After Bend It Like Beckham: Soccer in 21st-Century Theatre and Performance

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After Bend It Like Beckham: Soccer in 21st-Century Theatre and Performance examines how the performativity of the world’s most popular sport is “played” by various actors for the purposes of social, cultural, and political transformation. In addition to being a type of performance, sports can be considered performative in that they can enact a consequential transformation, such that a win on the field becomes a win in life. Assumptions surrounding the transformative capacities of soccer, unabashedly described by fans and stakeholders as “The Beautiful Game,” are especially potent, particularly when invested with material powers that forms the sports-industrial complex. By examining case studies ranging from the Pulitzer Prize-nominated play The Wolves to exhibition matches staged by authoritarian leaders, this dissertation demonstrates how soccer’s performativity can be reconfigured advantageously in conditions extracted from actual gameplay. Dramas that spotlight sportswomen using soccer to forge greater individual and collective selves show how athletes can play against the barriers that inhibit their access to the sport, and how nuanced representations of the plight of sportswomen can play against uncritical deployments of representation that only validate success. National and sporting governments, on the other hand, can leverage the sport to reify nationalistic myths and induce participants to reconfigure social memory through acts of play that elide historical accuracy and obscure the material powers invested in the game. This dissertation arrives at an ideal time to engage debates over the “true” nature of performativity, accounting for the efficacy of gestures amidst accusations of “performative activism” and redirecting attention to the conditions that make transformation possible but are more likely to sanction superficial changes that do not threaten the status quo. Soccer’s performative capacity can thus be understood as both a source of empowerment for players inhibited by racial, gendered, and nationalistic exclusion and a concept that is easily manipulated by powerbrokers whose embeddedness within the sports-industrial complex is protected by the very systems that perpetuate extraction and exclusion.