I recently stumbled across a study done by the British Sociological Association entitled “The myth of the ‘puck-bunny’: female fans and men’s ice hockey”. Aside from the fact that it made for some good light reading, as most sociological studies do, it got me thinking about female fans and their impact on the game we love - something that has become all the more obvious over the last few years and even the last few months.
I don’t think that anyone would disagree that being a sports fan has historically been a male pastime. The stereotype filters through pop culture as prevalently as any other. The woman is supposed to complain while the man squats on the couch, beer in hand, watching his favorite team (or any team) play his favorite sport...or any sport. Yet while this stereotype may have been fairly true to life even fifteen or twenty years ago, one only has to look at the number of women in NHL arenas across North America and hockey arenas around the world to see that the male dominance of the title “sports fan” is starting to fade...at least when it comes to the coolest game on earth.
The Capitals and the NHL in general have obviously taken notice and targeted the female audience as, until recently, an untapped market. It started last year when the NHL, with all good intentions I’m sure, unleashed DCSportsChick’s and my favorite new product: the pink jersey. It’s designed to fit the female form and is offered at nearly half the cost of those pesky official jerseys.
The cost to your dignity, however, is as yet undetermined.
The Caps took a different approach with their recent Hockey ‘N Heels event, where women got an inside look at the world of hockey through locker room tours, in-depth instruction on the basic rules of the game, and stories from players and their wives/fiancées/girlfriends. The title threw me as a little patronizing, but the intent behind it is good, and I think it’s great that they’re really trying to teach the game to a population that has been largely overlooked.
To see a microcosm of the growth of female hockey fandom, though, you need look no further than Hockey’s Ladies of Greatness. Blatant self-promotion aside there really is no better place to see passionate women discussing all aspects of hockey.
When I joined HLOG, there were maybe ten or eleven bloggers who were contributing. That was back in November. It now consists of twenty-eight contributors representing nineteen teams, with more applicants trickling in. We have women from all backgrounds, strewn across the continent and across oceans. There are high school students, married women with kids, and everything in between. We’ve got Sabres fans and Capitals fans, Flyers fans and Penguins fans, Calgary fans and Edmonton fans, all coexisting without (much) bloodshed. Some are lifelong fans, others are more recent converts, but all equally passionate in their love of this sport.
We’ve got famous fans and guys who dream of marrying HLOGgers (poor bastards). We’ve been called the downfall of feminism (which I still don’t completely understand, although it did spawn a truly hilarious counterpost by one of our own). We’ve also at times been called puckbunnies, which I think we are all offended by. Sure, there are the occasional “he’s so cute” comments, but they are no more central to most of our discussions than a guy grunting and saying “dude, those Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders are hot!” during a football game. Trust me, puckbunnies need not apply to HLOG.
But ah, the puckbunny. The male gender’s way of keeping women on the perimeter in a whole new way by implying that any woman at a hockey game is simply there to ogle the players. The authors of the BSA study I mentioned earlier theorized that the term came about because the presence of women at male sporting events allows women to become the observers and men the objects of this gaze, and men can find this incredibly unnerving. Considering the fact that women have been on the receiving end of this ogling for so long (and in fact continue to be, as the rash of Ice Girls would suggest), I have just one thing to say to any man who is “unnerved”: get over it.
Still, it’s not just a name, these creatures do exist. Exhibit A:
*Shudder* Wrong on so many levels...
So what is a puckbunny?
Hockeygirl did a particularly intriguing post a while back on the difference between a puckbunny and a fangirl, but allow me to summarize. A puckbunny is a girl who likes hockey without actually knowing what it is. She likes looking at the players but ignores the game. She is the hockey equivalent to a groupie – she may not know the songs but she’ll certainly follow the band.
A fangirl, on the other hand, may be able to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of a player (we’re only human, after all) but that’s not what draws her in. She knows what obstruction is. She understands offside. She knows that icing isn’t something you put on a cake. She is, in essence, nothing more than a fan - albeit one who burps less and smells better than her male counterpart.
So what does the female audience bring to hockey? One of the questions we ask of any new applicant to the HLOG is to explain what the role of the female fan is in keeping hockey alive. The answers vary across a broad spectrum, but one thing seems to be fairly consistent, and that is the passion that women bring to their fandom. We judge players not just on stats and numbers but also on quality of character – and once we’ve latched on, there’s no more loyal fan. It’s an interesting question, but one has to wonder at what point it will become obsolete. When do female fans simply become fans? When do we stop drawing a gender line across the arena?
Probably when the bunnies become extinct...and the pink jerseys are retired.