USA | Sarah Palin, ‘soccer mom’ at a new frontier

Eventually, the pragmatics of electoral strategy demanded that Palin, 44, accept the ill-fitting “soccer mom” label—though she is one of the few soccer moms to have shot a rabbit or stalked caribou. Ice hockey has a provincial following, while soccer in the past 25 years has conquered every territory that votes in the Nov 4 general election, including Hawaii and Alaska. More than three million children are registered with U.S. Youth Soccer, compared to 350,000 with USA Hockey (Jacob Leibenluft, “Hockey Moms vs. Soccer Moms,” Slate, Sept 4). Commentators expressed surprise that the Republican Party would include a soccer mom, customarily viewed as a Democratic constituency, on a national ticket. In her opening statement at the vice-presidential debate Oct 2, though, Palin reached out to soccer moms across the contiguous 48 states. To understand Americans’ economic predicament, she said, one must “go to a kids’ soccer game on Saturday.”

Palin’s choice of language—or that of the McCain-Palin campaign staff—was fascinating. In unambiguous code, she explicitly addressed the country’s suburban majority that has employed youth soccer as a means, according to sociologists influenced by the late Pierre Bourdieu, of assisting the “symbolic construction of whiteness.” These parents, now angst-ridden by rapidly deteriorating investment portfolios, selected soccer over American football or basketball for their children in order to fit with the suburban habitus, a deliberately engineered zone of isolation in which soccer has also come to express the ennui of soul-consuming sameness. These are ghettos of privilege. At weekend soccer tournaments, replicated from Katahdin, Maine, to Hilo, Hawaii, parents have been known to wear T-shirts reading, “I don’t have a life. My kid plays soccer” (Julia Feldmeier, “Sidelined No More, Soccer Moms Lace Up,” Washington Post, 29 Sept 05).

There are doctoral dissertations devoted to the soccer mom. Lisa Swanson at the University of Maryland in 2003 produced “Soccer Fields of Cultural (Re)-Production? An Ethnographic Explication of the ‘Soccer Mom.’ ” She characterizes research in which she studies 14 mothers of an under-13 boys’ team as an initiation into lifeways of an unfamiliar tribe.

“How could I not know of this other world with its religious-like fervor?” Swanson writes after narrating a journey of several hours, along back-country roads, to an out-of-state tournament. Mothers support girls and boys in these time-consuming pursuits in order to differentiate their lives from the urban dystopia, with its aggression and free-form basketball. Soccer moms, to Swanson, are prepared to offer a “never-ending supply of themselves” to ensure that their children acquire the cultural and social capital to succeed in an American life of endless acquisition. These mothers wish to produce “good boys” and “good girls.” Soccer facilitates this aim.

Conservative commentators in the United States, rather than regarding soccer as a perpetuation of “family values”—the hallmark of the Palin approach and other pro-life Republicans—have seen in the sport “the Marxist concept of the labor theory of value applied to sports.” This is what Stephen Moore, in “Soccer-Mom Hell,” wrote in the National Review in 1998. In agreement with vaunted Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford, Moore criticizes an alleged inefficiency in soccer, a game that “requires huge volumes of effort but produces no output.” Others have perceived in the soccer mom a latent sexual appeal. “Am I the only one to have discovered her sultry poignancy,” writes Matthew DeBord in Salon, “the sexy affirmation that everything—and I do mean everything—is possible after childbirth at the age of 35?” (“Saucy Soccer Moms,” 1 Jun 00).

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