Historians' Watch

The Ancient History of the WAG

In 2019 Colleen Rooney, wife of former Manchester United footballer Wayne Rooney, accused Rebekah Vardy, married to Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy, of leaking stories about Rooney to The Sun. The British public lapped up Rooney’s dramatic reveal on her Twitter account.

The dispute was quickly called ‘Wagatha Christie’ in honour of Rooney’s sleuthing skills. Rooney narrowed down her Instagram followers, until there was only one, Rebekah Vardy, and began to leak fake stories. One faked Instagram story, which ended up being reported by The Sun, concerned flooding in the Rooney’s new twenty million pound Cheshire mansion. Vardy sued Rooney for libel. The resulting trial has been the subject of a Channel 4 drama, a BBC documentary and even a West End play: it truly captured the heart of a nation.  

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and story after story of Tory Government corruption, the British public relished a return to the nostalgia of WAG-land. The Rooney-Vardy dispute appeared on the heels of the Y2K fashion and pop culture revival which many observers identified as a reaction to the existential uncertainties of the 2020s, in favour of the optimism believed to characterise the turn of the new millennium.

The ancient history of the WAG begins in the first years of twenty-first century. According to popular legend, the WAG was christened in a 2002 Sunday Telegraph article. The Telegraph reported that the staff at the Jumeirah Beach Club, Dubai had given the wives and girlfriends of footballers a nifty nickname: WAG. Perhaps though, we might see her true birth year as 1999 with the marriage of football’s original power couple, Posh and Becks. Six years later, WAG-mania was in full swing. Between 2002 and 2004, over six million people tuned in to watch the ITV drama Footballers’ Wives, which centred on the exploits of the fictional Earls Park F.C. players and their partners.

While the show was cancelled in 2006, the real WAGs kept the drama going at the World Cup in Baden-Baden that same year. Paparazzi descended on the sleepy German spa town, eager to capture the exploits of the England squad’s partners. The WAGs delivered with their signature style, which might be described as millionaires on a Hen Do. Colleen Rooney (then McLoughlin) reportedly travelled with her spray-tan technician. Elen Rivas, then-girlfriend of Frank Lampard, danced on the tables of the swanky Maxi’s nightclub, surprising gleeful reporters with an impromptu karaoke rendition of ‘I Will Survive’.

The WAGs’ performance outshone their husbands, who were knocked out by Portugal in the quarter final. Media coverage of the WAGs were ambivalent: part delighted, part scornful. The women’s conspicuous consumption (of designer goods and alcohol) was condemned by a misogynistic and classist press as trashy. Even Marina Hyde, a more sympathetic commentator for The Guardian, condemned WAGs’ profligate spending of their husbands’ money. She joked that Coleen might be able to ‘chip in’ a percentage of the £35,000 hotel stay with the proceeds from her appearances on TV adverts for ASDA, relishing in the contrast between the budget supermarket and up-market resort and punishing her for her social mobility, a recurring theme for the WAGs.  

The WAG joined the ‘ladette’ in the media landscape; both signalled a new type of femininity. Both were associated with a boisterous, heterosexuality. Both also exemplified the ‘post-feminism’ of the nineties and early noughties, which described a sense that feminism was defunct in late twentieth-century society. At its most crass, post-feminism characterised second-wave feminism as prudish and men-hating, celebrating an exhibitionist femininity that was (hetero)sex positive and playful, rather than political, in public spaces.

The WAG was the supersized version of the sexualised, beauty-oriented consumerism of post-feminist femininity. However, she also revealed the contradictions within the confident, post-feminist message of equality, choice and ‘Girl Power’. WAGs were routinely criticised, humiliated and scrutinised in the media. They were objectified and sexualised as a matter of course. WAGs revealed the contradictions of a post-feminist climate that assumed sexuality equalled sexual empowerment.

WAGs also stirred anxieties about the instability of class identities that had been building across the Thatcher and New Labour years. Part of the mythology of WAGs and their footballer partners was their dramatic rise from working-class origins to incredible wealth. The WAG was part of a broader phenomenon of working-class socially mobile celebrities, most notably Page 3 model Katie Price (then popularly known as Jordan) and Big Brother star Jade Goody, who were routinely mocked as stupid and gauche in the press. The same tabloids who had supported Thatcher and New Labour’s celebration of wealth, entrepreneurship and individualism, could not accept the appropriation of these values by working-class women who successfully made money from their sexuality and celebrity. As The Guardian reported following the 2006 World Cup, the ‘riot of censorious articles in some sections of the press’ constantly ‘reminded us that working class people shouldn’t have money because they’re only vulgar with it.’

The WAG was not just a container for class anxieties, however. Criticism of the footballer’s wife also expressed underlying discomfort about the monetisation of the beautiful game and its subsequent impact on masculinity. After the Premier League was founded in 1992, British professional football commercialised rapidly, bringing unprecedent amounts of money into the game. Sky TV won the rights to broadcast Premier League games between 1992 to 1997 with a bid of £191 million. Three years later, the media rights were worth £1.2 billion.

This wealth rapidly inflated footballers’ salaries. The average wage of a First Division player in the 1984-1985 season was £24,934 a year, about two and half times the average working-class salary at the time. By 2010, the average Premier League player would take home over £1.16 million a year. Footballers’ incredible wealth threatened their everyman, working-class masculine identity. Flashiness was often uncomfortably close to effeminacy. Beckham’s appearance on lifestyle magazines such as GQ, Marie Claire and famously the gay lifestyle magazine Attitude, was lauded as modern masculinity coming of age. Nevertheless, anxieties about the footballer gone ‘soft’ remained.

WAGs became a place where misogynistic and homophobic anxieties could be expressed. Footballers’ wives were often depicted as corrupting, effeminising or domesticating their male partners. In 2002, Roy Keane, the Manchester United captain, blamed footballers’ wives on his team’s poor performance that season. He claimed that his teammates had been distracted by their partners’ obsession with wealth and materialism. His own relationship with Teresa Doyle, who he married in 1997, was and remains shielded from media scrutiny.

This criticism was part of a long tradition of blaming women for men’s decadence, materialism and consumerism that stretched back to the early-twentieth-century. As Carolyn Jackson and Penny Tinkler argued, both the 1990s ‘ladette’ and 1920s ‘flapper’ were considered troublesome youthful femininities characterised by hedonism, consumer culture and active sexuality. The criticism of footballers wives’ as shopaholics obscured WAGs’ position as consumer objects themselves. Many WAGs had previously exchanged the performance of sexualised femininity for wealth in their work as pop stars, actresses and glamour models. Marrying a footballer was an extension of the sexualised and emotional labour that these women performed to achieve wealth and social mobility. This was often used to justify intense media scrutiny of WAGs: these women had chosen, through their work and personal lives, to commodify their sexuality, so according to the media, they were fair game.

The WAG might be recuperated in an act of reparative reading, following Eve Kofosky Sedgwick. For Sedgwick, reparative reading moves away from suspicious or ‘paranoid’  approaches, instead involving the adoption of a generous position towards a cultural product or performance. Sedgwick suggests that this approach is particularly useful for taking camp seriously, to recognise the worth of this seemingly superficial queer style.

Following Sedgwick’s call to ‘extract sustenance’ from a hostile or indifferent culture, I want to celebrate WAGs as camp. WAGs were campy, invested in a joyous celebration of artifice, decoration and exaggeration (recall the cavernous ‘it bag’ and those enormous sunglasses!). They engaged in an extreme gender performance, highlighting femininity’s artifice. Although footballers’ wives ostensibly existed to bolster the hetero-masculinity of their partners, their hyper-conventional feminine attractiveness always threatened to spill out onto the men, and so highlighted the superficial and fragile nature of male (hetero)sexuality, too.

More than anything, WAGs were fun. And despite their tricky history, as victims of media misogyny, post-feminist icons and neoliberal women, it is through their exuberant campiness where we might see them most fully.  

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