Brace Scholar: Serena Liu ’19 Shines Light on Women in American Football

Serena Liu ’19, pictured above, spoke about the public’s filtered view of women in American football in her Brace Presentation.

Despite its nationwide popularity, football is one of the few sports in the United States without a professional women’s league.

Serena Liu ’19 shared her research on women in football during her Brace Student Fellow presentation, “The American Football Industry: An Analysis of Gender Roles,” on November 5 in the School Room of Abbot Hall.

During her presentation, Liu said, “Women who play in the football industry have yet to be viewed through an unfiltered lens where they will not be subordinated based on stereotypes or hyperfeminization.”

Liu researched the role of women as cheerleaders in the National Football League (N.F.L.) and players in the Lingerie Football League (also referred to as the Legends Football League), a football league in which women wear lingerie as uniforms.

Liu said, “Women’s ability to deconstruct gendered stereotypes [in football] are inhibited by the existing cheerleading and Legends Football League institution. Both institutions create a duality between society’s preconceived notions of masculinity and femininity.”

Liu explained how cheerleading in the N.F.L. prevents women from being able to hold high positions in the league, as well as how it presents a sexist image of women.

She said, “It creates this idea of emphasized femininity where, when women see these cheerleaders on the sidelines, this is what they think is ‘the ideal woman.’ The ideal woman should be a teacher; the ideal woman should be a flight attendant. And what we see lacking in this narrative is the encouragement for women to pursue higher positions. This is reflected in the lack of women holding high positions in the N.F.L. today.”

Students and faculty alike attended the presentation. Angie Collado ’21 said that Liu discussed impacts that often go undiscussed in American society.

Collado said, “Serena captured something that is really normalized in society: gender roles in football. She clearly explained how women are presented in football, especially when talking about the Legends or Lingerie Football League, where women were wearing lingerie… and how that can devalue and invalidate the whole football experience, [as well as] how women [who play football] are seen.”

Liu said that while some women have broken through the gender barriers in professional football, parts of society continue to consider the football field the last remaining space for preserving masculine ideals.

“Women have yet to find an agency where they are viewed through an unfiltered lens, and problems continue to arise despite women’s attempts to either empower themselves or create change,” said Liu.

Liu addressed the small progress women have made in deconstructing gendered norms in the industry. She also highlighted, however, the substandard to which female trailblazers in the industry are often held.

“These women continue to find subordination in their status even though they have proven that their ability to transgress the stereotyped roles of what it means to be a woman, and they continue to be categorized into a feminized and very feminine role,” said Liu.

Many audience members were unaware of the struggles women face behind the scenes as cheerleaders, coaches, or referees in the N.F.L. Warren Clark ’21 was surprised by the lack of women in the industry.

Clark said, “My family is very into football, so it was kind of close to my heart, even though we’re a college football family, instead of an N.F.L. family. I didn’t know anything about the handbook for N.F.L. cheerleaders or what’s expected of them, or the fact that there really have only been three women in the N.F.L. ever, and so those stats were just kind of shocking to me. It’s good for everyone to know, just so that everyone knows that there’s more going on behind what you actually see on TV.”

The Brace Center for Gender Studies, which works towards intersectional gender equity and inclusion in all areas of student life, selected Liu as one of this year’s Brace Student Fellows. Through the program, Liu spent the summer researching and studying a topic of her choosing.

“I had a very broad idea of what I wanted to do, and I really wanted to look at gender in sports… After a few conversations, [I] really whittled it down to football… because it’s such an interesting topic…[and] you rarely see women having a narrative in this industry,” said Liu.

Throughout the process of researching her presentation, Liu was guided by Sarah Driscoll, Instructor in English, and Flavia M. Vidal, Instructor in English and Director of the Brace Center for Gender Studies.

For Driscoll, her favorite part of the project was working with Liu.

“[One great part] was getting to discuss gender in sports with a student, [since] that’s a really interesting topic, but I think more for me, it was working with an amazing person who…was willing to take in feedback, willing to listen, willing to address concerns and whittle away at the paper,” said Driscoll.

Liu said in an interview with The Phillipian, “Since my research was focused primarily on women in sports, there’s been a lot of conversation regarding broadening the discourse from just women in sports to gender in sports and trying to figure out ways to strive for equality or less of a subordinating lens towards all spectrums of identities…I wanted to focus on, especially for next steps, just broadening the conversation to all marginalized identities.”