I’ve written often about how media routinely sexualizes female athletes, rather than focus on their athletic abilities and achievements. This Vanity Fair piece and June issue is a rare example of the same pattern for male athletes. The argument is not that male athletes are never sexualized. The main point is that female athletes are disproportionately sexualized in the media (female athletes only receive 6-8% of all sport media coverage ) compared to male athletes. The other point is that when female athletes are sexualized it often undermines perceptions of their athletic abilities, while when male athletes are sexualized it rarely leads to the perception their athletic achievements are questionable. What do you think?
I love March Madness. Every year I wait for the March Madness cover of Sports Illustrated. Every year I do a critique of the cover. Now that I have a blog, I can post the critique for the first time as I started this blog post March Madness in 2009 (April 5, 2009 to be exact). Here are the results of this year’s cover(s) [there are 4 versions of the March Madness cover this year]. The major point in this critique is to demonstrate that male power and dominance in sport is reproduced by the images portrayed and selected on this one cover. An equally important point is that women’s basketball, female coaches, female referees, and female sport fans are literally erased, marginalized and portrayed as secondary to team mascots.
1 giant male basketball player dunking a basketball (all 4 covers are of males dunking, despite the fact that Baylor’s Brittney Griner is well known for the fact she can dunk, thus it would of been feasible to feature a well known regional FEMALE player dunking)
2 male referees
3 cheerleaders (2 of which are discernibly female)
4 fans (3 of which are male, the 4th is not discernible)
5 coaches–ALL of whom are male, and I think they are all coaches of men’s teams. This is despite the fact UConn Head Coach Geno Auriemma’s team is on a very long winning streak (74 and counting as of 3/28/10) and is been touted as the BEST women’s basketball team ever.
~9 female basketball players (2 of which are almost not discernible as one positioned under the giant dunking male’s player right foot who I think is UConn’s Maya Moore and one player from Texas(?) is under his gluteus maximus, otherwise known as one’s buttocks)
A LOT of male basketball player (roughly I counted ~77…~8 times the number of female athletes portrayed. I’m pretty sure the ratio of male to female basketball players in the NCAA is not 1:8. In fact, according to NCAA research the 2007-08 numbers are 15,307 women and 17,081 male basketball players)
It’s time for March Madness! I love this time of year! I just watched the ESPN selection and the ESPN-U follow up show for the women. Here is the bracket in case you want to download it. I have some cheers and jeers.
I was excited the online ESPN bracket didn’t have the qualifying “Women’s” in front of NCAA Tournament Bracket 2010.
ESPN did a great feature on Baylor’s Brittney Griner, that focused primarily on her SKILLS, numerous ways she can dunk, and how her ability and talent are setting a new standards of excellence for women’s basketball.
I loved the fact there were four very qualified women–Doris Burke, Rebecca Lobo, Kara Lawson, and Carolyn Peck--hosting the shows, along with Trey Wingo.
The .pdf version of the ESPN bracket however, was labeled as the “Women’s”. I will bet my 2010-11 pay cut that when the men’s bracket is complete, there will be no “Men’s” label on any bracket. Why? Because the men’s bracket is the real bracket, and the women’s bracket must be defined and qualified as the lesser bracket by labeling it the “women’s”. This is a common pattern of marginalizing women’s sports documented over time by sport media scholars. Another example is the NBA and WNBA.
The presence of the female sport commentators was undermined both at the very beginning and end of the ESPN-U show by the following comments:
a. At the opening of the follow-up show on ESPN U, after Trey Wingo (seated in the middle, with 2 women on each side) introduced each of his four co-hosts, Carolyn Peck made a comment that the ensemble was like Charlie’s Angels. To that end Wingo asked if that made him “Charlie”, and the banter went on for another 20 seconds with the women confirming that his wan indeed Charlie and they were the Angels.
b. At the end of the follow-up show on ESPN U, as Trey Wingo was signing off and repeated all the names of his female co-hosts, his very last comment was “Look at Doris’ shoes, she went shopping!” and then the camera cut out.
Why is this problematic? Because both comments undermine the credibility of highly qualified and experienced female sport media journalists by focusing on highly feminine roles and symbols of femininity. Given these four women are clear statistical minorities in their field, they are under a constant barrage of scrutiny their male colleagues do not have to endure. They also have to look feminine enough so they do not feed the flame of enduring homophobia in women’s basketball.
1. I realize my reaction was very US-centric and most Canadians feel this is not newsworthy (as Michelle posted in my previous blog) or a big deal. Is my reaction, and of those who share this viewpoint a result that Canada won the game and put a dent in American chauvinism?
2. This issue has definitely brought to light the double standards for behavior that exist for men and women, and athletes are no exception. On one hand I thought, “Why not? Celebrate, you won the gold medal!…the men do it all the time!” But on the other hand, is following the men’s lead or reproducing male celebratory traditions a good thing? I keep thinking back to the 1999 World Cup when Brandi Chastain whipped off her shirt to expose her Nike sports bra after the USA secured the win in penalty kicks. Chastain’s behavior was both roundly criticized (that isn’t appropriate for women to do! She is sexualizing herself!) and applauded (finally we get to see a strong, athletic female body!). In an attempt to justify the post-bra incident, Chastain and others stated “the guys do this all the time”. Why is it that women have to justify their (inappropriate) celebratory actions following amazing athletic achievements with the disclaimer “the men do it!”? This complicates the issue because it at once normalizes the behavior (see the men do it, so we can too) but makes it seem unladylike precisely because the men do it.
3. Many people I talked and listened to stated, “I’d have the same reaction if the men’s team did the same thing”. I’m not sure this is entirely true. What this statement does is erase the gendered component inherent in this event. Sports are not gender neutral or gender blind activities, so the reaction is inextricably linked to the fact the athletes were female and we have expectations for how men and women are supposed to behave.
4. I think one of the issues at play here is we just don’t get to SEE strong, powerful, female athletes celebrating in such a public way because women’s sports are so rarely covered in sport media. This type of celebration might be commonplace, but we don’t see it. When the Yankees win the World Series or the Lakers win the NBA Championships we see their celebrations–in fact an extra half hour is usually devoted to covering the celebrations both on the field and in the locker room.
I might have more thoughts about this, but for now…what do you think?
update 2/28/10: a Canadian colleague passed this article from The Winnipeg Free Press, that has an interesting and new point…happy athletes…oh my!
[polldaddy poll=2751478]Amidst the Olympic fanfare, last week ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser made comments about the attire of colleague Hannah Storm, ESPN SportsCenter co-anchor, on his Washington radio show.
Kornheiser, opined that Storm was wearing a “horrifying, horrifying outfit” and a “very, very tight shirt,” adding that she “looks like she has sausage casing wrapping around her upper body.” ESPN confirmed that Kornheiser has been suspended for two weeks from his duties on Pardon the Interruption.
What do you think about this? Comment here and vote in this poll.
During the first week of media coverage of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, a few interesting things emerged in terms of sport media coverage and sport commentators.
1. It has been noted elsewhere by colleagues at the John Curley Center for Sport Media and Pat Griffin that commentators (and female athletes themselves!) continually call the adult female athletes “girls”, rather than women. I have yet to hear male athletes referred to as “boys”. They outline why this is problematic in a very clear and concise way, and is worth a read.
2. Despite the fact the first-ever Pride House for LGBT athletes and friends at the Vancouver Winter Olympics (which does not have any official affiliation with International Olympic Committee or the Canadian Olympic organization), sport media commentators continue to make derogatory remarks about certain athletes masculinity and femininity (or more accurately, the lack thereof). This is particularly true when it comes to US men’s figure skater Johnny Weir, the target of many stereotypical jokes. I watch The Today Show on NBC most mornings and it never fails that Matt Lauer, Meridith Vieira and Al Roker will make a joke or imply something about an athlete’s sexual orientation–listen for it!
3. If you’re watching ski jumping, you probably won’t hear a word from sport commentators about female ski jumpers, as the IOC voted last year to not allow them to compete. Much of the general public has no idea about this issue, as evidenced by the Huffington Post article a friend sent me last week. She thought I’d “want to know” and she was surprised and a bit outraged these women were denied the opportunity to compete. I had to laugh, as I (and many others) have been following this story for some time it seemed like old news.
In rebuttal to the “Vonn Watch” Sports Illlustrated cover blog post I made, many people commented and pointed out that A.J. Kitt was similarly posed in 1992 and no one called it sexual. I don’t recall the media buzz, so I’ll have to take their word on this point, but I’m inclined to believe it to be true.
Many argued the cover of Kitt was “exactly the same” which provided evidence that male athletes, particularly skiers, can be similarly portrayed in the media.
I would argue from a sport media research perspective that these covers, while at first glance appear to be “exactly the same”, they are in fact not similar in many key facets. The reason why the Kitt photo is unlikely to be interpreted as sexualized, while the Vonn cover might, is the focus on this post.
1. Kitt is literally “in action” doing his sport, Vonn is posed in a tuck position–she is not literally skiing.
2. Kitt has his helmet on, Vonn does not. Skiers don’t ski without their helmets.
3. Kitt is looking down the hill as he would DURING COMPETITION, Vonn is posed looking sideways (not downhill) into the camera.
4. Kitt appears to be actually in context on the mountain, Vonn in her picture appears to be super imposed with the mountains in the background. (However, I am not certain of this)
5. Kitt is leaning down the hill which connotes forward motion during his event, Vonn is static and while she is in a tuck position there are many other positions she performs in the course of a race that could of been used that might be construed as less sexualized.
Another point many made on the blog about this photo comparison, is that we had to “see Vonn without her helmet” because otherwise no one would know who she is because skiing is such an obscure sport. However, Kitt is pictured with his helmet on where we can’t see his face. He is identified by a caption. I would argue skiing is no more or less obscure today than it was in 1992. Therefore, the argument that we need to “see Vonn’s face” to know who she is does not hold up.
I will make one last point that might lend credence to the sexualized argument (albeit subliminally). There is one ironic twist to the Vonn cover photo if you didn’t catch it prior. Someone who works in the media pointed out to me that if you look at how the text in the bottom right corner aligns, you can clearly see the word “AsS” is spelled out vertically (start with the capital “A” in America and look down to the next line of text). Is this coincidental?
Is it great that a female was on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Olympic preview issue–YES! Could the photo chosen been a better representation of the great athleticism and talent of Lindsey Vonn–YES!
One of our local Minneapolis NBC affiliate KARE11 reporters, Jana Shortal, did a great piece on why the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and Lindsey Vonn SI cover might be problematic. It is short and to the point. To watch the video, click here.