Category Archives: sex sells

SI Sportsperson of the Year Cover Image of Serena Williams: Opportunity Missed

Guest Contributors:
Elizabeth Daniels, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
Mary Jo Kane, Ph.D., Director, Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, U of Minnesota
Cheryl Cooky, Ph.D., Associate Professor of American Studies, Purdue University
Nicole M LaVoi, Ph.D., Co-Director, Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, U of Minnesota

 

Sports Illustrated (SI) recently named Serena Williams its Sportsperson of the Year. As scholars who have spent our academic careers examining media coverage of women’s sports, we are thrilled to see a highly accomplished female athlete awarded this most prestigious title. Considering her on-the-court accomplishments in 2015 Williams is clearly worthy, having won three major tennis titles, amassing an overall 53-3 record, and extending her No. 1 ranking for a third consecutive year. Williams has now joined an elite club of past SI winners: Only 8 other women and one women’s team are in this elite group compared to 68 male athletes or men’s teams. It should be noted that Williams is only the second women of color to be awarded this distinction (track & field star Judi Brown King was the first in 1987). This honor is especially poignant on the heels of Williams’ return to the WTA’s Indian Wells Tournament this past spring after a 13-year boycott of the tournament where she endured racist comments from the audience in 2001 about which tournament organizers did nothing. SI noted her commitment to drawing attention to issues of race in sport was part of why Williams was selected. Serena Williams has proven herself to be a champion time and time again despite discriminatory and harmful distractions leveled at her by sport audiences and media. For example, she was subjected to critiques of her muscularity this summer in an article in The New York Times on body image in sport, which some argued was a thinly veiled commentary regarding black women’s bodies and how they do not fit white, middle-class norms of beauty.

Serena Williams SI Sportsperson of the Year 2015
Serena Williams SI Sportsperson of the Year 2015

In spite of Williams’ unprecedented accomplishments as arguably the greatest female tennis player in U.S. history, she was featured on the cover in a sexually provocative pose. Perhaps anticipating criticism for such a choice—SI is, after all, a sports not a fashion magazine—they immediately emphasized the point via tweet that this portrayal was Williams’ idea. The choice to feature Williams dressed in an all-black lace bodysuit and patent leather power pumps perched on a throne as Queen of the Court has been supported by some who see this portrayal as empowering. We suggest that there were other choices available to SI and to Williams herself, ones that are not only empowering, but powerful. Unfortunately, such an editorial choice is not new at SI. Anna Kournikova (5 June 2000), Jennie Finch (11 July 2005), and Lindsey Vonn (8 February 2010) have all been portrayed in similarly sexualized ways. Serena Williams herself has appeared in SI’s Swimsuit Issue in 2003. Perhaps not surprisingly, SI has a poor track record when it comes to depicting highly accomplished female athletes outside of the Swimsuit Issue. A recent study of SI covers from 2000-2011 found that women were on only 35 out of 716 covers, and just 11 of those 35 covers showed female athletes in poses comparable to male athletes (2). Clearly, it is a rarity to see a female athlete portrayed as an athletic champion on the cover of this incredibly influential U.S. sports magazine. Regrettably, female athletes are similarly ignored in broadcast media (3). As a result, we fail to see female athletes on any regular basis portrayed as accomplished athletes in mainstream sport media and we have all written previously about how this paucity of coverage negatively impacts interest in women’s sports (4).

Sexualized images of female athletes, in contrast, are not hard to find–simply google ‘female athletes.’ Numerous scholars have also documented that the sexualization of female athletes is a common practice (5). Unfortunately, this is part of a broader pattern wherein girls and women are sexualized in media and popular culture. Three major reports from the UK (6), U.S. (7), and Australia (8) have all documented the prevalence of this practice and its negative consequences on girls and women. When women are sexualized in the media, female viewers may think of their own bodies as objects and reduce their personal value to their physical attractiveness instead of to their talents, personality, and contributions to the world. Our own research has shown that this is precisely how adolescent girls and college women respond to sexualized images of female athletes (9). In addition, sexualized images of female athletes do not generate interest in women’s sports (10). Research also indicates that media images which portray female athletes in powerful action photos generate not only interest in, but respect for, women’s sports. Additionally, after viewing such images teen girls and college-age women are more likely to think about their bodies in terms of their physical skills and capabilities. Portraying sportswomen as gifted and accomplished athletes has the untapped potential to make girls and women feel good about their bodies—which is a significant challenge in today’s media environment inundated with unrealistic and idealized images that create body dissatisfaction.TENNIS-WTA-QATAR

In an ideal—not to mention realistic—world, images which display female athletes (and their bodies) for what they actually do rather than how sexually empowered they may appear would be easy to come by. If this were the case, girls and young women could have magazine covers of their female sports heroes in their bedrooms as a reminder of what women are capable of and as an equally important reminder that our society values them for what their own bodies can achieve on the court, rather than for how sexually attractive they are. Unfortunately, as Sports Illustrated reminds us, female athletes who dominate their sport are currently only celebrated if they look good doing so.

 


 

(1) http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/11/sports/tennis/tenniss-top-women-balance-body-image-with-quest-for-success.html

(2) http://irs.sagepub.com/content/48/2/196.abstract

(3) http://com.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/06/05/2167479515588761.abstract

(4) http://espn.go.com/espnw/news-commentary/article/13215042/even-wake-record-setting-women-world-cup-myths-surround-women-sports

(5) http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11199-015-0493-x

(6) http://www.ncdsv.org/images/Sexualisation-of-young-people-review_2-2010.pdf

(7) http://www.apa.org/pi/wpo/sexualization.html

(8) http://www.tai.org.au/node/1286

(9) http://jar.sagepub.com/content/24/4/399.refs

(10) http://journals.humankinetics.com/jsm-back-issues/jsm-volume-25-issue-3-may/expanding-the-boundaries-of-sport-media-research-using-critical-theory

Access free educational materials for espnW Nine for IX films

I recently had the opportunity to work in collaboration with espnW to develop discussion guides for the Emmy-nominated Nine for IX film series.

Nine for IX premiered June 18, 2013, as part of ESPN’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Inspired by the 40th anniversary of Title IX, ESPN Films and espnW produced nine documentary films about women in sports, told through the lens of female filmmakers. Nine for IX Films are a collection of remarkable stories that offer teachable moments and powerful lessons in the history of sports. .

The Nine for IX Knowledge Center is a free resource available to institutions, organizations, administrators, professors, coaches, and students who want to lead thoughtful and engaging discussions around key themes in the films. The Knowledge Center provides discussion guides for each film, film posters, and a sign-up form to receive the Nine for IX DVD set, all free of charge. The Knowledge Center is a tool that goes beyond the entertainment value of the films and leverages the rich educational content of the embedded lessons and messages within the films.

The discussion guides generate thought-provoking discussion topics around key themes and issues present in the films such as gender equality, intersectionality, identity politics, sport and politics, social class, racism, and sexism, along with issues related to sport psychology, sports media coverage, sports marketing, and sports as a vehicle for developing role models. Each unique guide contains Key Concepts, Discussion Questions, Additional Readings and Additional Activities.

I wrote a specific guide for coaches for The 99ers, a film about the 1999 Women’s World Cup Championship team, that coaches can use as a team building activity and to discuss what it takes to develop performance excellence and a positive team culture.
To access the free materials, including obtaining a free DVD box set of the Nine for IX film series, discussion guides, and posters visit the espnW Nine for IX Knowledge Center.

3 “Must Reads” on Hot Topics in Sport

Gratuitous "hot dog" picture.
Gratuitous “hot dog” picture.

Here are 3 pieces everyone should read/watch/listen to, which reflect 3 areas of research I frequently write about and are currently HOT TOPICSsport parents,  women in sport coaching, and media portrayals of female athletes.

9217_458093160902533_113102254_n1. The Problem for Sports Parents: Overspending, a Wall Street Journal piece that outlines the more parents spend on a child’s “sport career”, the more pressure the child may feel. You can also listen to a radio show on this topic out of Boston. While you’re at it, read a Boston Globe article titled “How parents are ruining youth sports: Adults should remember what athletics are really about”

2.  Basketball’s Double Standard, by espnW writer Kate Fagan is about the barriers and 57673_nak_tns_tennis_tennis02_041413fdiscrimination that women coaches face in college basketball, and how women coaching men’s teams seems laughable to most ADs. You can see just how bad the numbers are pertaining to the percentage of women head coaches of women’s teams at “big time” institutions by clicking here.

April 2014 Golf Digest cover photo
April 2014 Golf Digest cover photo

3. Watch Dr. Caroline Heldman’s TED talk titled “The Sexy Lie” which is helps dispel the “sex sells” myth. In my research at the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, we are amassing evidence to help dispel and challenge the myth that “sex sells women’s sport.” You can watch our documentary on this topic “Media Coverage & Female Athletes” free online.

Gender & the Olympics: A Commentary

I wrote about three significant trends pertaining to females and the Olympics for Minnesota Public Radio. Namely I wrote 2012 has marked the 40th anniversary of title IX in the US, female Olympians outnumbers their male counterparts for the USOC, and women in predominately religiously conservative Muslim nations were allowed to compete for the first time in summer Olympic history. I also wrote about the lack of women in positions of power for the US Team (also see previous blog).

After I wrote that piece I’ve been thinking about other broken barriers, and in some cases have proven just how far girls and women in sport have yet to go. Other key occurrences include:

1. African American women winning gold in sports traditionally dominated by Whites–Serena Williams (tennis, becoming only the 2nd female to obtain the Golden Slam), Gabby Douglas (all-around gymnastics). However, both athletes competed in sports and trained in systems that are not under the jurisdiction of Title IX (i.e., private, non-school based). This is a key point because while Title IX as dramatically improved participation rates for females, girls and women of color have not benefited from this law to the same degree as their White peers.

2. On Friday, August 9, 2012, Shannon Eastin became the first female to referee an NFL game. This is key for many reasons–its provides proof females can be in other visible roles in football than cheering on the sidelines, it provides a role model for girls and young women to aspire to a career in refereeing at the highest level, and it provides evidence that women are capable of referring a sport that most don’t play (no one ever raises an eyebrow when men ump or coach softball!). Unfortunately due to enduring sexism and gender stereotypes about women in positions of power she will endure criticism that is not leveled at her male colleagues, and backlash in the blogosphere. However, her appearance is not without controversy due to the NFL ref picket line.

3. While US women have won 58% of the medals for Team USA (as of 8/10/12), female athletes in most all sports have been criticized and subject of derogatory remarks for not being feminine or attractive enough. There are a number a articles on this topic which details that “faces not feats” are predominately highlighted in Olympic coverage. I was encouraged by the fact some female athletes fought back and resisted those who tried to marginalize their amazing feats.

The reason why this matters is that just as many current Olympians (e.g., Alex Morgan, Gabby Douglas, Missy Franklin) talked about how their aspirations for gold began as they watched 12, 8 or 4 years ago, today’s girls are doing the same. Girls need to see active, athletic female role models rather than be subject to commentary about how female athletes should look and conform to society’s notions of femininity and beauty. Athletes are beautiful…in all shapes, sizes, sport types, ages (equestrian Karen O’Connor is the oldest Olympian competing for the US at age 54; swimmer Katie Ledecky is the youngest at 15).

For some female athletes they self-promote by relying on looks, and for those who have them…can we blame them?. According to Jere Longman, a NYT writer, “Lolo Jones has received far greater publicity than any other American track and field athlete competing in the London Games. This was based not on achievement but on her exotic beauty and on a sad and cynical marketing campaign.” As Jones took 4th place in the 100m hurdles by a tenth of a second, I wondered if all the attention and hype distracted Jones’ attention and energy from optimal performance. What is even MORE interesting is that Longman’s critical column of Jones garnered considerable criticisms of its own (here, here, here, here).

…primarily from blogs that are rarely interested in covering women’s sport!

So is the lesson from “low blows on LoLo” that one should not be mean spirited and critical of the Olympic “It Girl”? (I’m reminded of my blog where I criticized the SI cover portrayal of 2010 Winter Olympic It Girl Lindsey Vonn). That female athletes should be left alone to market and promote themselves as they see fit? That it is OK if girls and young women internalize consistent messages of “it is more important what you look like than what you can do athletically” that can, according the to American Psychological Association, lead to a host mental and physical disorders?

If remaining gender barriers are to be broken, how female athletes are portrayed, portray themselves, and critiqued by the media must be examined and changed.

Athleticism and talent of ALL female athletes, not just the ones who meet society’s standards of femininity and attractiveness, (of all the hours of NBC coverage I did not see any of female weightlifters or boxers) should be sufficient for coverage.

And when they perform well and give it all they had in the tank, we should celebrate— not compare them to men, call them “manly” or other gendered slurs, subject them to sex testing, or wonder if performance enhancing drugs are involved (e.g., Ye Shiwen, Caster Semenya).

Fight the Spread of Bikini Leagues!

If you are a female fan of sport, a fan of women’s sport, or care that female athletes and women’s sports are portrayed as legitimate and athleticism is the primary focus, I need you to be a Sports Minister!

There is a proliferation of “Bikini Leagues.” Starting with the expansion of the Lingerie Football League (which I’ve critiqued numerous times) into Canada, the LFL is trying to expand globally to Australia where it is being met with resistance from the Australian Sports Minister Kate Lundy who stated “As Minister for Sport, I can’t abide a spectacle that degrades women and threatens to undermine the progress of women in sport in Australia. It offends me that the promoters are hiding behind the guise of LFL being a ‘sport’. Lingerie Football objectifies and exploits women by trading on their sexuality to make money pure and simple.I am particularly concerned that young women watching the LFL will form the unfortunate view they can only ever hope to be taken seriously or even noticed in sport if they get their kit off.”

This is precisely why the US needs a Sports Minister!! We don’t, therefore we ALL need to take responsibility to fight Bikini Leagues and the spread of activities branded as sport, that clearly are not.

I am very troubled by LFL expansion efforts as well as the commencement of a Lingerie Basketball League and a Bikini Hockey League.…especially when Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS)–a REAL league, suspended play for 2012. Clearly there is a market for the sexualization of females, but if women refuse to play in these “leagues” there will be no leagues and no product to sell. Women who play or are considering to play in Bikini Leagues (many of whom are legitimate athletes) need to take some individual and collective responsibility.

JUST SAY NO.

DO NOT PLAY.

Do not let yourself be objectified for entertainment under the guise of sport.

Are these leagues going to increase respect for and interest in women’s professional sport? Are these leagues going to garner you respect and legitimacy as an athlete or a person? Are Bikini Leagues good for the individual, women’s sport in general, or society? What messages do Bikini Leagues send young girls about their bodies and self worth? What messages to Bikini Leagues send young boys and males about objectifying and consuming the female body, and respecting females as legitimate athletes?

What can you do to fight Bikini Leagues!?

What other suggestions to you have so that we can all take responsibility in our own ways to fight Bikini Leagues.

Watch the “Does Sex Sell Women’s Sport?” Panel

In September 2011 I participated in the espnW Summit and was invited to sit on a panel. Myself, Sue Hovey (ESPN), Sonja Henning (NIKE), Heather MItts (US Women’s Soccer Team), and Jenn Brown (ESPN) discussed “Does Sex Sells Women’s Sport?”

You can see the video of the panel on the espnW Summit website, along with many other great videos from the Summit on a variety of topics related to women’s sport.

The Irony of a Woman’s Professional Uniform in Sport

This blog is about the irony of what is deemed appropriate workplace attire for women in the context of sport.

I have written quite a bit about the Lingerie Football League and my disdain for the league and their claims it promotes women’s sport (to read all my posts on the LFL, click here). Evidently I am not alone in feeling the LFL marginalizes female athletes, and women who  play real professional football. Two players from the KC Tribe team, Katie and Liz Sowers, put together an entertaining and informative video expressing how many women in the Women’s Football Alliance feel about the LFL.  This video is worth watching and sharing! One of their main points is that female athletes seem to only get recognized when they take off, or have very little clothing on (i.e., when they are portrayed is sexy ways…another topic I have written extensively about). If you want to see the most recent example of this, click here to see a calendar made by a Vancouver women’s hockey team.

Relatedly, on the other end of the spectrum….this week the MLB came out with a dress code for media personnel. If you read the new code, it won’t take you long to surmise this code is targeted towards females. For example it reads: Visible undergarments, sheer clothing, one-shouldered and strapless shirts or clothing exposing bare midriffs will be banned. Skirts, dresses or shorts cut more than three or four inches above the knee will be deemed to be in violation. I’m not in many MLB press boxes but I’m guessing there aren’t many, if any men, who are in this attire, so the rule must be aimed at females.

Phyllis Merhige, an MLB senior vice president stated, “There’s no one who expects reporters to wear a suit and tie (My commentary: i.e. suit and tie are typically associated with a white-collar, White male dress code). But with the advent of different media, there are now individuals who are not part of a bigger organization that may have a dress code.”  If you read this statement critically, the “norm” in press boxes refers to traditionally trained, older male sport journalists, and “different” means anyone is who falls outside that norm (i.e., women, and Millennial bloggers both male and female).

Data supports that females are the minority in press boxes and this fact is problematic as I wrote in a previous blog: “According to a 2008 report commissioned by the AP Sport Editors, females comprise less than 10% all sport reporters. Given that female sport journalists are statistical tokens (< 15% of a population) they are under constant scrutiny, have to perform above and beyond their male peers to be deemed competent, and are subjected to overt and covert forms of discrimination.”

The dress code policy for MLB reminds me of the Jets-Sainz incident of 2010 where Ines Sainz was harassed in the Jets locker room, and criticized for not dressing professionally. Despite what one is wearing, attire does not give permission for males to harass or act boorishly. Speaking of boorish, if you doubted that harassment, discrimination and sexism are not part of the reality for female sport journalists, look no further than sports columnist Rick Bacon’s recent DeadSpin post.

In his blog, he wrote: “that the rules are really there to take on the princess female reporters, like ESPN’s Erin Andrews and Suzy Kolber, ladies so caked in makeup that Papa Bacon would have slapped me twice had I brought them home. Notably, the rules mention ripped jeans and midriff-revealing shirts, things you won’t find in my closet or my nieces. And good for Major League Baseball. These gals might be lookers, but they distract the whole team’s attention. It’s awkward enough having them in the clubhouse to begin with. Some of us came here to ask questions, not to flirt. We came here to do the reporter’s job. When reporters talk about “inches,” we’re not talking about the hem of a skirt or the height of a heel. We’re talking professional copy…It’s good that the locker-room peekaboo act will have to cover up. Fans deserve better coverage too..”

Bacon certainly lives up to the origin represented by the animal associated with his last name. Bacon’s generalized, gendered, dichotomous assertions do not make for a collegial work environment. The MLB is trying to head off or prevent workplace harassment, but educating everyone on professional behavior might be a bigger step forward in changing the culture.

In summary, ironically what is considered an appropriate and desired work place “professional” uniform in the LFL, is now ruled an inappropriate uniform for professional sport media spaces.