Yesterday, when I found myself listening to a bunch of 90s ladycentric rock on YouTube – Veruca Salt, Throwing Muses, Breeders, Lush, etc. – I thought that maybe I was just having one of my semi-regular fits of nostalgia for the 1990s. It wasn’t until I got home later that night and settled in to watch “The 99ers” on ESPN that I realized my brain was subconsciously preparing me to take a trip back in time to the decade that most shaped who I am today.
“The 99ers” is part of ESPN’s “Nine for IX,” a documentary series that looks at the stories of female athletes as told through the lenses of female filmmakers. I’ve watched a few of these and enjoyed them for the most part – although really, how much can you enjoy a documentary about the avoidable death of one of the world’s most accomplished freedivers? – but “The 99ers” was the first one that inspired me to write, perhaps because the U.S. team that won the 1999 Women’s World Cup is etched in my mind as one of those huge cultural events that shifted both the way I thought about the world and the way I thought about myself within the world.
I was 19 years old when the U.S. team won the World Cup. I hadn’t paid much attention to soccer since fifth grade, when I spent a few months embarrassing myself in a city recreational league, but that summer I found myself, along with much of the rest of the country, captivated by the team. They played so hard, and they were so tough, and – to be perfectly honest – I also loved that these ponytailed warriors looked a lot like me (except with amazing quads). It was a new kind of toughness we were seeing splashed all over the front page, one that was fierce and joyous and unabashedly, defiantly female. The iconic photo of Brandi Chastain after she pulled off her shirt encapsulates it perfectly for me. The elation on her face of achieving the kind of moment athletes all over the world can only fantasize about, her oh-so-controversial sports bra, her muscular arms, that long blonde ponytail. That moment was everything to me.
The World Cup victory is kind of a perfect capstone to a decade that, for me, was all about women and girls making their presence known in new and exciting ways. I still remember the shock and delight I felt when I realized in the early part of the decade that I could watch women – specifically the UConn women’s basketball team – play sports on television, and how I spent more than a few Saturday afternoons lying on my white daybed, watching the game on my tiny little TV in my bedroom. It was so novel and strange, and yet it also felt so right.
In between Rebecca Lobo and Brandi Chastain were about a million other athletes, each one of them playing a small part in helping me rewrite the cultural scripts in my head that said women could only be a specific way. I knew instinctively that this was bullshit, knew it even when I was a little kid, but while I knew what I thought was wrong, I didn’t know how to conceive of what was going to feel right. I consider myself lucky to have been a teenage girl in the 1990s, because it meant I had a whole smorgasbord of tough-girl icons to choose from when figuring out what kind of woman I wanted to be.
(If you want to know more about the kind of cultural soup I was immersed in, you just have to look at SPIN’s infamous “Girl Issue.” Nowadays I would take huge issue with girl culture being relegated to a single issue like some kind of novelty, but back then it was beyond thrilling to see so many things I loved collected in one place and I treasured that issue for years until I lost it custody of in my divorce. It’s definitely worth looking at, especially to see just how many of 90s girl-culture icons were athletes.)
As a big girl in the middle – and in fact, I have a newspaper clipping from my time as a high school volleyball player that describes me exactly as that – I was particularly drawn to Gabrielle Reece. Seeing tall women like her, who were unafraid to be tough and fierce and for whom their height was a gift, not a curse, helped me to feel more at ease with my own height. (I loved Rebecca Lobo and Lisa Leslie for this reason, too.) All of those female athletes helped me be okay with what I was coming to understand was my less-than-conventional femininity, where I embraced being a girl but I didn’t really feel all that comfortable with the high-heels-and-lipstick kind of femininity that seemed to be expected of me. It was as if they were all saying to me, “Hey, it’s okay to be the way you are! And not only is it okay, it’s actually pretty cool!”
One of the best things about growing up and getting older – besides feeling ever more comfortable with the parts of me that are less-than-conventional – has been the sense of perspective that comes along with having more experience stretched out over a longer period of time, like I didn’t just move forward in time but I also moved upward so I can look back and have a wider sense of what was going on. I can see now how this explosion of lady athletes at all levels – from the city rec leagues on up to the pros – didn’t just materialize out of nowhere, but happened almost twenty years, or exactly one generation, after the passage of Title IX.
And I also see how a lot of the ladycentric sports culture that came out of the 1990s could be seen as kind of cloyingly earnest, with a lot of talk about being role models for little girls that could make the sports – particularly women’s soccer and basketball – seem more like self-esteem building exercises for the grade-school set and less like actual sports. But I’m not inclined to be too critical of that, because those little girls who showed up at the World Cup in Mia Hamm jerseys and waited around courtside at New York Liberty games so they could get T-Spoon to sign their basketballs grew up to be the Alex Morgans and Britney Griners of the sports world, athletes whose broader appeal is based as much – if not more so – on their skills and abilities as it is on their gender.
“The 99ers” gives a direct nod to that lineage, the way past and present, old guard and new, are deeply connected with one another. In one scene, the “old bags” of the 1999 team and the “young guns” of the 2011 team. Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach tell the members of the 1999 team just how much seeing them play inspired them to become the soccer players they are today. In case the point was not made clearly enough, toward the end of the documentary, penalty kicks from each World Cup are intercut with each other in a beautiful, goosebump-raising montage.
That connection to past and future is something I have come to treasure the older I get, especially as my understanding of my role as a drop in the larger ocean of humanity becomes more profound. I love knowing that everything I do is founded upon the efforts of people who came before me, and that my life will be part of a larger foundation upon which future generations will build theirs. What will the next generation of female athletes look like? They’ll have grown up watching female athletes on the Olympics and on ESPN. They’ll know women who have run marathons and half-marathons, or who do roller derby, or who lift weights. Will they be even less encumbered by archaic notions of what a woman should be like than my generation is? Will they even think about these things? Or will those debates have receded so far into the past as to be irrelevant?
It’s hard to say but the one thing I do know for certain is that things will continue to change, and that if the past is any indication of how things will go, they can only get better.
P.S. If you can watch “The 99ers” on demand, it’s worth it. Not only is the documentary moving, but it is also hilarious thanks to Julie Foudy’s collection of home videos. I don’t know about you, but I had no idea Mia Hamm was such a cut-up. I recorded it on my DVR and I fully intend to watch it again.