In late July of 2011, Abby Wambach, the recently retired but then-captain of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, appeared on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” alongside fellow teammate and goalkeeper Hope Solo. It was a memorable interview. The U.S. women had earned national attention that summer from their World Cup play, due largely to their historic overtime win against Brazil, in which Wambach had tied the game with a signature header in the 122nd minute, the latest goal in World Cup history.
The night of the Letterman interview, Wambach sat cool, confident, and wise-cracking. The U.S. had just lost to Japan in the World Cup final, it’s true, but Wambach happily touted her team’s successful run. She told more jokes than Letterman that night, subjecting his soccer ineptitude to her punch lines, all the while showing evident comfort with this resultant, newfound status of female-athlete celebrity. Dressed in a blazer and cigarette trousers, her hair recently cut pixie-short, Wambach exuded a distinct departure from the Mia Hamm era, the ponytail-feminism of women’s sports in the 1990’s.
In addition to the moment’s social and cultural import, the interview was memorable to me personally, because I – a bibliophile who loves words no more, no less than your average graduate student in English – learned a new one that night. I watched that interview from the couch of an on-again, off-again boyfriend and in the delightfully raucous company of his sports-obsessed friends. I remember well when one of these friends, upon observing Wambach saunter across the Letterman stage, declared that Abby Wambach would make a definitively perfect “breeder.” “A what?” I asked. “A breeder.” They all agreed.
A breeder, I learned, in the lexicon of my ex and his friends, is a woman who displays physical attributes conducive to exceptional athletic ability, such as height, coordination, musculature, build, and so on. They explained to me that a man desirous of reproducing, say, the next Lebron James, sees a breeder through the lens of her genetic contribution to their, as of yet, unborn children.
I had to laugh. The surface of the joke was kind of funny. In my mind, it put on display and up for mockery their collective lack of fulfillment in their own athletic résumés, the fact that made the vicariousness of elite athletic children such an appealing prospect. Funnier still, they were talking this cavalierly about picking up Abby Wambach, a woman so intimidating, composed, imposing, well-known, and so on, that not one of them would have been bold enough to come within ten feet of her if they ever did happen to see her in a bar (let alone ask to buy her a drink).
But those allowances aside, it wasn’t funny, not really. I was amazed – part horrified and surprised – by the resilience of their fantasy gratifications to desires that they performed as ubiquitous. The U.S. women’s team, from the vantage point of these straight male friends in particular, already had a sex symbol in Wambach’s fellow forward Alex Morgan, who would capitalize on her good looks the following year in a body paint shoot for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit. If Wambach wasn’t their sex symbol – she doesn’t, for example, perform the normative conventions pertaining to female beauty and male-focused sex appeal that land one a spread in a men’s magazine – here she was anyway, starring in a heterosexual daydream, based on some weird eugenics fantasy of rote and “perfect” reproduction.
The sexualization of elite female athletes, on full display in Morgan’s modeling gig and subtending the breeder comment about Wambach, typically entails a de-emphasis of female bodies-in-performance, favoring, instead, appearance-based representations that invite appraisal. Interestingly – and disturbingly, however, “breeder” in fact accentuates the functionality of female bodies to a point of violence, as the notion presupposes unblocked and unremitting access to an athlete’s body, in addition to control over her reproductive rights. It’s in this way that the joke-that-isn’t-one recalls the pervasive sexual abuse of enslaved women, relegated as the “breeders” of the economy’s unpaid labor force. While the users of the “breeder” idiom do not, I’m sure, have this history actively in mind, they nevertheless communicate a similar desire for sexual control. It seems so purposeful to me that Wambach’s athletic and physical dominance gets flipped around here in a fantasy about subservience.
But, not one to be made the brunt of a joke, not on Letterman night or now, Wambach herself flipped the breeder discourse around when she talked to Sports Illustrated in a 2015 interview about her interest in having a baby. “I could probably genetically engineer a professional athlete on some level,” she said. “Maybe get somebody else’s stuff who plays a sport, like American football.” If Wambach, then, is the dream child-bearer of my friends’ fancies, it seems that she has someone else in mind – someone, albeit indistinct, but with the right “stuff,” to be sure. She reminds us that male athletes have to confront their own challenges when it comes to sexual stereotypes and hypermasculinized personas, which the title of this post alludes to as evident in the suggestively (and sexually) objectifying nature of, indeed, fantasy football.
Before redirecting her gaze from the NFL and closing her comments about her own reproductive desires, Wambach seems to sigh: “I just need to find somebody who would be willing to do it.” Someone, she means, who would be interested in procreating for the sake of sporty offspring. If she would consider lowering her athletic standards, I know a few guys who might be willing.