Aug 20, 2023; Sydney, AUSTRALIA; Jenni Hermoso (10 Spain) passes the ball during the FIFA Womens World Cup 2023 Final football match between Spain and England at Stadium Australia in Sydney, Australia. Mandatory Credit: Noe Llamas/Sipa USA via USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, Spain won the Women’s World Cup and the finale against England was controversial from the start. Last September, the Spanish football federation released a statement saying 15 players had complained about coach Jorge Vilda, citing a toxic and controlling workplace environment and lackluster training and in-game management. In emails, the players said they wouldn’t compete for him unless their concerns over their ‘emotional state’ and ‘health’ were addressed. The federation supported Vilda, and only three of the 15 women who criticized him were selected to compete in this year’s World Cup. Then, after Spain won it all, Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales kissed Spain and Barcelona’s all-time scoring leader, Jennifer Hermoso, without her consent, prompting criticism from Spain’s Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez.

“It was an unacceptable gesture and Mr. Rubiales’ apologies are not enough; they are not even suitable,” Sánchez said in a press conference on Tuesday. “Therefore, he must continue taking steps to clarify what we saw.”

In spite of his disgusting actions in front of the watching world, Rubiales has been defiant and refused to resign at a press conference in which he was supposed to step down. The Spanish soccer federation even released a false statement attributed to Hermoso in support of Rubiales. Calls are growing from around the soccer world and the Spanish government for him to step down from his post in light of the growing embarrassment.

Despite Rubiales’ claims that “false feminism” is the problem here, the clear issue is his entitlement in regard to Hermosa and what should have been the best moment of her life. Now, the headlines center around him instead of the incredible perseverance of Spain’s national team who succeeded not only largely on their own due to poor leadership, but in spite of failures of leadership on multiple levels.

What should have been a momentous occasion for Spain’s team is now at least somewhat overshadowed by the actions of men who abused their positions of power, through no fault of the athletes. And it’s truly a shame considering the fact that summer 2023 may well go down in history as the summer of strong women. Whether it was the Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie breaking countless records, the Eras and Renaissance tours raking in cash left and right, or the Women’s World Cup commanding the eyes of billions, women in a variety of industries have been proving their physical, economic, and creative strength profoundly over the past few months. 

However, another strong female lead who emerged in August didn’t receive nearly as much praise as her predecessors. 

Early in August, Rachel Zegler, who is cast as Snow White in Disney’s remake of the film set to release in March 2024, was the subject of controversy over comments she and co-star Gal Gadot made promoting the upcoming film. 

During a red carpet interview, the pair teased the upcoming film stating that because it’s “not 1937 anymore,” the movie will look much different, honing in on Snow White’s ambition and leadership skills. One line in particular from Zegler hit a nerve.

“She’s not going to be saved by the prince,” She said of the revamped version of Snow White, “and she’s not going to be dreaming about true love.”

Predictably, the internet reacted explosively, accusing Zegler of being anti-feminist for promoting the idea that women who adhere to traditional norms of femininity are somehow or lesser value and influence. One TikToker, in particular, went viral for her critique, in which she claimed “not every woman wants or craves power, and that’s okay. It is not anti-feminist to want to fall in love.”

But maybe some women do desire power and the actions of Spain’s soccer federation prove that having more women in leadership–while it won’t solve all of the problems–could be beneficial. Zegler’s new role offers women an alternate idea of what feminine strength looks like, which runs counter to the more traditional norms the Disney princesses have promoted for decades and could be very empowering images to women who don’t see themselves in a traditional light. It’s not that either are wrong or that one is better than the other, either. It’s paramount that women and girls are exposed to a full spectrum of feminine strength. Disney’s remake of Snow White offers them exactly that: a second option of who they want to see themselves in when they watch a classic Disney film. More robust representation is a good thing and does not take away from the original version. In fact, broad spectrums of representation are especially needed not just for girls, but for boys as well who similarly get unidimensional role models in media that adheres to gender roles. 

“Media role models for young boys are almost always technically skilled and physically competent and good leaders,” Sophia Weng wrote for the Harvard Political Review in 2022. “In contrast to masculine strength, each Disney princess demonstrates different kinds of strength beyond the physical or technical, including strengths like empathy, fortitude, perseverance, curiosity, creativity, flexibility, and kindness.”

In sum, this is the beauty of women’s sports: female athletes do it all and treat audiences to a wide variety of different strengths, from the physical to the interpersonal, in profound ways. To Zegler’s point, for many women and girls, the fact that it’s not 1937 anymore is a good thing–especially for female athletes, sports fans, and employees in the sports industry. We now have widespread access to sports thanks to the passing of Title IX in 1972, nearly 40 years after the original Snow White was produced. And although there is a long way to go in terms of true equality from a resource and athlete safety perspective, fans of women’s sports are treated to a similarly diverse spectrum of femininity and feminine strength whenever we watch these athletes in action. Of particular salience is the Women’s World Cup, which, in spite of Spain’s abhorrent treatment of the athletes involved, offered fans of women’s soccer a chance to witness the very diverse spectrum of strength and ambition put on display by some of the best athletes in the world.

Aug 6, 2023; Melbourne, AUS; Sweden players celebrate the winning goal by forward Lina Hurtig (not pictured) against the United States in the penalty kick shootout during a Round of 16 match in the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jenna Watson-USA TODAY Sports

First, it’s impossible to ignore what the athletes of the Women’s World Cup did economically as the final numbers have rolled in. The tournament amassed over $570,000,000 in revenue, the games attracted 1,997,824 fans over 64 matches, and broke TV viewership records in England, Spain, and the United States. In total, the WWC generated 500,000 more in-person fans than FIFA’s original projections, is set to attract over two billion fans once the final counts come in, and sent a message that’s been building for decades–women’s sports and the athletes who play them are powerful and impossible to ignore. 

The storylines that came from the 2023 WWC showcase every form of strength imaginable. There’s the intelligence and dedication of Nigeria’s Michelle Alozie, who balances her pro soccer career with her pediatric cancer research and hopes to become a doctor someday. Or the big-heartedness of Matilda’s Hayley Raso, who wears a ribbon in her hair so her grandmother can always spot her on the pitch. Fans fell in love with the brutal sportsmanship of England’s Chloe Kelly who told a BBC camera operator to “f**** off” while shielding Nigerian goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie from the press to give her privacy after Nigeria’s loss in the Round of 16. Kelly also wowed fans when she kicked a penalty shot faster than any Premier League goal on the season. 

Members of the USWNT are similarly heralded for their unique strengths, whether it’s the political outspokenness of Megan Rapinoe, the grit and toughness of Lynn Williams, or the cheery confidence of Sophia Smith immortalized in her “Nice to Beat You” Nike ads, the WWC showcased strength of female athletes, in all of their forms, for the entire world to see. And we can’t ignore the champions who won it all under toxic leadership – it takes immense strength to succeed in spite of people who hurt you. Similarly, it takes fortitude to understand one’s worth and walk away from toxicity as several of Spain’s key players who sat out the WWC in protest did. 

Perhaps these are the reasons the Betoota Advocate, an Australian satire website, ran an article surrounding the WWC entitled “Local Woman Actually Enjoys Sports Now That Messy Buns and People Being Nice to Each Other on the Field Exist.” Many grow up with the idea that physical strength and leadership are masculine while kindness and community are feminine, but women’s soccer players prove that both can coexist–a revelation that shouldn’t be groundbreaking but is. It shouldn’t be satirical to imagine a world where incredible physical, mental, and athletic strength can coexist with kindness, empathy, and respect, but the male-dominated sports industry sometimes proves this is rare. For many, women’s sports is a refreshing change of pace where multiple types of strength collide and all women can see some version of themselves in some of the best athletes in the world. 

That’s precisely what makes the WWC so empowering for women–it shows us that there’s no singular right or wrong way to be feminine and that many traits that are coded as “masculine” can be embodied by anyone regardless of gender. It’s a message that every girl should hear growing up, regardless of their preferred media source–whether it’s athletes, princesses, neither or both. 

“As a queer woman who rejected femininity for points in my life because I did not identify with traditional ideas of womanhood, I needed both Cinderella’s kindness and Mulan’s bravery to show me that I can be both strong and feminine,” Weng writes. Today, female athletes similarly prove that women can be all of the above. 

About Katie Lever

Dr. Katie Lever is a former Division 1 athlete and current freelance sports writer whose work has appeared in Global Sport Matters, Sportico, Extra Points, Forbes, and other outlets. She is also the award-winning author of Surviving the Second Tier, a dystopian novel about the dark side of the college sports industry, available on Amazon. Follow Katie on Twitter and Instagram: @leverfever.