When Annika Sorenstam, the most successful female golfer in history teed it up with the men at the 2003 PGA Colonial Invitational, it created a massive media stir, and not just within the golfing industry. At her peak, many claimed that she was too good to play with the women, therefore the idea was put forward that she should be tested in a different arena. This discussion resembles that of when Tiger Woods was at the top of his game and sports casters were referring to him with descriptions such as he is a machine or superhuman. After an 8th place finish at The Masters one year, he even declared “I’m human, I’m just like everybody else” (Sherman, 1998). But in Tiger’s case, there was no next level to test himself further. In Sorenstam’s position, there was a next level and we will look into how she was presented to the public through the media as she entered a male dominated environment. After focusing on this unique situation, we will then turn our attention to what leads to the creation of discourses that force female athletes to endure stereotypes when they are made available for public consumption. This will be done by investigating the commentary as well as the imagery that arises. In this blog, it will be demonstrated that it is common within the sporting landscape for male hegemonic discourses to be upheld through feminized representations of female golfers through commentary and imagery.  

In modern day sports, representations of masculinity and femininity are constantly in conflict. With “a wide range of social changes and the advancement of women’s rights including access to education, employment and the political sphere, we might consider sport to be one of the last frontiers of masculinity” (Jackson, 2014, p903). Historically, society has grown accustomed to hearing from the male voice and perspective through the reporting and live commentary of sporting events. Many have suggested that this elevates a notion of bias reporting towards female athletes in comparison to their male counterparts, which leads to the upholding of male hegemonic practices in the field. Looking into the coverage of the 2003 Colonial tournament in which Sorenstam played, comments uttered from male broadcasters from the two rounds she played (only two rounds because she missed the cut by four shots) totalled 88.6% compared to that from female opinions which totalled 11.4% (Billings et al, 2006, p111). Based on these statistics we do not have a diverse range of opinions on the event that took place from those participating in the live broadcast. Looking at common points of discussion, “sportscasters were more likely to employ comments about composure and courage when they were describing Sorenstam than when they were describing male golfers; conversely, sportscasters were more likely to comment on the touch and finesse of male golfers than they were about Sorenstam” (Billings et al, 2006, p111). The tendency to reflect on parts of Sorenstam’s mental game instead of her physical abilities with her golf clubs, such as her accurate iron play or deft touch around the greens goes hand in hand to reinforce traditional practices in this male domain as well as the rest of society. By focusing on non-physical traits that are often related to femininity in sports analysis, it allows gender relations and gender identities to be constructed based on assumptions of difference (Kay, 1999, p157-158). As well, it must be understood that this was a unique situation in which it was 58 years prior that another woman named Babe Didrikson Zaharias dared to try the same feat (Mell, 2013). Certainly, 1945 would have been a time with much less media coverage and scrutiny encountered at the event. There was immense pressure on Sorenstam to do well and build a favourable image of women’s golf as a whole. Furthermore, her decision to play did not come without controversy. A discourse that arose amongst some of the male athletes was that they were afraid of being “chicked,” which is a term used when a female competitor outperforms her male counterpart in one aspect or another. One of the PGA Tour’s best players at the time, Vijay Singh ended up withdrawing from the tournament because of the possibility that, in his words, he did not “want to go back and know that a women beat me” (Narey, 2015). Opinions such as these serve to create the female athlete as the “other,” and such hierarchal effects of language contribute to the narrative of othering (Aull et al, 2013, p50). On a lighter note, this video here makes fun of the discourse of being chicked during a charity event in which Sorenstam finds herself the only woman within the group.  

To address the concerns of not hearing enough opinions from female commentators, as referenced by the statistic shown earlier about the overwhelming commentary of male voices, it is worth looking into how this is made possible. While keeping in mind a democratic principle that there is a “charge to be pluralist and to reflect the diversity in the wider culture” (Hardin et al, 2006, p38), a study on the public’s perception of sports commentators concluded that the gender-appropriateness of the sport did influence attitudes. For example, those who contributed to the study felt more comfortable with a women offering analysis on female competitions and male analysts offering their opinions on competitions for men. Such is the case when former players or coaches are hired to offer their live opinions of the event having been in similar situations in their careers. Although regarding this, there is a conflict in which people felt more comfortable with a male analyst offering insight on a female game rather than a female offering insight on a male game or performance. Exceptions for this notion were in traditionally more feminized sports such as volleyball or figure skating. Therefore if the sport was traditionally associated with demonstrations of masculinity, than a female analyst was deemed to be out of place by the results of the study (Greer et al, 2012, p75).

In Annika Sorenstam accepting a sponsor’s exemption and deciding to play with the men, this offers a peculiar situation. How can any analyst give accurate insight into exactly what she is going through having never experienced anything remotely close to it? Babe Zaharias, the woman who attempted the same feat 58 years ago may be able to give somewhat of an accurate opinion, but when reflecting on the matter, there was not the same amount of media coverage back in those days. Furthermore, because of conflicting perceptions of women commentating on sports, we often see female sideline reporters with their sole duty of passing on information to the male analysts in the broadcast booth. For example, CBS who broadcasts PGA Tour events on television occasionally employs Dottie Pepper, a former LPGA Tour player to conduct on course interviews, or pass on information such as how the ball is lying in the rough, bunker, etc. She may discuss with the audience how she would go about playing the shot, but the final say seems to always remain with the retired male professional speaking from the broadcast booth. Based on these suggestions, it “indicates an uphill battle for female sports analysts who attempt to give opinions about masculine sports” (Greer et al, 2012, p76).

Paige Spiranac features on the cover of Golf Digest (Golf Digest)

In being in a sports media landscape overrepresented by males, this has led to opinions mostly originating from males as well as presumptions of a male dominated audience. We can see the effects of this theory through how women are sometimes depicted in pictures such as in this magazine cover. An example we have above is of female golfer Paige Spiranac on the cover of popular golf magazine Golf Digest. The magazine’s purpose was to address the future of women’s golf and many have argued that teenage sensation Lydia Ko, who is already No. 1 in the world, would have been a much better choice for the cover. Offering an opinion, Hall of Famer Julie Inkster said that it is “where our society is right now. I don’t agree with it, but I think people could learn more in an article about Lydia,” (Lydia Ko dragged into row over provocative photo on US golf magazine cover, 2016) referencing the sexual nature of the image. In this statement she is alluding to the “sexual difference that permeates sports media, making gender norms so ubiquitous that it is difficult to remember that they are social constructs” (Godoy-Pressland et al, 2014, p808). Also, by looking at the cover we can see that the picture is sexualized to suit the male gaze. Typically, we would not see a male on the cover of a popular magazine unless they were highly influential in the game for their ability or skills on the course. Spiranac, being someone who achieved fame through acquiring many followers on social media, does not even play regularly on the LPGA Tour. Furthermore, regarding this controversy it has been argued that visual representations such as these do not reflect the reality of gender relations, but serve to satisfy a social function that attempts to convince society that this is the way the two genders are naturally. By constructing differences between the two sexes, this is done to maintain male hegemony in the sports world (Sherry et al, 2015, p301).

Natalie Gulbis: More Than Just A Pretty Face (California Golf News)

In a more neutral depiction of a female golfer, the above image of Natalie Gulbis holding a trophy and celebrating after a win presents the audience with a non-sexualized image. What stands out here is the words, “More Than A Pretty Face” which is alluding to her actual talent as a golfer and not only her appearance. Although this magazine cover is trying to challenge traditional gender stereotypes, we witness a presumption that the public’s attention will turn to appearance before it does to her skills as a golfer. “Many magazines continue to frame successful women in sport in particular ways which discount or diminish their athletic achievements and focus instead on their appearance” (Couture, 2016, p.124). Both Gulbis and Spiranac have been known to flaunt their good looks in the past on various publications and through social media, and when “female athletes visually present themselves as feminine women first and as athletes second, they perpetuate the hegemonic-masculinity tradition in sports” (Coche, 2014, p117). Since this is the case, they have both been singled out for criticism from their peers as well as by certain media personnel, such as referenced earlier when Inkster voiced her opinion that young teenager Lydia Ko should be on the front cover of Golf Digest instead of Spiranac. In the past, both women have entered tournaments after receiving sponsor exemptions, and the obvious question comes up whether or not they would have received them if it were not for their physical appearance. After Spiranac participated in a tournament in Dubai, one of the highest purses all year, “the extent of the negativity aimed at her left her shaken and, understandably, very upset” (McEwan, 2016). Many argued that because the women on tour are competing to make a living, a golfer’s spot should not be taken just because a woman has a successful social media profile. Furthermore, by accepting these sponsor exemptions for publicity reasons, their true talent as a golfer comes under question especially when they do not perform up to the tour’s standards.

This blog post has demonstrated that women in sports continue to face stereotypes when they are being judged on their performance, such as continuous references to Sorenstam’s composure or courage during the 2003 Colonial instead of her raw talent as a golfer. In the instances of Natalie Gulbis and Paige Spiranac accepting publicity as well as entry into tournaments for appearance based reasons, this further upholds male hegemonic practices of giving more importance to a female athlete’s feminine traits over their talent. In reference to the characteristics of women in sport often being sexualized, it must be remembered that gender is only a social construct that is acted or performed, and these performances of gender are not something that is ingrained in us from birth, but rather learnt. Therefore, if the audience as well as the commentators on these events can have a talent first and appearance second attitude, this can generate positive effects on society as a whole.


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