Tag Archives: Sports Illustrated

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

Visible Example of Power in Sport

GoodellIf you want to see an obvious example of how gender, class, race, and power intersect in sport.…look no further than Sports Illustrated’s (SI.com) updated list (and accompanying pics) of the 50 most powerful people in sport. 

This set of “list” images serve reinforce stereotypes about gender and power that privilege white men and marginalize men of color, while simultaneously highlighting that women are primarily sexual objects (i.e. arm candy), or incompetent and weak leaders because they are not pictured alone. It wasn’t until #35 a male of color appeared, and #41 featured the first women in a position of power.

Of the 3 women featured in the list of 50, none of them were portrayed alone, in contrast to the men who were primarily featured as the sole and dominant image in their photos. #41 on the list featured Alison Lewis and Sharon Byers of Coca-Cola who were featured together, but their titles were not listed. #46 featured Cindy Davis, NIKE Golf President alongside client Rory McIlroy. When women in sport are portrayed in tandem, it communicates she may not be competent enough to stand on her own, and is therefore less competent than male leaders.

Images are powerful mechanisms by which cultural values and beliefs are transmitted, and therefore should not be consumed uncritically.

NOT the Same: Vonn v. Kitt Sports Illustrated Covers

Sports Illustrated Covers of Olympic Skiers

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!

Short Video on Sports Illustrated Photographs of Female Athletes

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.

Vonn Watch: Part II

Ok, so if you didn’t agree with my critique (and many didn’t!) of the February 8, 2010 Sports Illustrated cover of Olympian Lindsey Vonn that can be interpreted as sexualized, the photographs of Vonn and other female athletes in the 2010 SI Swimsuit Issue being released today (shown here below) might help illustrate some of my original points.

Sports Illustrated 2010 Swimsuit Issue

I became aware of these pictures, from a news story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that ran today which stated, “Minnesota skiing sensation Lindsey Vonn is among a quartet of Olympic athletes featured in this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue that is out today in print and online.”  The online version of the SI Swimsuit Issue includes video clips of the Olympic Stars doing their photo shoots.

The critique here is the same, when we DO see female athletes (some of the best in the world at their respective sports!) which happens in only 6-8% of all sport media, they are more often than not in poses that highlight physical attractiveness, femininity, and can be interpreted as sexualized. Is it coincidental that the four female Olympians portrayed here are all blond, attractive, feminine looking, and sexy according to societal norms?Arguably, the Vonn SI cover can be interpreted (or not) as sexualized, but these images are clearly sexualizing in nature and tone.

The obvious target market for the Swimsuit Issue is men.  Therefore, the idea that “sex sells” is viable and research does support that sex sells. What I want to argue however, and some emerging research is supporting, that sex sells sex…but sex does not sell women’s sport.

The point being, by seeing Vonn on the cover of SI, these images of female Olympians, or any other female athlete… does it make the male demographic more likely to attend and pay for a ticket to an event where these women are competing, buy merchandise, or read a story about them? Researchers say it is unlikely. So yes, sex sells sex but it likely does not promote women’s sport or female athletes in a way that helps to grow women’s sport in a meaningful and sustainable way.

The last point I want to highlight is these type of images also reinforce to consumers what is most important and valued in terms of female athletes and females in general, and meaning is constructed from what is chosen to be included and not included. If you want to read more about  how the sexualization of females affects everyone, particularly young girls, go to the American Psychological Foundation’s Task Force Report on the Sexualization of Girls. The report can be downloaded for free, and in short states, “The proliferation of sexualized images of girls and young women in advertising, merchandising, and media is harming girls’ self-image and healthy development. This report explores the cognitive and emotional consequences, consequences for mental and physical health, and impact on development of a healthy sexual self-image.”

Therefore,  I hope to see many more images like the one below in the weeks to follow, as Vonn (who I really hope is healthy enough to race given her shin injury) and other female Olympians have great potential to be positive role models, not only for girls, but for us all.

To see a video segment of me talking with KARE11 reporter Jana Shortal about why sexualized images of female athletes are problematic,  click here.

Lindsey Vonn, Great Athlete..in action, in uniform, on the slope.

Vonn Watch: Sports Illustrated Cover is Predictable

Sports Illustrated February 8, 2010 Cover

I’ve thought to myself and predicted out loud that leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics that we would see a LOT of Lindsey Vonn in the media.

Vonn is first a GREAT athlete, but she also represents the norm of feminine attractiveness. The combination of athleticism and attractiveness make Vonn the likely poster girl of the US Olympic Team, and the media hasn’t disappointed in constructing her as such.

Not to be left out, Sports Illustrated is featuring Vonn on their February 8,2010 cover (pictured here). For those of you who follow SI Covers, know that female athletes are RARELY featured on the cover.

2007 Sports Illustrated Covers Featuring Women

Over the last 60 years researchers have shown that about 4% of all SI covers have portrayed women.

When females are featured on the cover of SI, they are more likely than not to be in sexualized poses and not in action–and the most recent Vonn cover is no exception.

NOTE: Please read my follow up post below in the comments section, in response to blog readers differing opinions about this post.

Follow up response:

I’ve been getting a lot of comments in this particular blog. It seems I’ve touched a nerve and many disagree with my interpretation of Vonn on the cover of SI. And many of the comments provide alternative perspectives, which is good for discussion. First, let me say I am a fan of Vonn. I have nothing against her and am proud she is a Minnesotan. I am also not saying that Vonn thrives on the attention of the sport media, or seeks it out. I believe she is being covered so frequently because of the combination of the skill, accomplishment, AND her appearance. I have to disagree that this pose is “in action”. In sport media research, we would code this Vonn cover as a passive shot. She is not actually ON the slope skiing, with her helmet on. She IS in a posed tuck position in an attempt to simulate what actually skiing would look like. Yes she is “in uniform” but not her complete uniform and she appears to be on the slope. Picture this as a way to frame what I’m trying to get at: Picture a male ski racer in a similar pose on the cover of SI, smiling at the camera. Would we see that? How would you react to that picture, verses the picture of Vonn? As one blog commenter seemed to hint at, this pose is “ok” because she is hot and sexy, so she is nice to look at. How would “we” feel if the female skier did not meet normative standards of feminine attractiveness (i.e., she was “ugly”) and was in the same pose? I appreciate everyone’s willingness to share their opinions.

Some have brought up a good point that male athletes have been photographed in similar poses, and I do not deny this fact. However, the argument is that because female athletes only receive 6-8% of all sport media coverage regardless of the medium, that when we DO see them it is MORE LIKELY in poses that highlight traditional gender norms, femininity and framed in a way that can be interpreted as sexualized. So yes, Ohno or Kitt have been on the cover in similar ways but we will more likely see male athletes in action, on the court/ice/mat, and in their uniform that we will female athletes, this is a proven fact over the last 25 years of sport media research. -nml

Follow up Part 2 (2/6/10): Thank you to everyone who has submitted a comment. I have approved a sampling of the hundreds of comments that are representative of the varying opinions about this cover and issue. As you can read in the “About This Blog” tab, my goal with this blog is “help readers see the issues I write about with a different perspective (not necessarily one that you agree with)”. It is clear not everyone agreed with the critique of the Vonn SI cover and that is the point, to stimulate dialogue about an issue.  If you are interested in one explanation as to why this post generated so much discussion and attacks on me personally , click here.

Follow up Part 3 (2/8/10): This blog got so much exposure due to the fact it was picked up by USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and more recently CoCo Perez, among other media outlets.