Nothing about a show featuring a 12-year-old soccer player seems groundbreaking...until you realize there are no others like it.
Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios
U.S. women's national team and Portland Thorns star forward Alex Morgan and her teammates have been appearing on red carpets, late-night talk shows, and celebrations around the country in what appears to be a sea change of sorts for the attention given to women athletes.
But her latest project, which might end up making even more of a difference in how women athletes are publicly perceived than her team's recent World Cup win, is one you may not have heard of unless you have middle-school aged kids: Morgan is producing a children's television show for Amazon.
Morgan's show, The Kicks, is based on a bestselling book series she wrote for middle-schoolers about four soccer-playing girls. The show is just a pilot for now, adapted from Morgan's books by David Babcock, a writer and producer who worked on big network hits like Brothers & Sisters and Gilmore Girls. The episode is filmed mockumentary style and portrays Devin, the main character, as a normal—awkward at times—tween girl struggling to fit in after moving across the country. Her move is also complicated by the fact that her new school's soccer team is terrible.
The show doesn't shy away from showing Devin makeup-less and sweaty during practices and games. This Saturday, July 25, The Kicks wraps up a month-long Amazon pilot season, which features six different shows for kids. Amazon will decide which shows to greenlight for full series based on user ratings and reviews.
A show about a girl who plays soccer may not sound revolutionary, but it kind of is.
"Girls play sports in droves, it's one of the huge successes of Title IX in this country," says Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, referring to the law that prohibited discrimination based on gender for federally-funded schools, which especially affects athletic departments. "Unfortunately, the reality of girls' lives is not reflected in most forms of media pop culture."
Morgan regularly has faced gender inequality in her career. The U.S. women's national team took home one-twentieth the amount of prize money that last year's men's World Cup champion received. During the tournament, FIFA ran an article describing Morgan as a "talented goalscorer with a that is very easy on the eye and good looks to match."
"Every female athlete has grown up with [gender inequality] in some way," Morgan told me by phone this week. "And it's unfortunate to see that still on the professional level. But I do see the gap closing slowly."
One step toward closing that gap is Morgan's appearance on the cover of the U.S. edition of Electronic Arts' FIFA 16 video game, the first version of the game to feature women players. Canada national team star Christine Sinclair will be on the cover of the Canadian version.
The women's presence in the video game and the coverage of the U.S. women's national team in the wake of the World Cup are small marks of progress in a media landscape that's often devoid of positive images of women athletes.
"There's actually been a decline in overall coverage of women athletes in sports media and news media in recent years," says Cheryl Cooky, a professor of women's studies at Purdue. "And when female athletes are covered, the dominant way we see them portrayed is either as mothers, or as sex objects."
Cooky co-authored a study published in June that found that ESPN's SportsCenter spent just two percent of its coverage time in 2014 featuring women's sports—less than the amount of time it spent covering women's sports when the study began 25 years ago.
Growing up, Morgan was deeply into soccer, but there were no figures on television or in the movies with whom she could relate. At that time, Britney Spears was the iconic image for girls of Morgan's age.
"I loved [Spears], but I didn't want to be like her," she says. "I really looked up to some of the players on the national team, like Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly. But outside of soccer there weren't very many role models I could look up to."
According to Orenstein, that hasn't changed much for the current generation of girls. "If you're a 10-year-old girl what are you walking around seeing? Thank god for that Women's World Cup," she says. "People were thirsty to see this reality of women playing sports. That's the reason so many people latched onto it."
The Kicks could also help fill that gaping hole by focusing on a main character who is 12 years old and is passionate about sports. Morgan didn't produce the television show to change society; she did it because she thought young girls should have a realistic representation on television.
"Soccer is the most played sport for youth in the U.S. ... Devin is relatable," Morgan says of her main character, portrayed on the show by newcomer actress Sixx Orange. "What she deals with on the show draws from my real experiences as a young female athlete."
The portrayal of issues like gender equality in film and television can seem trivial, but it actually really matters. Consider the impact on mainstream attitudes about gay marriage because of Will & Grace and Modern Family, or about transgender rights due to Laverne Cox's character on Orange Is The New Black.
"Media informs cultural norms," says Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who wrote, directed and produced the 2011 documentary Miss Representation, which detailed the media's impact on the under-representation of women in power in our society. "The fact that we've given so little time and space to women in sports in any media ultimately has a negative impact on young girls and young boys who grow up thinking girls aren't as powerful or valuable as athletes. Is it any wonder that when it comes to professional leagues women are paid so little?"
For Morgan, who was born post-Title IX, it's not strange that a relatable, fictional young girl would be an athlete—and it wouldn't be either to the generation of girls the show targets. It's probably stranger that there isn't a show like this already.
"The fact that we're even discussing this in 2015 is 100 percent pathetic," says Orenstein. "That we don't have images of girls and women doing sports in the culture as a matter of course is ridiculous."