The Subordinated Portrayal of Female Athletes in Media

The Portrayal of Female Athletes in the Mass Media

        A widely addressed issue in the media today is the topic of professional and collegiate female athletes and the misconceptions linked to their success. One of the main concerns is how female athletes are being characterized compared to male athletes. In many cases, the 21st century media portrayal of the female athlete tends to favor their physical appearance above their athletic ability; but regardless, male athletes get more attention and publicity. The number of female athletes participating in a sport has significantly increased over the past few decades, specifically since the passing of Title IX.

In 1972, Title IX was enacted to insure gender equality in federally funded college educational programs. This enactment has been a step in the right direction for female athletes but there are still issues beyond participation in a sport, such as the perception of a female’s identity or image, which tends to be distorted by the media.

The mass media feminizes, sexualizes, reinforces gender stereotypes and under represents female athletes compared to male athletes. Some examples of media imprinting these issues are the movies Million Dollar Baby and Dodge Ball, as well as magazines such as ESPN and Sports Illustrated. In comparison, female athletes are sexualized in sports magazines but popular movies portray them to be masculine, unsupported, vulnerable, and inferior to men. This negative light disguises the positive traits female athletes possess.

Stereotyping has become a large problem in society.  People tend to be labeled and this puts added stress on those who do not fit into the stereotypically made categories. Some of the most occurring stereotypes are that women athletes are emotional, attractive, feminine, and heterosexual. In the movie Dodgeball, Kate, on the Average Joe’s team, presents herself as attractive, skinny, and feminine. The producer portrays her to be this way to reinforce these stereotypes about female athletes. Men on the other hand are portrayed to be strong, athletic, and masculine. The media is very powerful in that it can construct how a female athlete’s gender is reflected. “Such paradoxical sporting practices continue to ensure that gender remains the primary categorization of women athletes, re/producing female athletes as women who play sport rather than as athletes first and foremost: (Kassing, 2008)

Another example of how the media portrays the stereotypes of female athletes is by making them appear masculine. Assistant Professor, Lindsey J. Mean and Associate Professor, Jeffrey W. Kassing, both in the department of communication at Arizona State University mention, “… In claiming membership of a male category, women’s athletic identity work has to manage the implications of contesting masculinity. This includes being framed as masculine and hence lesbian resulting in derogation, exclusion, and invisibility…” (2008).  An example of this is seen in the movies Million Dollar Baby, and Dodgeball; each of the main characters face being portrayed as masculine. The women in these movies are participating in male dominated sports where they do not care about their appearance. Kate, from Dodgeball, is thought to be a lesbian throughout the film and she in fact turns out to be one. These films reinforce this stereotype and in result, in order to encourage women’s participation in athletics, female athletes manage their femininity by “policing” their own identities (Kassing, 2008). On the contrary, female athletes also struggle with the issue of feminization. One example of this is in the movie Dodgeball. The producers have to reinforce Kate’s femininity through things like her obsession with unicorns (her house is filled with them) instead of focusing on her insane athletic ability.

Correspondingly, women athletes in the sports media deal with feminization due to the fact that they are more likely to be broadcasted playing sex-appropriate sports such as gymnastics, ballet, synchronized swimming, and ice-skating. In a quantitative study concerning women in Sports Illustrated Magazine, at the time when Title IX was passed, it was found that the number of women portrayed in the magazine barely increased, and the covers only consisted of women who played sex-appropriate sports. Women who played male-appropriate sports like basketball and soccer were rarely ever portrayed (Kane, 1988).  Significant research done on the broadcasting of women’s athletics over the past couple of decades, shows that camera angles have a huge impact on the objectification of female athletes. By focusing these angles on chest shots and butt shots for example, they are exploiting their physical attributes rather than their athletic talent. These findings are “…suggesting a female athlete’s sexuality is more important than her athleticism” (Bissell, K., & Smith, L., 2010).

The act of sexually exploiting women athletes is an issue that is very bothersome to society. There are many examples of this happening in the media today. For one, photographs are a hot spot for athletes being sexualized. Female athletes are being featured in sports magazines, posing and wearing little to no clothing or “ …in a non-competitive setting, dressed in some form of non-competitive manner, and posing specifically for the camera (either a professional shoot, or walking into an event)” (Smith, L.R., 2011). This issue of feminization draws attention to the non-athletic aspects, nullifying recognition of their athletic ability and talent. Recently, Russian tennis player Agnieszka Radwanka posed nude for ESPN Magazine getting her more attention from the media than for her talent as a tennis player. Other women tennis players have become widely recognized by the media, not only because of their athletic talent, but also because of their beauty. Russian player, Maria Sharapova, has become famous not only by being the number two ranked player in the world, but also is known to be a successful model, and Anna Kournikova was noticed because of her presence in the 2004 issue of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Magazine and voted the “sexiest female athlete” by ESPN.com.

As a result of the portrayal of female athletes outside of playing their sport, it can create feeling like an object rather than feeling confident about their body when competing (Smith, l. R., 2011). Female athletes being feminized and sexualized through the media’s unrealistic images can create psychological consequences; body shame, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders can be a result (Frederickson & Roberts, 1997).

In sports media, female athletes are continuously depicted as being inferior to their male counterparts (Buysse & Embser-Herbert, 2004; Koivula, 1999). The movie Million Dollar Baby, is a prime example of female athletes’ inferiority to men. The title itself is degrading to female athletes because if a man were the main character, the producers surely would not use the same movie title. Maggie is shown to be young but her maturity, strength, courage, and dignity portrayed through dealing with her unsupportive family and her decision to end her life, shows that she is far more than a baby and she deserves recognition for that. At one point in the movie, Maggie’s mother said, “Find a man Mariam! People hear about what you’re doin’ and they laugh. It hurts me to tell you but they laugh at you”. Her mother’s lack of support just shows that there was no belief in her. This says a lot about female athletes being portrayed in movies because men are always portrayed in a different light; confident, the hero, or even rising above hardships. The bottom line is that the media purposefully makes women athlete’s look and feel inferior to men in order to keep male dominance from feeling threatened.

The lack of representation from the media is another controversy that has made an impact on female athletes. Studies show evidence that female athletes received less game coverage, less broadcasting time, less photographs and cover stories, as well as a lower quality of broadcasting coverage than men’s sports (Knight & Guliano, 2001; Koivula, 1999; Salwen & Wood, 1994). For example, there was a study done regarding the male versus female athletes shown on the cover of Sports Illustrated Magazine and the results were breathtaking. Out of 837 articles, 55 females (6.6 percent) were featured while 782 males (93.4 percent) were displayed on the cover page (Salwen & Wood, 1994). This study proves that the magazine company is biased towards female athletes.

Much of the lack of representation of the female athlete comes through television. For example, there was a study done on the Olympic Games that “…suggested coverage of women declined from the 1996 Olympics to the 2000 Olympics, with coverage of sports containing power or contact going almost solely to men: (Tuggle, Huffman and Rosengard, 2002). On the bright side, research from 2008 has shown an increase in coverage for women in the mass media but it was found that there is some fault to this statement. For one, through examination of track and field events in 2009, the men’s coverage was more visually appealing than the women’s coverage. There were a wider variety of camera angles and more special effects. It was concluded that these differences could contribute to the audience’s interest in watching the sports (Bissell, K., & Smith, L., 2010). These are just two of the many issues that contribute to female athletes being under-represented in the media. With public interest increasing in this topic, the big question is, why have private media corporations not made efforts to equalize broad casting and television time?

Most of the issues that female athletes face are a result of how media coverage represents them. These women are being judged more on their appearance rather than their athletic ability. Some athletes then focus on their body appearance, which can lead to psychological disorders. In order to put a stop to this controversy, the media must do a better job of respecting women athlete’s by treating them fairly, with non-stereotypical coverage and making them equal to men.

This controversy of how female athletes are portrayed in the media hits home with me because I have had some of these same experiences as an athlete growing up. Because of my participation in sports at a young age, I can relate to female athletes who feel the need to manage their identity. However, I prefer an equal balance of masculine and femininity. My personal experience with the media was from articles in my local newspaper back home. Coming from a small town, media follows the same course as anywhere else. The local sports editor would write articles about me which usually contained positive, as well as negative information, along with a picture of myself in a short tennis skirt. Title IX continues to make changes and provide opportunities for female athletes. It has also allowed me to play tennis at Portland State, which I am proud of.  The journey has been long and something I have had to fight for; overcoming the odds that very few female athletes become college tennis players. At times I have felt inferior to the expectations of being a female athlete, always striving to be better than my male counterparts. Being told that I would never be great had a huge impact on my athletic career because I wanted so badly to prove everyone wrong, and I can honestly say I have succeeded.

Work Cited:

Bissell, K., & Smith, L. (2010). Let’s (Not) Talk About Sex: An Analysis of the Verbal and Visual Coverage of Women’s Beach Volleyball During the 2008 Olympic Games. Conference Papers — International Communication Association, 1.

Buysse, J. A. M., Embser-Herbert, M. S. (2004). Constructions of Gender in Sport: An Analysis of Intercollegiate Media Guide Cover Photographs.  Gender and Society, 18, 1, 66-81.

Kane, M. J. (1988).  Media coverage of the female athlete before, during, and after Title IX: Sports Illustrated revisited. Journal of Sport Management, 2,2, 87-99.

Knight, J., & Giuliano, T. (2001). He’s a Laker; she’s a “looker”: The consequences of gender-stereotypical portrayals of male and female athletes by the print media. Sex Roles, 45, 217-229.

Koivula, N. (1999).  Gender stereotyping in televised media sport coverage.  Sex Roles:  A Journal of Research, 41, 589-602.

Salwen, M. B., Wood, N. (1994).  Depictions of female athletes on Sports Illustrated covers, 1957-1989.  Journal of Sport Behavior, 17, 2, 98.

Shoot, Score, Strip? An Examination of Media Representations of Female Athletes and Their Impact on Collegiate Athletes. (2011). Conference Papers — International Communication Association, 1-25.

Mean, L. J., & Kassing, J. W. (2008). “I Would Just Like to be Known as an Athlete”: Managing Hegemony, Femininity, and Heterosexuality in Female Sport. Western Journal Of Communication, 72(2), 126-144. doi:10.1080/10570310802038564

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About kfrey

Hi my name is Kelsey Frey. I am on the women's tennis team for Portland State and I am a Health Sciences major. I hope to someday have a job in Vascular Technology.