Sports Sexism: A Quick Background
Sexism in sports media is nothing new. It’s no longer surprising, it’s just normal. As women, we are only accepted into the sports world if we are prepared to be sexualised. We are bombarded by the sexualisation of women in sports every single day, and megaevents such as the Olympics only magnify the issue. Sports media plays a big role in perpetuating these problems and furthering these representations of women, whether it be print, broadcast, or online media. What I find the most troubling is the online world of sports media, not only because sexism runs rampant on the internet, but because it has the greatest effect on youth.
With the emergence of the internet and Web 2.0, we were bound to see a big change in sports journalism, and many thought that change would be positive, considering the number of voices that could now be heard. But that ability, in and of itself, is a double-edged sword. Yes, we can now gather perspectives from many different people, but we can also hear the sexist bullshit that a lot of the world seems to believe in. This takes form in many different ways, but what I’m most interested in is how so many so-called “reputable” journalists get away with making ridiculous and sexist comments.
Take this year’s summer Olympics in Rio for example; approximately 45% of the athletes were female. Yet here we are, listening to the Chicago Tribune call Corey Cogdell-Unrein the “wife of a Bears’ lineman” (Andrews, 2016). Or hearing about Katie Ledecky (a kickass 19-year old swimmer, by the way) being the “female Michael Phelps”; you know, because we can’t understand women’s success unless we compare it to that of men. Even superstar Simone Biles was called the “Kobe Bryant of gymnastics” (Andrews, 2016). In Serena Williams’ letter about sexism in sports, she states: “people call me one of the ‘world’s greatest female athletes’. Do they say Lebron is one of the world’s best male athletes?” (Hatch, 2016). The fact that this was so rampant at the Rio Olympics this past summer is concerning; haven’t we moved past this yet? It’s 2016, how is this still considered journalism? How is this acceptable for us, as a society?
And not only do journalists make these comments, but when female athletes fire back they’re labeled as bitches. Take Danica Patrick, for example. She’s an accomplished race-car driver, yet a reporter felt the need to comment on her appearance by calling her sexy. Her response? “I don’t quite understand – when you’re referring to a girl, a female athlete in particular – you have to use the word ‘sexy’. Is there any other word you can use to describe me?” (Tamarkin, 2015). Another male reporter then implied that she was a bitch for simply not wanting to be defined in terms of her appearance. Nice.
Not only do these “journalists” make sexist comments, but half the time they just ignore (or conveniently forget) the existence of women in sports altogether. Take, for example, that time when a reporter congratulated Andy Murray, all-star tennis player, for being the first person to win two gold medals in tennis at the Rio Olympics. Murray corrected him, because Venus and Serena Williams have certainly won four gold medals each, and last time I checked they’re still tennis players (Maine, 2016). Maybe, just maybe, this reporter wasn’t aware he was wrong because the media coverage of women’s sports is so abysmal. Aside from the Olympics, which is two weeks every four years, the coverage of women’s sports either completely flatlines or is a very small percentage of that allocated to men’s sports (Jones, 2006, p. 124). Given the fact that we don’t hear about female athletes’ successes in the media nearly as much, can we really blame this reporter for his comment?
And when we do actually hear about female athletes, the internet is unimpressed. We see a stream of “she’s not a real athlete” and “she’s not even a 10”, comments that question why on earth we would waste our precious sports media on female athletes.
Reporters repeatedly ask female athletes extremely dumb, sexist questions and no one even bats an eye. They’re asked about their love life, their outfit, and even their weight (horrifically true) instead of being asked about sports (you know, the reason for the interview). So, if this is no problem, why not ask male athletes the exact same questions? Well, because that would just be ridiculous, wouldn’t it? These are athletes, the man’s man. They are there to talk about sports and nothing else, because that’s what they do. But isn’t that also what female athletes do? If we would never even think to ask male athletes these questions, why is it acceptable to ask women? Not only is it irrelevant, it’s completely inappropriate. Ask a male athlete to “give you a twirl” and let me know what response you get.
Yes, athletes are in the spotlight. But they’re in the spotlight because of their talent in a certain arena of the sporting world, not because of their love lives and outfit choices. Seems pretty simple to me.
It’s well known that social networking sites are important spaces of expression and identity construction for adolescents, especially adolescent females, in the new millennium (Heinecken, 2015, p. 1036). They offer arenas in which girls feel they are free from judgement, but that clearly isn’t always the case. In fact, social networking sites have become one of the main arenas in which we enact our judgements upon others. In terms of female athletes, these judgements generally surround their appearance; if they’re too muscular they’re masculine but if they’re too dainty then they aren’t fit to be an athlete. As Couture (2016) explains, “the athletic female body represents both an idealized and glorified representation of femininity, a self-disciplined and health-conscious, responsible body but also a subversive or deviant body … their bodies risk being read as off-putting or as masculine” (p. 124). And that’s all too true when you consider the success of athletes such as Venus and Serena Williams. Time after time they have been referred to as the “Williams Brothers”; accusations of them being transgender women have been flying around ever since the beginning of their success. The thought is that, naturally, they couldn’t possibly be as strong and successful as they are unless they’re actually men. These accusations are honestly horrifying.
Despite all these judgements, all we seem to care about is what they look like. And for young girls, this has an effect. Teenage girls can lose confidence, self-esteem, and independence at an early point in adolescence due to harmful cultural messages and societal pressures (Bissell & Birchall, 2007, p. 3). Seeing these beautiful, fit athletes being judged for their bodies has an effect on the young girls that see this unfold in the media and online. If these famous athletes’ bodies aren’t good enough, how could theirs possibly be?
On the other hand, with the power of the internet and web 2.0, female athletes have a much larger platform through which to communicate with their fans. Twitter and other technologies have permanently altered the dynamics of the athlete-fan interaction (Schultz & Sheffer, 2014). This can have a positive effect and I think it allows us to see our heroes as real people with real feelings, and hopefully that makes it harder for people to judge them anonymously on the internet. But of course, as we know, the internet doesn’t always work this way. It also provides female athletes with a platform to encourage young girls and women to participate in sports, regardless of what they’re seeing in the media.
Along with trivializing their achievements and likening them to male athletes, sports media and the advancements of Web 2.0 have contributed to the sexualisation of female athletes. Many scholars have noted that male athletes are generally categorized in terms of physicality and athleticism, whereas their female counterparts are evaluated in terms of personality, looks and appearance, and background (Billings, Halone, & Denham, 2002, p. 296). This can be seen in an example from Vancouver’s own Olympic games; before the Olympics even began, men and women athletes were portrayed in very different lights in print media. While Lindsey Vonn was on the cover of Sports Illustrated posing in a sexualized way, Shaun White was on the cover of Sports Illustrated for Kids (Angelini, MacArthur, & Billings, 2012, p. 267). At this point it almost feels as though the sexism we’re seeing in sports media is inherent to our media system, and even society, in general. It seems as though no one is even questioning it anymore. Just look at what happens when you search the most viewed videos for “women’s sports” on YouTube:
And now, the most viewed “men’s sports” videos:
It’s plainly obvious just from these two searches just how rampant the sexualisation of female athletes and women in sports really is (especially in the realm of the internet). If that isn’t the perfect example then I don’t know what is.
Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue: The Outdated Brainchild of the 50s
Now, what could be a better example of traditional sports media than Sports Illustrated, right? It’s been around, sexualising women and female athletes, since 1954. It’s America’s leading sports publication, with a total readership of 23 million, 18 million of which are men; this means that 19% of adult males in the US read it each week (Plunkett, 2006). Considering 18 million of its 23 million readers are men, it makes sense that the magazine is geared towards their interests. Thus, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue was born. The Swimsuit Issue came about at a time when rampant, casual sexism was to be expected. But as society has moved on from this, Sports Illustrated hasn’t. Creepy men everywhere wait in anticipation for this sexy issue every February. But don’t take my word for it; who better to explain this than John Oliver?!
So…Where Do We Go From Here?
Honestly, this issue is a difficult one to resolve. In my mind, it seems pretty simple: stop treating women like objects created for your visual pleasure. But clearly that simple concept doesn’t make sense to a lot of the world. So how do we fix a problem that so many people are already working towards a solution for? In my opinion, it takes intervention from male athletes; if we see them as the true “authority” on all things sports, then it makes sense that they would be able to authenticate female athletes as just athletes. We know that sport-related media is a “prime site for the ideological construction of gender differences” (Couture, 2016, p. 126), which makes this more than just an issue of female athletes being mistreated; it’s an issue of our society’s dominant ideologies and what we’re teaching young people. Growing up in a society so focused on internet-mediated communication, things like this are bound to have an effect on our youth, and they already have. There is reason to believe that young girls who actively participate in sports are more likely to have a higher self-esteem than their non-athletic peers (Bissell & Birchall, 2007, p. 6). This research tells us that we should be encouraging female athletes, not sexualising them and tearing them down.
Andrews, B. (2016, August 9). The Olympics Are Chock-Full of Sexist Bullshit, and It’s Still Only the First Week. Mother Jones. Retrieved from: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/08/sexism-olympics-katie-ledecky-is-amazeballs
Angelini, J. R., MacArthur, P. J., & Billings, A. C. (2012). What’s The Gendered Story? Vancouver’s Prime Time Olympic Glory on NBC. Journal Of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 56(2), 261-279. doi:10.1080/08838151.2012.678515
Billings, A. C., Halone, K. K., & Denham, B. E. (2002). “Man, That Was a Pretty Shot”: An Analysis of Gendered Broadcast Commentary Surrounding the 2000 Men’s and Women’s NCAA Final Four Basketball Championships. Mass Communication & Society, 5(3), 295-315.
Bissell, K., & Birchall, K. (2007). Playing Like a Girl: Perceived Influence of the Media & Parents and Body Self-Esteem in Adolescent Female Athletes. Conference Papers — International Communication Association, 1-53.
Couture, J. (2016). Triathlon Magazine Canada and the (Re-)Construction of Female Sporting Bodies. Sociology of Sport Journal, 33(2), 124-134.
Hatch, J. (2016, November 29). Serena Williams Wrote a Kickass Letter About Sexism in Sports (And Beyond). The Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/serena-williams-wrote-a-kickass-letter-about-sexism-in-sports-and-beyond_us_583d8d2ce4b0860d6116625d
Heinecken, D. (2015). “So Tight in the Thighs, So Loose in the Waist”. Feminist Media Studies, 15(6), 1035-1052. doi:10.1080/14680777.2015.1033638
Jones, D. (2006). 8. The representation of female athletes in online images of successive Olympic Games. Pacific Journalism Review, 12(1), 108-129.
[LastWeekTonight]. (2015, February 15). Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue – How is this still a thing?: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. [Video File]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8QNDRbjong
Maine, D. (2016, August 15). Andy Murray Politely Reminds Reporter of the Existence of Venus and Serena Williams. ESPN. Retrieved from: http://www.espn.com/espnw/culture/the-buzz/article/17307649/andy-murray-politely-reminds-reporter-existence-venus-serena-williams
Plunkett, J.W. (2006). Plunkett’s Sports Industry Almanac 2007. Plunkett Research Ltd.
Schultz, B & Sheffer, M. (2013). “Local TV sports and the Internet.” In Billings, A. & Hardin, M. (Eds.). The Routledge Handbook of Sport and New Media. New York: Routledge. 110-118.
Tamarkin, S. (2015, July 16). 17 Times Female Athletes Had to Put Up With Sexist Bullshit. Buzzfeed. Retrieved from: https://www.buzzfeed.com/sallytamarkin/wet-otters-and-sexy-bitches?utm_term=.usV53w77Xj#.qvE5drnnQ3