Portrayal of Female Athletes in Media

When looking in the popular culture mirror, I found that how my identity is represented in media has changed dramatically in recent years. Stereotypes are being broken down and diversity is being employed in advertisements and films. There is now a breadth of nationalities, body types, personalities and income levels. Although in my memory, female athletes had been represented as very masculine and tomboyish; thin, tan and overly competitive and always persecuted for passion for sport instead of more traditionally feminine activities. My analysis of contemporary films and advertisements that feature female athletes as their main subject displayed that characters goals transcended these stereotypes, but similar conflicts of the past are still interwoven in the content. Despite the positive change, stereotypes are still reinforced if a few ways.The female athlete in media seems to be in a constant process of reconciliation between her gender and her sport. She is caught between two ideals. The complication lies in several areas: the attempt to juggle their gender-specific activities with their athletic ones, their athlete-specific struggles within the dating sphere, and the pursuit of personal values despite social expectation. Being a female and an athlete is portrayed as quite a balancing act. Is this an accurate representation of the contemporary femlete?

In Bend it Like Beckham (2002), Jesminda challenges her family’s religious and cultural expectations in order to pursue her love of soccer. Stick It (2000) follows the story of Hayley, an off-the-rails tomboy who is ordered to return to her gymnastics academy in the stead of juvenile detention in order to expose the pressures within women’s competitive gymnastics. Furthermore, the “This Girl Can” video and others like it provide an example of how the media is working to change the image of the female athlete, while at the same time appealing emotionally to that demographic as an advertising tactic. By breaking down the stereotypes and expectations imposed upon characters in the films I will be able to assess the authenticity of the dynamic between gender and sport for the female athlete.

Jesminder’s (Jess) character in Bend it Like Beckham  is, although not a tomboy per-se, not quite girly. Her daily outfit consists of trainers, sweats, and a name brand t-shirt or sweatshirt. Her appearance gives the impression that she’s prepared to kick a ball around at any moment, not necessarily attempting to attract a husband or display the tradition of her culture or religion like her parents wish her to. Her mother constantly badgers her about finding a man and acting and dressing differently, like her sister, in order to do so. It is clear that an athletic girl must take precautions, however, as the boys she plays soccer with tease Jess for having breasts. In one scene they tell her to “chest [the ball]” and to “make it bounce,” either her breasts or the ball itself. To teach the boys a lesson she throws the ball at one of their player’s groin and effectively shuts them up.

In the realm of appearance, Jules’ character is a good compatriot for Jesminder’s. She goes through similar teasing. Her mother pushes her to look at some more feminine, lacy bras, and then rebukes her when she gravitates towards the sports bras. In another scene Jules’ mother yells, “no boys gonna wanna date a girl who has got bigger muscles than him.” It seems that in this film soccer is the more important thing at work, and dating is undermined by the girls despite societal and familial expectations.

This portrayal of young female athletes is common in popular culture. The women are required to make a decision between their femininity and their sport, or their dating life and their sport, as if pursuing an athletic goal undermines the other two. Jules does not have to deal with the pressures of religion, but the two girls are both constantly questioned for their lifestyle choice, as if it strips them of their gender identity. Their mothers even take it as far as to question their sexual identity. Because of their athletic wardrobe and interest in sports, qualities their mothers find extremely masculine and not socially acceptable, when Jess and Jules get in a fight their mothers wrongly insinuate that it is a lovers’ dispute. This insinuation is all too common for female athletes. I remember being questioned and targeted by my classmates as a softball player in high school. Although I currently identify as bisexual I didn’t when I was a teen. I found it starkly inappropriate to ask such personal questions and imply anything about my sexual orientation. It was as if everyone was in on the joke that softball players are “just all lesbian for each other.” First, I only personally know a few LGBTQ athletes. More importantly, our sexual orientation has nothing to do with how we perform as teammates or as athletes. Gender identity and sexual identity didn’t influence our batting average, nor did it affect how much we wanted to compete and win.

One thing that Bend It does to accentuate the girls untraditional behavior is to parallel them with Jess’ sister Pinky and her friends’ ultra-femme appearance and behavior. They wear very tight, revealing clothing and fawn over the boy soccer players. Instead of bettering themselves, they manipulate others and smear on some lip gloss to get what they want. Also, Pinky has just gotten engaged and is following the traditional steps her mother has laid for her. Jess is a bridesmaid and there are quite a few expectations for her.The final scene is a compilation of shots that juxtaposes Pinky’s wedding with Jess’ championship game. Although Bend It puts the athletes on a pedestal, it also seems to put a strict divide between an athletic identity and one of traditionalism and femininity. But I wonder why they can’t have both at once?

This film shows that there is nothing wrong with the desire to be girly and traditional nor to be athletic and modern. It plays both sides pretty decent, except that the girly girls have repugnant values and the athletes the most mental and physical strength. Overall, I found that this film gave a fair representation of female athletes except for its reinforcement of the expectation to choose between several sectors of a girl’s life.

Like Jesminda, Hayley’s appearance and attitude in Stick It follow the stereotype for women in sports. She is a natural tomboy like Jess’ character, although her tough exterior makes her much more uncompromising. Additionally, none of the females’ athleticism is brought to question in this film.

Nonetheless, stereotypes of appearance and attitude persevere. In the introductory scene to Stick It, Hayley’s gender is kept hidden under baggy jeans, a sweatshirt, and the way that she carries herself. The intention for this first scene is to mislead us. The film discloses her gender only after her athleticism and rebellious nature is revealed through a bike-trick competition. They want to show that this is not just another girl on the street, but someone to be reckoned with. I wonder if the audience would have doubted her if they knew of her gender outright, and if not, what was the purpose of the nondisclosure?

Regardless, her wardrobe remains characteristically tomboy. Her obstinance, silliness and gait seem to be more traditionally masculine. She does not chase romance – her two best friends are dudes that she skateboard and bikes with – and most significantly, she makes fun of the girly way her teammates carry on. From scene to scene she mimics the way the girls talk by mimicking the words “like,” “super,” and “totally.” In this way she distinguishes herself from the group. Unlike Jess, she doesn’t feel the need to be polite, nor to fulfill any daughterly duties. Her priority is to make a point, through winning at a meet or in an argument. In this way, I find that her femininity does not need to reconcile with her athleticism. She makes no apologies for who she is. A fairly emotional tomboy outside of gymnastics, she fights conformist expectations on the TumblTrak. For example, her teammate Mina perfectly executes a particularly difficult flip but receives an imperfect score merely because her bra strap was showing. Instead of being praised for her skill, she is scrutinized for a technicality of appearance. And please, they’re wearing skimpy leotards I’m surprised that was the only thing that popped out during the competition. Hayley takes it into her own hands to set things straight by purposely scratching on her  turn and convincing the other girls to do the same. They let the judges know that they are not to be judged merely by their appearance, but by what they can do. Furthermore, Hayley takes some liberties with her final floor routine and a few others also bring more originality than usual to their routines. Wei-Wei performs her balance beam routine to hip-hop music and even does the worm at one point. These girls are defying the expectation to remove their personality from their passion. It isn’t the girl or the athlete, neither the values or the expectations of her, but what she can perform in her entirety.

Despite rebelling against expectations on the mat, the girls naive and girly behavior is constantly ridiculed by Hayley. More than her teasing about their inflections and word choice, she makes fun of their routines, their passion for the sport and their infatuation with all things girly: boys, dresses, prom, giggling ,etc. Whether this is to make herself feel better about her past or not, I’m not sure. Breaking down the girls for being who they are reminds be of the psychologically manipulative and competitive behavior I have seen among female athletes throughout my life. Her behavior in the film defies the theme to be yourself unapologetically. Although is not scrutinizing them for being too masculine like in Bend It, but for being too girly, she nonetheless adds to the scrutinization of women.  As if athletes should be more like her, and less like all the other girls out there. I don’t believe that any of the other girls are of more silly or less athletic because they are girly. In fact, it may even enhance their athleticism in gymnastics as it is an aesthetic sport. But it certainly distinguishes Hayley from the rest of the group.

I find that these distinct differences draw a line between leadership and subservience. It didn’t matter that the others girls shut themselves away in a gym in order to become nationally-ranked while Hayley, thrice, ruined her chances from rebellious acts at competition, or that she is only at the academy because a judge sentenced her there. It is that she has an influence and an attitude that says “F you, I’m going to do what right for me regardless of what anyone else has to say or who it affects.” Because her attitude rejects social expectations, she is the leader. I find this absurd because she is technically falling into the mold of a girl who let’s her emotion control her, although it seems that she doesn’t let it get the best of her.

In response to the unfair scrutiny of female athletes and the fear of judgement that young women are facing today, Sports England has launched a campaign titled, “This Girl Can” in order to motivate women to get out and get moving. They performed several studies that revealed that “75 percent of British females ages 14 to 40 want to become more active, but that insecurity is a big obstacle.” (Sports England) Their campaign launched several youtube videos with the intent of empowering women to make a change. The self titled video features a diverse group of actors; women with many different body types, skin colors and modes of fitness; doing their sport with enthusiasm to the soundtrack of Missy Elliot’s “Get Ur Freak On.” The montage highlights sweat, pooge, jiggling and all the weird faces that come with the intensity of working out. Many of the advertisements I have seen for workout gear feature very thin models in semi-athletic poses with little-to-no sweat. Now I don’t know about you, but when I leave the gym it’s not a pretty sight. But that is what is so beautiful about it – I look like I worked my booty off! That is the theme of the “This Girl Can” video. The captions that appear over the video say things like “I juggle therefore I am,” and “sweating like a pig – feeling like a fox.” It is trying to show women that it’s not all about what they look like, but what they can do. Jenny Price, Chief Executive of Sports England writes, “If you are wondering if you should join them—or carry on—this campaign says it doesn’t matter if you are a bit rubbish or completely brilliant, The main thing is that you are a woman and you are doing something, and that deserves to be celebrated.” (Raders Reality) This is just one campaign in a pool of many advertisements being created that display a more realistic view of female athletes. Nike, Athleta and Lululemon have released similar videos. It is clear, however, that they are still using our values to market their product. Additionally, the videos may have nothing to do with the beliefs and intentions of company executives For example, the recent press release by Chip Wilson, founder of Lululemon. (Bloomburg) At least there is a trend of change in the way we portray women.

From my sources in films and advertisements, it is clear that there is a larger group of women pursuing athletic endeavors and that they are influencing the media to change. While some stereotypes still prevail; those of class, size, appearance and attitude; there is an effort being made, like that of “This Girl Can,” to bring us back to reality. The expectations and judgements are out there which, it seems, cause women to separate their values and identities into two spheres, and put one or the other on the backburner. But is that really necessary? The message should be: be who you are and be the best you can be. The bar is being set high and I encourage not only other companies, but any organization with influence, to reach for it. Empower, not devour.

Hannah Stewart