Let’s all be realistic, women’s sport has had its (more than) fair share of struggles. There is a serious abundance of issues that have come about in the realm of professional female athletics, and overtime, alongside societal shifts and movements, the largest being feminism, we’ve seen many of the mentioned issues gradually vanish. While the inclusion of female athletes in global, professional sports competitions has become somewhat less of an issue, it’s the actual representation of these female athletes that seems to set them apart from their male counterparts in recent years. As Heywood and Dworkin point out in their article titled Sport and the Stealth Feminism of the Third Wave, female athlete media representation was the new movement to root for within the 90s. According to her article, the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia were a pivotal time for female athletes, as it was their turn to receive media coverage similar to that of their male counterparts (2003). Nonetheless, following this “pivotal” period in time for female athletes in regard to media representation, there’s something still strange and different about the way professional female athletes are interviewed and commentated on in today’s sports media. Some may say quantitatively, female athletes are receiving more equivalent media representation to their male counterparts, even though that could also be argued heavily. However, qualitatively, the media representation of female athletes is still, very questionable. Comparatively analyzing multiple video examples from various sports media outlets, I attempt to answer the question: how does sports media represent female athletes differently from male athletes?
By briefly looking at the history of women in sport, one may have a firmer understanding of where we’re at today. When looking at the IOC’s Timeline of women in Olympic sport, we can see that the first females were allowed to participate in Olympic sport in 1900, however, they were limited to a small handful of sports in which they could compete in. Over the decades, each Olympics allowed female athletes to compete in an increased amount of sporting events. A lot of arguments regarding women’s participation in specific sports are rooted from a “medical” argument. For instance, Gian-Franco Kasper, the president of FIS (International Federation of Skiing, in 2005, defended the ban of female athletes in ski jumping simply because it is “too dangerous for women and seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view” (Robinson, 2013).
As well, an even more recent issue arose when the discussion of women participating in the 2016 Rio Olympics for canoeing came about. Sorry, did everyone know that women couldn’t compete in Olympic canoeing, dating back to two years ago? I didn’t. According to the Academy of Physical Education in Gdansk, Poland, as Robinson states, canoeing has a negative effect on the pelvic muscles of women, thus leading to potential conception issues later in life (2013). Bear in mind, this study and suggestion was all conducted and stated by male coaches (Robinson, 2013).
While discussing the history of women in sport may seem unnecessary and redundant, highlighting their history provides a necessary framework to better understand not only the progress of women in sport, but also the historical issues that seem to linger. Thus far, the issue at hand, and lingering from history, seems to be the consideration of female athletes as females first, and athletes second. The concern for women’s socially constructed characteristics are the ultimate priority when allowing them access into sports. While the consideration of female athletes as females first, and athletes second is a core concern in their admittance into sports, it is also a dominant theme in sports media representations.
History of female athletes’ femininity in media
The notable misrepresentation of female athletes has been happening for an incredibly long time. For instance, in 1952, When the Negro American (baseball) League, the NAL in the US, began to lose spectatorship due to the integration of male players from the NAL into the MLB, owners strategized with the utilization of several female players (Davis, 2016). When Syd Pollock, owner of the NAL league team, the Indianapolis Clowns, decided to sign Toni Stone, a female, to his previously all male team, he attempted to grab the media’s attention and spectatorship. When looking at the media’s representation of Stone’s signing to the NAL, the terms “gal,” “lady,” “wearers of skirts and panties,” “feminine wiles” were repeatedly used in order to emphasize her femininity (Davis, 2016). Another similar situation is noted in Samantha King’s article regarding Sheryl Swoopes’ experience of coming out as an WNBA player. In the article, it is noted that while Swoopes had come out as lesbian to the media, the media was sure to still hang onto and reiterate her characteristics as a motherly and caring individual (King, 2009). It was almost as if her athletic capabilities alone couldn’t maintain the respect she deserved, following her coming out, thus her femininity was highlighted heavily. The examples mentioned provide us with some historical evidence that media has had the tendency to represent female athletes as female first, and athlete second, for quite some time now, and the issue prevails in today’s sports media.
How do they prioritize the female over the athlete?
It’s important to acknowledge that there is certainly a pattern of discourses of the “female” construct that the media actually emphasize and prioritize when reporting. In Swoopes’ case, it is shown that there was a push to consistently promote her heterosexuality, even though she identified as homosexual. Krane et al. point out in their article Living the Paradox: Female Athletes Negotiate Femininity and Muscularity, that the “hegemonic femininity” that is consistently expected of female athletes is heavily associated with heterosexuality (2004). Fink states that the media has a frequent tendency to shine light on the individual (female athlete) as a wife, mother, in order to protect the athlete from the “dreaded” and “deviant” “lesbian” title (2015). Daniels and Wartena also explain that the sexualization of athletes has become a problem (2011). Daniels and Wartena conducted a study with 104 adolescent boys, showing them performance and sexualized images of female athletes, they explained that a majority of the adolescents viewed the female athlete as solely a sexual object, and not an athlete when shown sexualized images of the athlete (2011). Because of media representations, young fans, as well, fail to think of these athletes as athletes and more-so objects of sex. Although this dilemma regarding female athlete’s representation in media hasn’t been a primary discussion in the “women in sport” topic, the concern has gained rise and caused for social media movements and uproar.
For instance, #covertheathlete, started 2-3 years ago, attempted to depict the inconsistencies of sports media reporting with different genders through this video:
Another exemplifier of the issue that I found online was this brutal game created by a twitter user, @TheMeganFord:
When trying to answer the question myself, of how female athletes are represented differently in the media, I decided to create my own comparative analysis utilizing various sports interviews and commentaries.
Eugenie Bouchard’s interviews from the 2014 Australian Open are a prime example to use. Rather than exploring her incredible talents that she had just displayed at the age of 19, the Australian Open reporters, instead, attempted to produce an expose on Genie’s personal life and celebrity crushes, again, emphasizing Genie’s heterosexuality:
Crige-worthy, I know. I’m sitting here wondering the same thing as you; why is this relevant to her success? To try and make this comparative analysis consistent, I tried to find footage of a male athlete from the Australian open, in the exact same year, to potentially see if there were similar methods of reporting throughout the same tournament. I found a post-game interview with Rafael Nadal and felt extremely blessed, but also disgusted with the footage I was able to find: (Skip to 1:00)
So, Rafael Nadal pretty much did the media’s job for them in this interview, without even having a female athlete at hand, which I was really not expecting when I first chose this interview. After 1 minute and 10 seconds of acknowledging Rafael’s performance, Rafael single-handedly sexualized the entire female tennis player community when asked about which players (both male and female), he prefers to watch. While Rafael prefers to watch Roger Federer for his athletic skill, it “depends” on who he likes to watch when the females are playing. Although Nadal is quick to silence himself, the crowd, spectators at home, and the reporter had a good understanding of how Rafael picks and chooses his favourite female tennis players to watch. While the focus on Nadal’s interview, as expected, was focused mainly on his talents, Nadal also reiterated what many sports media representations of female athletes do, and that was acknowledge female athletes for their femininity first, and their athletic capabilities second, or in Nadal’s case, not at all.
Even sometimes, it isn’t just blatant sexualization of female athletes that makes the reporting about them so different. There’s other discourses about the female construct that sneak their way into the scripts and interviews of sports reporters when interviewing and commentating on female athletes. This actually became apparent in a recent incident with Bode Miller commentating on Anna Veith’s first run in the women’s GS of the 2018 winter Olympics:
While Bode isn’t sexualizing Anna Veith in his commentary, there’s still an unnecessary focus on her personal life, and her capability to manage a work-life balance, which was the reason behind most of the angered spectators. However, in this comparative analysis, I do acknowledge that there most definitely are comments out there on male athletes’ marriages and personal lives within sports commentary and interviews, nonetheless, if analyzed carefully, you may likely still discover unfair differences.
For instance, while keeping with the ski racing theme for consistency in this case study, I found some commentary on “Mr. GS,” Ted Ligety, back in 2015, following his own marriage:
At 0:16, the commentator of Universal Sports Network points out Ted Ligety’s marriage over the summer, before the season. At surface level, the commentary between this Universal Sports excerpt, and the Pyeongchang excerpt seem pretty similar. However, the juxtaposed commentaries reiterate a classic, misogynistic discourse.
While Bode Miller points out that Anna Veith’s recent marriage most likely had a negative impact on her skiing capabilities in the previous season. The commentator for Universal Sports Network argues that Ted Ligety’s recent marriage will be an uplifting and motivating factor in Ligety’s upcoming season. The subtle, yet at the same time, stark contrast in these two commentaries echos the negative discourse around women managing their home-lives while also succeeding in a profession. Darroch and Hillsburg suggest, in the context of long distance running, that there is indeed the expectation of female athletes to be incapable of balancing their role as a professional athlete, as well as a mother and wife (2017). Current examples of this expectation were shown by the news media’s reaction to Serena William’s pregnancy announcement. The assumption from most was that Serena was going to retire, supposedly because being a mom would simply take over her life and love for tennis. Thus, while we can argue the blatant sexualization and heteronormativity of female athletes is what sets their media coverage apart from male athletes, we can also see subtler, but negative discourses uttered in this coverage, as well.
Following the provided comparative analysis of different representations of male and female athletes, from various outlets of sports media, it can be concluded, that there are indeed some differences in the ways female athletes are represented in the media from men. By emphasizing femininity and heterosexuality, the media begins to take the focus on the athletes’ athleticism from the female athlete. By improperly representing these athletes, sports media keeps negative discourses regarding the female alive. Its 2018 now, and probably time sports media stop and have a look at what they could do differently to better represent the athlete that’s currently being shadowed by the female. Could hiring more female athletes as reporters and analysts potentially solve this? Does simply spreading awareness make things better? Is it a wider, patriarchal/societal-level problem that needs to change before the media does? The following questions need to be addressed by sports media companies before any change in representation can occur for these suffering female athletes.
Aimar, C., Baird, S., Choi, P., Kauer, K., Krane, V. (2004). Living the Paradox: Female Athletes Negotiate Femininity and Muscularity, Sex Roles: a Journal of Research, 50(5-6), 315-330.
Cover The Athlete. Retrieved from http://covertheathlete.com/ .
Daniels, E. & Wartena, H. (2011). Athlete or Sex Symbol: What Boys think of Media Representations of Female Athletes. Sex Roles: a Journal of Research, 65(7-8), 566-579.
Darroch, F. & Hillsburg, H. (2017). Keeping Pace: Mother Versus Athlete Identity among Elite Long Distance Runners. Women’s Studies International Forum, 62, 61.
Davis, A.R. (2016). No League of Their Own: Baseball, black women, and the politics of representation. Radical History Review, 125, 74-96.
Fink, J.S. (2015). Female Athletes, Women’s Sport, and the Sport Media Commercial Complex: Have we Really “come a long way, baby” ?. Sport Management Review, 18(3), 331-342.
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. (pp56-85). Minneapolis, MN. University of Minnesota Press.
International Olympic Committee (March 5, 2018). Key Dates in the History of Women in the Olympics. https://www.olympic.org/women-in-sport/background/key-dates
King, S. (2009). Homonormativity and the Politics of Race: Reading Sheryl Swoopes. Journal of Lesbian Studies, 13(3), 272-290.
Lewis, A. (May 22, 2017). Can Serena Williams Return to the Top of Tennis after giving birth?. CNN. Retrieved from: https://edition.cnn.com/2017/04/21/tennis/serena-williams-challenges-of-pregnancy/
Rapaport, D. (February 14, 2018). Bode Miller Suggest Skiiers’ Struggles Due to Marriage, Then Apologizes on Air. Sports Illustrated. Retrieved from: https://www.si.com/olympics/2018/02/14/bode-miller-nbc-analyst-olympic-skiing-marriage
Robinson, L. (2013). Women’s Sport: Still Waitresses at the Banquet of Life. Canadian Dimension, 47(7), 24-25.