A couple of years ago, leading up to the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Finals in Vancouver, I found myself in a discussion with two good friends about a news story surrounding the controversy over whether the athletes would have to play on artificial turf instead of real grass. This fight for equality, which was spearheaded by America’s Abby Wambach and Germany’s Nadine Angerer, was brought to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario in fall of 2014, naming FIFA, the international governing body for soccer, and the Canadian Soccer Association in their case, citing reasons of “illegal sex discrimination”.
In a public statement regarding the complaint, the group’s attorney, Hampton Dellinger, said: “Men’s World Cup tournament matches are played on natural grass while CSA and FIFA are relegating female players to artificial turf. The difference matters: plastic pitches alter how the game is played, pose unique safety risks and are considered inferior for international competition. While the players ultimately withdrew the complaint in January of 2015, they succeeded in drawing significant media attention to the cause and the pitch for their final game at BC place was changed to grass. Regarding the case, Wambach stated “I am hopeful that the players’ willingness to contest the unequal playing fields — and the tremendous public support we received during the effort — marks the start of even greater activism to ensure fair treatment when it comes to women’s sports.”
“Men’s World Cup tournament matches are played on natural grass while CSA and FIFA are relegating female players to artificial turf. The difference matters: plastic pitches alter how the game is played, pose unique safety risks and are considered inferior for international competition.” – Hampton Dellinger
While players were protesting against turf for a number of reasons — such as the fact that fewer injuries occur on grass — the athlete’s bottom line argument was that FIFA had always provided their association’s male athletes with that standard. I agreed with the player’s complaint, believing that the competitors should be — in the most literal sense — on the same playing field as men, but was surprised to find myself defending this point to two women who I know to be thoughtful, intelligent, and pro-gender equality. They argued that because the women’s teams did not draw in the same audience numbers as their male counterpart, it was fair that FIFA would not invest the same resources into both leagues. They suggested that if the women’s teams were to gain the same level of popularity, then at that point it would make sense for FIFA to offer them the same benefits, but until then… eh, what do you expect?
At the time, I did not have the words to articulate why this circular argument offended me so strongly, I just knew it was wrong. What I didn’t have in my arsenal was the knowledge to debunk and expose the hegemonic gender assumptions at work. I know I’m not the only person having these frustrating conversations, so I hope that this post can serve as a primer for other people searching for the words to fight back against disputes .
For more complete coverage of the FIFA dispute, check out Melissa Tan’s coverage roundup on Storify here.
Why is it that women’s sports continue to be marked as less important than men’s? How does the media’s framing of women in sports contribute to our understanding of normalized gender roles? Female athletes dedicate enormous amounts of time and energy to their field, not to mention considerable financial investments to pay for coaches, equipment, competition fees and travel expenses. They sweat, bleed, and push their bodies to the limits just like their male counterparts, yet when compared to the level of coverage given to male-dominated sports in the mainstream media, their efforts are consistently marginalized by the media. Using the examples of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, along with studies analyzing gender representation in the 2004 and 2010 Olympics, this post will explore how the mainstream media frames women’s sport, how that framing reinforces patriarchal gender norms, and why this matters in a larger context.
Sports are not apolitical. The media play a powerful role in setting the agenda of the dominant class through the distribution of images and video, as well as through the language used to speak about players (Angelini, et al, 2012). While the media is not capable of telling people what to think, it is “stunningly successful in telling [people] what to think about” (Billings, 2007, p.330). This is achieved through framing. Producers, editors, journalists and team owners act as gatekeepers, guiding our interpretation of events, deciding who and what deserve emphasis, and excluding that which does not further their own interests. This is not meant to imply malicious intent; framing is a necessary human tool, a way of organizing and making sense of the world. The problem is that more often than not the messages perpetuated by the mainstream media work to maintain the image of men as worthy of attention while disregarding the interests and accomplishments of women. But how?
In a study comparing NBC’s coverage of track and field events at the 2004 Summer Olympics, a 2009 study found that even in purportedly gender neutral sports, events had markedly different visual framings. Male events contained a significantly higher number of closeups, panning angles, slow motion and quick cuts between shots, all of which served to heighten visual interest and create an air of exciting tension. In comparison, the exact same events in the women’s categories contained a higher number of static long distance shots, fewer cuts between competitors, and tended to show the athletes from straight on or higher angles that visually reduced their stature (Greer, et al, 2009,). Whether or not these were conscious decisions on the part of the producers, these framing choices worked to visually reinforce the commonly held belief that men’s sports are “naturally” more exciting by presenting a dulled down, inferior image of women.
In a separate analysis of gender representation at the Olympic games, Andrew Billings analyzed the content of 70 hours of worth of footage from NBC’s coverage of gymnastics, track and field, swimming, and diving at the 2004 Athen’s summer games. Of all the events in the games, these four are the overwhelming audience favourites, accounting for 85% of all primetime coverage (Billings, 2007). Billings focused on the vocabulary of the commentators and the way in which competitors were described across events. The study, which found the highest gender discrepancy within the gymnastic events, uncovered not only that men were subject to less overall criticism than women, but that colour commentators were more likely to attribute men’s accomplishments to skill while women’s achievements were chalked up to luck.
When it came to descriptions of the athlete’s bodies, men were praised for their muscles and athletic build — relevant attributes to the world of sport — while comments about women often centred on the attractiveness, hair, outfits, and overall bodily grace. These language cues reproduce and reinforce a gender ideology of worth and belonging, contributing to “the consistent portrayal of women as second class athletes” (Billings, 2007, p.331). Jesse Couture expands on this explaining that particularly in Western sport culture, essentialist gendered double standards play a heavy role in how the body is read.
These visual and verbal readings work to naturalize ideas about strength, ability, athleticism and masculinity (Couture, 2016, p.124). Couture explains this, writing: “as an embodied paradox, the athletic female body represents both an idealized and glorified representation of femininity, a self-disciplined …but also a subversive or deviant body (Krane in Couture, 2016, p.124).
We see this discrepancy in representation play out in regard to gendered differences in promotion and airtime parity as well. In an analysis of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, researchers assessed which athletes were mentioned in promotions and featured in story segments, how often, and which time slots their events were featured in. The study fount that 62% of NBC’s total primetime coverage of Team USA was focused on male only sports, despite that fact that the female athletes fared better on the podium. Of the ten most mentioned athletes in the games, only two were women. As well as accumulating fewer mentions on air, women’s events were disproportionally assigned less desirable time slots, pushed to secondary networks, or even preempted by men’s events part way through (Angelini et.al, 2012).
All of these findings combined show how sports media is used to reinforce the interests of the dominant hegemony while pushing the interests of women to the sidelines and yet the study also found that in interviews with correspondents about how they delivered the news, there was an apparent belief that they were being equally representative, a belief that was shown to be false when looking at the numbers. This points to the fact that hegemonic norms often work unconsciously and under the surface.
Despite the fact that women have been participating and excelling in sports since long before the advent of broadcast media, expectations surrounding hegemonic femininity and female ability prevail. In order to look critically at the barrage of essentialist, naturalizing messages we ingest on a daily basis, we need to examine these patriarchal mechanisms of framing and realize that they are harmful to everybody, not just women and girls.
In an article on the social construction of interest in girl’s sports, feminist sports sociologist Cheryl Cooky stated: “resistance against women’s presence in sport continues today as a result of sport’s historical foundation to teach boys and men hegemonic masculinity” (Cooky, 2009, p.260). When defined by the patriarchy, these lines between masculinity and femininity are rigidly fixed and oppositional. Boys and men must be active, hyper-masculine, assertive, physically strong, in control of their emotions, and sexually dominant. Girls and women are then left to be defined as the opposite: passive, ultra feminine, nurturing, gentle to the point of weakness, and ruled by emotion.
These gendered ideals are cemented into the building blocks of our organizational logic so that we become so used to them that we cease to be aware of the subtle ways in which men are privileged (Acker, 1990). This brings us back to my original example of the FIFA Women’s World Cup as a perfect example of how the media’s messages become assimilated into thought to the point where we have trouble seeing differential bias in action. Language frames who is seen as deserving and who is not. It can also be used in more subtle ways off camera to reinforce the idea that in order to succeed, one must strive to play like the boys. Whether through language, airtime, or camera angles, the media consistently uses their platform of power to produce and reproduce an image of female athletics as lesser than by trivializing their efforts.
The lack of representation in the media is political and has implications outside of the world of sport. In order to change this, we must realize the degree to which visible representation in the media matters. It affects our understanding and acceptance of the Other. An argument persists that the reason there is less media attention paid to women in sports is that the interest for more is just not there. I refuse to accept this as a viable explanation or a reason to maintain the status quo.
We as a society are used to viewing male stories as human stories. We see this in sports, literature, film, gaming… the list could go on. Women and girls are used to empathizing with and investing interest in stories of the opposite gender. This is not because we are actually more interested in men’s exploits than women’s, it is because if we only read and watched female driven stories, we would quickly run out of mainstream material. Unfortunately, this is and has always been a one-way street. Boys do not learn to cheer for the girls because it is not part of our patriarchal culture for them to take what would be considered a passive role. Beth Quinn attributes this to what she calls “compulsory disempathy” towards women, part of the ongoing conditioning process of masculinity, which works to continually reinforce a divided hierarchy between the sexes (Quinn, 2002, p.392).
Having said that, what better way to teach new social norms than through the world of sports? Investing in opportunities for women is necessary for so many reasons. This is not just a matter of wanting more media coverage for entertainment purposes; equal representation would have lasting effects on future generations. Girls are more likely to participate in sports when they have relatable role models to look up to. If women’s events were to receive equal funding, media promotion, play time, and airtime as men’s, I do not question that an enthusiastic audience would emerge to fill the seats.
Want to learn more? Visit the Tucker Centre for Research on Girls & Women in Sport
Acker, Joan. 1990. “Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations.” Gender & Society 4(2):139-58
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. (2007). From Diving Boards to Pole Vaults: Gendered Athlete Portrayals in the “Big Four” Sports at the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics. Southern Communication Journal, 72(4), 329-344. doi:10.1080/10417940701667563
Cooky, C. (2009). Girls’ Just Aren’t Interested”: The Social Construction of Interest in Girls’ Sports. Sociological Perspectives, 52(2), 259-283.
Couture, J. (2016). Triathlon Magazine Canada and the (Re-)Construction of Female Sporting Bodies. Sociology Of Sport Journal, 33(2), 124-134. doi:10.1123/ssj.2015-0010
Greer, J. D., Hardin, M., & Homan, C. (2009). “Naturally” Less Exciting? Visual Production of Men’s and Women’s Track and Field Coverage During the 2004 Olympics. Journal Of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 53(2), 173-189. doi:10.1080/08838150902907595
Quinn, B. (2002). Sexual Harassment and Masculinity: The Power and Meaning of ”Girl Watching’’. Gender & Society 16: 386, DOI: 10.1177/0891243202016003007
Schultz, Jamie. Qualifying Times: Points of Change in US Women’s Sport. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2014. Print.