Harris statue marks a turning point for AFLW

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The photo has it all: the outstretched leg, the eyes looking up, the arm across her body. Her braid and her ponytail. Her tattoo, her taping, her orange boots. Grace and poise and ferocity and talent and work. If only for these things, it would have been a perfect way to reflect the messy, complicated beauty of the first few years of the AFLW.

Tayla Harris unveiling the statue of her kick in Federation Square (Wayne Taylor/Getty Images)But it was the response to the photo of Tayla Harris that elevated that moment from the representative to the iconic. While fans of the women’s game praised Harris’ skill and little girls looked at it and thought 'that could be me someday', an army of online commenters decided to make derogatory comments about Harris and her body. Many of the comments were sexually explicit. Harris herself later likened some of the comments to sexual abuse.

Instead of removing the comments, the 7AFL Twitter account removed the photo. The reaction from the women’s sport community was swift and strong. The problem was not the photo; it was the comments. The photo went back up. The point was made.

It felt like a turning point. Female athletes and their supporters were saying no, we will not stand by while this happens. That sexual harassment has no place in our game. That female athletes should be able to do their jobs without abuse. Speaking days later, Harris said that the response made her feel empowered. She went on to reflect on the significance of the moment: 'It's not about me now, it's about a much bigger picture,' she told RSN Radio’s Breakfast Club. 

So when NAB commissioned an artist to create a statue to display in Federation Square during this year’s AFL finals series, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that they picked this moment. The 3.3m statue was unveiled by Harris herself this week. And yet, the decision was mocked and questioned by many.

AFL Hall of Fame legend Malcolm Blight said the decision to display the statue was 'ludicrous'. He went on to comment that it was 'the most mystifying decision I’ve seen in my life thus far. Mystifying! She is getting a statue for being trolled online… One of the most mystifying things I’ve ever heard of.'

Blight’s comments were reflected by other football fans. Those who argued that Harris should not have been honoured at all, and those who argued there was a long line of those who should have come before her.

 

"The statue was commissioned to represent a significant era in the history of Australian rules football: when the women’s game emerged from the margins it had been confined to for a century and took its place firmly in the spotlight."

 

These types of comments overlook an obvious point, and speak to something more profound about the place of women’s sport in our cultural space.

The point is that the statue was not erected to honour Tayla Harris herself of her achievements. Harris herself made this very clear when she spoke on the unveiling. The statue is symbolic of the seismic shift that has happened in the last five years as women’s professional Australian rules football has established its place, as well as the importance of the photo and its aftermath. Harris said, 'it's more than me just kicking football, it's a message, it's a turning point in Australian society, so it's something I can be personally proud of.'

By framing the statue as being about Harris 'being trolled', Blight has cast Harris as a victim who is being honoured for her victimhood. It is not the fact Harris received this abuse that is worth remembering; it is the fact that she and the community around her stood up and said no more.

The statue was commissioned to represent a significant era in the history of Australian rules football: when the women’s game emerged from the margins it had been confined to for a century and took its place firmly in the spotlight.

It is the significance of this that Blight and his fellow critics fail to understand. For a century, women have been relegated to places on the margins in sport in Australia, and particularly in its oval-ball codes. The AFLW isn’t just a fun way to spend a couple of hours on a late summer weekend (though it certainly is that too). It is the next step in a generations-long struggle. It is women asserting their right to be in this space and refusing to let that right be conditional on being abused and harassed.

That change is more significant than the contributions of any 300-game player. It’s more important than any Brownlow medal or premiership. It’s so much more than any single on field achievement, or any career-worth of them. These women didn’t just excel in a competition: they worked to make the world a fairer place, a place where all kids can grow up with the dream of playing footy for their favourite team.

If that’s not worth a statue, I don’t know what is.

 

 

Erin RileyErin Riley is a sports writer and historian from Sydney. Her writing is focused on understanding the role sport and its institutions play in Australian life.

Main image: Tayla Harris unveiling the statue of her kick in Federation Square (Wayne Taylor/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Erin Riley, Tayla Harris, AFLW, AFL, gender equality, sport

 

 

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Existing comments

Women and sport. Now there's a contentious subject. Especially in team sports long dominated by male players. Football (AFL) has been the rousing, bonding domain of the boys for so long. Now, female players are making their mark (sorry) and a few noses are out of joint. Statues as political statements? I agree with the reasons outlined in this article. I've always thought sport should be apolitical, however, on this occasion would agree with Jean Sibelius' words that a statue has never been set up in honour of a critic.
Pam | 13 September 2019


Could a man feel that the photo of Tayla Harris both attractive and inspiring without having verbal brickbats thrown at him? To me it's a bit like a classical Greek sculpture, whether of a man or woman. Yes, they were naked and she's not, but both the sculptures and her photo did not have a primarily sexual purpose, but were meant to show us the beauty of the human body. There are often two reactions to human beauty: one is the Puritan/Old Fashioned Catholic et sim "Avert your eyes. It's disgusting". The other is the overtly lewd, which shows certain people's dirty minds. Why can't people just admire beauty? Beauty is not primarily a sexual, but an aesthetic thing. Tayla boxes and that probably makes certain men feel threatened, whereas it might turn others on in the wrong way. As far as I am aware Tayla is perfectly normal psychologically. I'm as fine with the statue as she is. It's up. Let's leave it at that and move on. My advice to Malcolm Blight is "Get a life". He needs to take a leaf of the sadly missed Danny Frawley's book and be a real man and get in touch with his real feelings. So many young men suicide because they are presented with this bulldust masculine footy he man image. And what a load of bollocks that is!
Edward Fido | 13 September 2019


When Nicky Winmar lifted his shirt and pointed to his black skin, no one was "mystified" as to why you'd immortalise that moment in a statue. For women, this was a Nicky Winmar moment! This was when a sportswoman demanded respect for her sporting prowess, just like Nicky did.
Claire | 16 September 2019


I think you might have just kicked one right between the posts, Claire. That's exactly it!
Edward Fido | 17 September 2019


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