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Depth of Field: Alex Morgan and the Politics of Women in Celebration

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The pantheon of sports iconography is a gendered institution. There’s Muhammad Ali towering menacingly over a flattened Sonny Liston in 1965. The game-securing touchdown catch by 49er Dwight Clark, his body bent like a crescent moon, from the 1982 NFC Championship bout. Michael Phelps at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in his nail-biting 100-meter butterfly victory. Giants pitcher Juan Marichal’s signature wind-up. And who could forget Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ Black Power salute?

Still, it is a body of images that suffers from amnesia. There are the snapshots, indelible in our collective memory, of Serena Williams or Brandi Chastain or Billie Jean King willing greatness into existence, but they register as deviations in a domain culturally governed by men. That is one of the great marvels of this age—we record, GIF, meme, and catalog fleeting moments of distinction with sustained pursuit. We don’t want to forget—even though we will—as we train our attention to the next moment of illumination. Catherine Ivill’s photograph of US women’s soccer team forward Alex Morgan is one such moment. Its sharp focus on Morgan’s frame, her pinky pointed skyward. That the crowd looms in a hazy distance seems even more fitting. This is Morgan’s moment alone. She’s earned it. We would do well to remember it.

On the eve of the Women’s World Cup final, the US soccer team is again caught in the eye of foolish debate. On Tuesday, Morgan scored in the 31st minute of the team’s semifinal win over England and celebrated with not-so-subtle tea-sipping gesture. The performance was just one of many for the team, which has steamrolled the competition on its way to the finals, where they are expected to win. She was congratulated widely but scorned in the national press. Just days before, team cocaptain Megan Rapinoe was vilified for her celebratory “taunt” in a previous quarterfinal win over France. Later, when asked by a reporter if she was looking forward to attending the White House on the occasion of a World Cup victory, she responded bluntly: “I’m not going to the fucking White House.” On news of this, President Trump tweeted his distaste for her presumed lack of patriotism.

I could go on and on about how Morgan was one of the first supporters of the Common Goal Campaign or how Rapinoe, an openly gay athlete, is a staunch LGBTQ+ rights and civil rights advocate, but that is not the point here. They’re simply women who have earned the right to publicly rejoice in their achievements. It’s laughable, really, when you think about it. The wonder of women in celebration is so rare a sight the very presence of it stokes outrage. That is the world we inhabit. One that asks women to not revel in their success but to still do the work. How far yet we have to go.


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