“Olympics with women would be incorrect, unpractical, uninteresting, and unaesthetic.”
These were the words from Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee in 1894. He believed women were not strong enough to sustain “certain shocks” and clearly did not see women and males as equal in participating in sports. Why?
Historically, sports and masculinity have always been side by side. As Trolan (2013) states “Men are taught to play sports or watch sports by many different agents such as family, peers, and schools, while, predominantly women are taught that sporting activities are only for men”. Sports was considered a male-dominating field and participating in sports meant that one had to be strong, powerful, and dominate the other opponents. Women and men were created equally and there was no specific indicator or genes to make specifically males more “strong”. So why do we, as a society, often place men in a higher, more powerful position than females? In this case, I believe society has continually reproduced the heteronormative gender scripts through institutions, the media, as well as traditional beliefs such that women are not considered good enough to be a “real” athlete.
What it means to be a male or female is a social construct that produces different ways in which we talk and behave. They are made to distinguish the differences between what a male can do vs. what a female cannot do. Males are to repress their feelings while females are allowed to express their emotions. Whether it is intentional or not, people reproduce these social constructs every day. As Sloops (2012) mentions, gender still remains quite fixed, especially in places such as international competition. To deviate from the norm of those behaviors would be abnormal. For females to be a successful athletes “contradicted a woman’s prescribed societal gender role”(Trolan, 2013).
Women are seen often as having to be feminine, passive, and caring. These characteristics are opposite to what sports are often broadcasted as. As Trolan (2013) states, “Western culture is the embodiment of masculinity” and the feminine ideal body contrasts with the idea of what it means to be a female athlete”. Women athletes are treated differently because of their gender being seen as not good enough to be “true” athletes. They are often categorized as the “weaker” sex because women are deemed un-natural at sports and lacking the skills. However, if women are never given the opportunities and resources to excel in sports, how will they ever gain the skills needed to participate in sports?
Women athletes are often criticized by the media not from their lack of skills but in the way they look, dress, and compete in sports. Media coverage often highlighted the grace and aesthetic appeal of women athletes and reinforce the stereotypical feminine portrayals. The mainstream media has continuously reported, interviewed, and commented on women athletes’ looks and outfits rather than the actual sporting event. Even when women athletes excel in sports more so than their male counterparts, the media do not give them the front page news covers and headlines. Instead, women sports are often merely half a page write up that criticize more about their bodies than actual sporting capabilities. Their accomplishments and success often get dismissed and swept under the table. As Jones et al (1999) state, “Despite the fact that female athletes on the basketball, hockey, and soccer teams (traditional male sports) have achieved at superior performance levels, print media coverage frequently deemphasizes task-relevant aspects of their performance and focuses instead on performance-irrelevant dimensions”. One example of this is the media and peoples comments on Serena Williams “catsuit” during the 2002 U.S Open. The outfit was body-clinging and faux leather which according to many, suggested a deviant sexuality. (Schultz, 2005). Many were disgusted by her outfit choice, yet we should question whether or not it was really necessary to care so much about the way she dressed rather than the way the game was actually played.
We can examine how women bodies can be portrayed and objectified on sports magazine covers. From Sports Illustrated to Time magazine and Women’s Running, female athletes on magazine covers are often simply standing and shown as active or doing some type of sport. Some are simply wearing a sports bra and booty shorts or posing their body in a way that attracts the male gaze. Their chest and butt are often emphasized and glammed. Side captions often discuss how women can achieve a “hot” body and a great butt, or what dress to wear that extenuates their body. In contrast, when we look at the male sports magazine covers, the athletes’ bodies are often in an active shot, running, kicking, and punching. Their bodies are not modeled for pleasure or for looking.
Women athlete bodies are stigmatized if they deviate from traditional gender norms such as being too muscular or too tall. There are a continuous clash and contradiction between being an athlete and being a woman. On one hand, people expect athletes to be aggressive and powerful while on the other hand, there is the standard that woman are expected to hold onto some sort of femininity. Although women athletes may be strong, criticism will then say that they are too masculine. There is a fight for balance between being too masculine yet still needing to act and look feminine. If a woman speaks up about a foul play or unfairness, they are deemed overly emotional. As Kane (2013) mentions “women who played sports, particularly on any serious level, were seen as unfeminine. By their very participation, they challenged what it meant to be female.”
Young children and adolescents are encouraged to participate in sports from a very early age. Sports help us be active, learn leadership skills, and studies have shown that participating in sports helps students physically and psychologically such as boosting self-esteem. The benefits that sports provide helps educates and give young people the skills they need in life, such being able to preserve in the face of obstacles and working alongside peers in a positive light. However, not all young girls and women are able to achieve these skill sets if there is not an equal access of resources to participate in sports between boys and girls.
In the US, it was not until the 1972 Education Amendments Act that the legislation Title IX was passed, which prevented gender discrimination in any educational programming. Both boys and girls were given equal opportunities to participate in sports which led to a boost in the participation of girls. This advertisement shows the effects of female sports participation and how stereotype sayings such as playing “like a girl” are negatively impacted.
This legislation showed its legacy in the 1996 Olympics when female athletes had the “lifetime of opportunities to play” and that there was an “emphasis primarily on women’s skill and achievements”(Heywood, 2003). Thus, it is not that young girls and women do not enjoy or are not good enough to play sports, but that they were not given the chance to do so in the past. Women’s’ participation in the Olympics has steadily risen over the past decade but there are still ongoing discussions on how we can encourage and include females in the world of sports.
On a more positive light, new media such as blogs have paved more ways to promote a diverse and equal field of women athletes, as Corrigan (2014) states “some women’s sports advocates saw blogs as opportune tools for challenging mainstream media’s marginalization and trivialization of female athletes.” Many women sports are largely chosen not to be reported on media other than mega-events such as the Olympics. Why are men sports seen as more worthy to be covered than women? Sports participation in women is getting more attention and traditional norms of femininity are disappearing. One group of Indigenous women in Bolivia are combatting this sexism by achieving what their community thought only men could do.
What are some ways we can ensure equal sporting opportunities for both male and females? One way we can do this is to give chances directly to women to be leaders and coaches for sports teams. They can be inspirational athletes and role models for young girls. Because the sports field is still male-dominated, having female coaches changes the landscape in how we see educators of sports. Women can be seen as powerful and just as knowledgeable about sports as their male coworkers. Females should be taken seriously when being a leader, and not being called out for being too bossy or a bitch. We should avoid negative reinforcement of gender norms in our everyday language when speaking about sports and girls, such as saying things like “you throw like a girl”. Women athletes are just as strong as males and having muscles do not mean they lack femininity. The media should represent women sports as equal as to how they report men sports and focus on sporting skills rather than looks. Social constructs of gender and identity are not able to change within a day. They are gradual and continuous progress from citizens, activists, and society that help to shape the world into an equal place.
Heres to all the women (and men) who play.
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Corrigan, T. F. (2014). The Political Economy of Sports and New Media. In A.C. Billings & M. Hardin (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Sport and New Media (pp.43-54). New York: Routledge.
Davies, Amanda. (2013, August 13). Why has coverage of women’s sport stopped post-Olympics? Retrieved April 07, 2018 from https://www.cnn.com/2013/08/07/sport/olympics-women-equality-attar/
Heywood, L. & Dworkin, S.L. (2003). Sport and the Stealth Feminism of the Third Wave. In, Built to Win: The Female athlete as cultural icon (pp.56-85). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Jones, R., Murrell, A., & Jackson, J. (1999). Pretty Versus Powerful in the Sports Pages. Journal of Sport & Social Issues,23(2), 183-192.
Kane, M., LaVoi, N., & Fink, J. (2013). Exploring Elite Female Athletes’ Interpretations of Sport Media Images. Communication & Sport, 1(3), 269-298.
Ser, Kuang K.K. (2016, August 16). More than 100 years of struggle of gender equality at the Olympics. Retrieved April 07 2018, from https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-08-17/see-120-years-struggle-gender-equality-olympics
Schultz, J. (2005). Reading the Catsuit: Serena Williams and the Production of Blackness at the 2002 U.S. Open. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 29(3), 338-357.
Sloop, J.M. (2012). “This is Not Natural”: Caster Semenya’s Gender Threats. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 29(2), 81-96.
Scott, Alan. H. (2016, August 9). Single Olympics Tweet shows how the male gaze works. Retrieved April 07, 2018 from https://www.someecards.com/news/sports/olympics-prove-male-gaze-exists/
Trolan, E. (2013). The Impact of the Media on Gender Inequality within Sport. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 91, 215-227.
(2017, April 24). The Cholita Climbers of Bolivia Scale Mountains in Skirts. Great Big Story. Retrieved April 07 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGxxvefRk9A
(2017, October 23). 100 Woman: Do the Olympics have a gender gap? Retrieved April 07, 2018, from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-41272613
(2015, January 22). Serena Williams: I wouldn’t ask Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer to twirl. Retrieved April 07 2018 from https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2015/jan/22/serena-williams-australian-open-twirl