigating change to address it.
Rubiales’s speech was made at a special meeting of the federation, called in order for him to explain himself. But he did not engage with the questions around his behaviour towards Hermoso. He apologised for grabbing his crotch during the celebration, but not for the unwanted kiss.
In relation to the kiss, Rubiales only insisted: “They are not trying to do justice. That is false.”
Inaction is a refusal to implement change, and here too, Rubiales played it by the book. While rumours about his resignation were floating around since the previous evening, he made clear that it wouldn’t happen. He didn’t apologise for the kiss or even thought that it could have been a mistake. In fact, he did exactly the opposite. His big announcement – that he not only declared but yelled five times – was the fact that he refused to resign.
Appropriation can involve simulating change while covertly undermining it. This was in evidence during Rubiales because he did at one point apologise “unreservedly”.
However, he did not apologise for the main problem. The apology was only for “an event that occurred in the box” in a moment of “euphoria” when he grabbed “that part of his body”. He was referring to the moment when he grabbed his crotch in a moment of celebration. By apologising for this action, Rubiales was able to assume the position of someone seeking to atone without atoning for the more serious act.
When people use progressive language to maintain unequal structures and practices, it is called cooptation.
Rubiales began his speech by appealing to “all female and male assembly members”. He used the word “feminism” and its derivatives eight times in his speech. He said “equality” four times and “justice” six times.
But later on, he spoke about using the masculine plural in Spanish, which “includes both women and men”, urging those present not to be “self-conscious” about using the word campeones to talk about the winning team, rather than the feminine plural campeonas.
Other frequently used words were hunt, assassination, pressure and suffering – but always in reference to himself and those who support him.
“Claims of male victimisation and reverse discrimination are also common elements in resistance,” according to Flood, Dragiewicz and Pease. “Many men feel under threat from feminism and draw attention to what they see as forms of male disadvantage,” say Flood, Dragiewicz and Pease.
Anti-feminists try to reverse the problem by claiming reverse discrimination. Rubiales appeals to this several times. He is the victim. “A social murder is being carried out. They are trying to kill me,” he says.
“We have suffered a lot. We have been through a lot. We have swallowed a lot. But we have been together. You and me and your team, who I’m grateful are here,” Rubiales said to the team’s coach.
Rubiales even assumed the right to define what feminism is and what it is not. Demanding responsibility for what happened, in his view, is “false feminism”, which is “the great scourge of this country”.
“Equality is not differentiating between what a man says and what a woman says. You have to differentiate between truth and lies. And I am telling the truth,” said Rubiales. He also claimed the power to determine what constitutes aggression. “What will a woman [who] has been forced and sexually assaulted think?” he asked.
Rubiales’s surprise refusal to resign is an example of repression, in that he was reversing the process of change. By the time he got up to speak, it was widely accepted that the appropriate thing to do would be to resign. Yet he pushed back against the tide.
The use of violence, harassment and abuse against subordinate groups is key to pushing back against the forces of change. For Rubiales, aggression against someone he considers subordinate is nothing more than a paternalic kiss – a gesture without desire. Yet he also indulged in a lengthy, graphic explanation of Hermoso’s supposed actions in erotic terms – claiming she grabbed him “by the hips, by the legs”, “lifted” him off the ground, “pulled him closer to his body”, etc.
The applause Rubiales received at the end of his speech corroborates what Flood, Dragiewicz and Pease say, and what many researchers have seen time and again in scientific studies – anti-feminism is not anecdotal but widespread. It is a real social scourge.
In response to his statements, Spanish female national team players and, later, many other sportsmen and women took a stand against such behaviour. The speech that Rubiales wanted to make in self-defence became a spark that ignited a movement, led by the hashtag #seacabó – “it’s over”.
Miren Gutiérrez is Investigadora, activismo de datos, Universidad de Deusto.
This article was first published on The Conversation.