Lionesses is a harmless branding tool that England have outgrown

MARTIN SAMUEL: ‘Lionesses’ is a harmless branding tool, but this team have outgrown it. This great football team have outgrown the need to be anything beyond themselves. They’re simply ENGLAND

  • A BBC Radio 4 listener recently called to question the use of the word Lionesses
  • ‘Lionesses’ is just a branding tool that was used to promote the Women’s team 
  • But they have now outgrown the need to be anything beyond themselves
  • The team have become something greater and powerful than Lionesses

Of course, it was more confected nonsense on Radio 4 this week when a listener questioned the use of the word Lionesses to describe the England women’s football team.

The caller asked why England’s women had to be Lionesses, and not Lions, as if this was some form of insult, as if lionesses were somehow lesser.

Host Emma Barnett threw it over to her guest Anita Asante — 71 appearances for England, 2004 to 2018 — who, no doubt worried about being on the wrong side of some right-on backlash, did not dismiss it as forcibly as she should.

A Radio 4 listener called in to question use of the word Lionesses to describe women’s team

‘We gendify everything,’ Asante said. But that’s not true. Gender is being removed from roles at executive level and in many professions. To have an award for best actor and best actress seems an anachronism these days, an admission that women often miss out on the eye-catching roles, so need their own category. But then Asante hit the nail on the head. ‘To be fair, it’s been a great branding tool,’ she said.

And that’s what it is. A branding tool. An invention of, one imagines, a mostly male marketing team deployed by a national association desperate to find a way to promote women’s football in England. And in that respect, it’s been brilliantly successful.

At a time when the women’s team had scant public profile, the Lionesses made them different and memorable.

Former England international Anita Asante (above) described ‘Lionesses’ as a branding tool 

They didn’t always live up to the billing but that wasn’t important. The Lionesses were the England women’s football team, and the men were just England. And that was the real sexism. Not that they should be lions or lionesses, or any other nickname, but that they couldn’t just be England. And that England, alone, was good enough. Now it is.

On a personal note? Always hated the branding Lionesses and never used it. Always felt it was an FA marketing man’s construct and its deployment was too cosy and not objective. Always felt it heaped unnecessary pressure on the players. But Asante’s right. It was great branding and, in that way, worked. When the FA took over the running of the England team in 1993, they weren’t the Lionesses, and in fact, few knew who they were.

‘It’s a way for fans to relate and connect with this group of players,’ Asante continued and there we differ. Not this group of players, surely. Not anymore.

England striker Beth Mead doesn’t need to be a Lioness to connect with the country

This is a great football team. They have beaten Sweden, the second-ranked team in the world — not just Europe, don’t forget that — 4-0 in a semi-final and played them off the park in the second half. Norway were considered a group-stage threat and were overwhelmed 8-0. 

These are record-breaking scorelines in a European tournament. Beth Mead doesn’t need to be a Lioness to connect with the country. She can be Beth Mead, footballer. Beth Mead, tournament top scorer. The Lioness tag is harmless, but it is also unnecessary.

For this is the change, this is the leap forward the women’s game has been striving to make. From here, the women have as much need to be Lionesses as the men have to be Lions. For that was the rooted falsehood in the Women’s Hour discussion. 

Who calls the England men’s team the Lions? It’s a song, a badge, and there is an association that way, so when the team wins, Panthera-related puns tend to dominate the headlines — but no-one says they are going to watch the Lions. 

The team is now something even greater and more powerful than Lionesses 

They don’t buy tickets for the Lions, or follow the Lions to a World Cup. They are going to watch England. And by this, it is implied, they mean England’s men. And that is what this glorious run has also altered. 

Now, that statement might need the tiniest clarification. England’s men or England’s women, because it’s not so fantastical to have tickets for either, or both. That is the achievement of this team. They have outgrown the need to be Lionesses. They have outgrown the need to be anything beyond themselves.

And in doing so they have become something more than Lionesses, something even greater and more powerful. This is England.

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