Gendered Language: Men versus Girls

By Emily M.

Being in an all female sport, I have been subjected to a lot of insulting comments. “Oh look at those synchronized swimmers, wearing all that makeup and dancing in the water, aren’t they cute.” Just because it is a female sport, people tend to take the athleticism out of it. They do not see that we throw two, 120 pound women completely out of the water, not using the bottom of the pool, might I add. All they focus on is how pretty and delicate all these female swimmers are.

There are many ways that the media trivializes women’s participation in sport. One-way is by gender marking. Female events are listed as “women’s athletic events” and men’s are just “athletic events,” marking women as the “other” category. Another way media and the commentators minimize women’s athletics, is by calling females athletes girls, ladies, and women; however, men are consistently referred to as men. The word girl implies immaturity, and the word lady implies helplessness, elegance and lack of athletic abilities. Commentators use this type of language during female sporting events and this demeans women’s sport. You would never hear a commentator say, “oh these boys are really doing a good job”, no you would not hear that. They would refer to them as men, strong men or athletic men, never boys. There should not be this gender stereotype that women are delicate or non athletic. Elite female athletes train just as much as male elite athletes, so they should be treated as such. Men tend to be called by their last names and women by their first names. When commentators call female athletes by their first names, it reinforces an already existing negative attitude about female athletes. It diminishes their professionalism in comparison to men.

Commentators tend to focus on how women athletes appear rather than on how they perform. They discuss their outfits or their makeup. One of my competitions was televised a few years ago, and the commentators did not mention how strong the athletes were or focus on the extreme cardio it takes to swim through a routine. They said things like “what a beautiful splash” “look at the elegance and grace”, “look at the gorgeous makeup”. These comments were completely stereotypical. What it conveyed to me was that women are not supposed to be athletic; they are not supposed to have strong muscles or a competitive side. This gender-biased language reinforces stereotypical feminine gender roles, and undermines women’s involvement in sport as well as their achievements. The commentators are coming to terms with the fact that women are increasingly participating in sport and they are increasing their coverage. However women still have to be in a certain box, they cannot be compared to male athletes. They cannot have commentary that emphasizes their athletic abilities and strengths.

When commentating women’s sports, they tend to minimize the females strengths by pairing it with a demeaning word, such as “she’s a strong girl”. Positive comments followed by demeaning comments. This is in line with the gender roles we grow up with. As children we are constantly told women are delicate, passive, and focus on their looks. Men are aggressive, athletic, and macho. Although women’s participation rates are going up in sport, they are still not being recognized as true athletes. Female athletes are still expected to be feminine and are viewed as caring more about how they appear rather then how they perform in their sport.

Women have come a long way in the sporting context. Originally, it was exclusively a man’s world. However now you see women participation rates increase significantly. Seeing all these elite female athletes really motivates women to reach for their goals. However the stereotypical language used towards women in sport, is still a huge barrier. Women should be taken seriously in the sporting world. It is not about their outfits or their makeup; it is about their achievements.



Halbert, C., & Latimer, M. (1994). “Battling” gendered language: An analysis of the language used by sports commentators in a televised coed tennis competition. Sociology of Sport Journal, 11, 298-308.

Messner, M., Duncan, M., & Jensen, K. (1993). Separating the men from the girls: The gendered language of televised sports. Gender and Society, 7(1), 121-137.


5 responses

  1. Great read Emily,
    It is definitely true that in “aesthetic” sports there is so much focus on appearance, as you said with synchronized swimming the strength the women posses is ignored, so there is no wonder we have body image issues. Focus should be put on the strength women posses and the hard work they put into getting where they are, it should not solely be on appearance and how nice they look in a certain suit, it should be on the function of their body. In a modern Olympics class I am taking, while watching the opening ceremonies we noticed that the camera followed a pattern of panning from the judges to a wide shot of the nation entering the stadium and then always a close up of a “typical attractive female”. Why make a close up on an individual at all? I don’t know but I feel it is definitely to sexualize the sport.
    I found it very interesting that you brought up gender marking, I was never aware of this but it is definitely true and the more I look for it, the more I notice and I feel that if we want to know if there is a women’s or a men’s event we should specify that it is a “men’s athletic event” as well as “women’s athletic event”. When announcer’s use ladies, girls, and women opposed to the male side of solely men, this shows that in our culture it is natural and normal to refer to women in potentially demeaning ways even if it is unintentional but we always treat men with the same level of respect and it comes naturally, we have been taught to devalue women. An entirely new language needs to be created around the context of sport, if we focus on women’s appearance we should at the same level focus on men’s, but overall we should focus on the performance of women. We should say “that swimmer displayed great strength during his/her swim” instead of “that lady looked beautiful with her pink swim suit”. I have definitely heard the “you are a strong girl”, comment before and it absolutely does make me feel belittled, I am a woman and I am strong, but I am a strong person and if anything a strong woman, I am not a little girl.
    There has been progress in the women’s world of sport such as greater coverage but there is still a long way to go. The increase in women athletes is a great motivator for all women and campaigns to aid in body image that counteracts the aesthetics are all on the horizon, however we need to change the language definitely. Again, great blog post Emily, it was thoroughly interesting and definitely fires me up!

    -Sarah Mazerolle

  2. Emily what a great post. Being a synchronized swimmer as well I have definitely seen and heard these gender stereotypical comments in the sport of synchronized swimming as well as many other sports. In many cases women are subjected to a lesser standard when it comes to the sporting world. Its also shown in other forms of media surrounding females sports such as ad’s and articles where they tend to focus on a female athletes personal life as a pose to there athletics achievements. There is definitely a double standard when it comes to male and female sports. This can also contribute to the struggles girls have with body image, it reinforces to females athletes that they need to focus on their looks instead of their sport. You bring up some very true and interesting points in you blog post, I agree with the statements that the female sporting world has come along way and also agree that it still has a lot of catching up to do in terms of equality.

  3. I really enjoyed this post Emily! Synchronized swimming is probably one of the hardest sports I have ever tried. It takes serious strength and endurance, I couldn’t imagine anyone thinking of it as a weak sport. What people don’t take into account when commenting on how done up the girls are with their makeup and hair is that it is all part of the sport to look alike as a team. I agree that it is not fair to pass judgment on girls based on their sport.
    touching on what you said about commentators only calling male athletes by their last names and female athletes by their first, I agree whole heartedly. It is almost demeaning to female athletes to be called by their first names. Even as an athlete I feel as if I have more respect when I hear the commentators or announcers using my last name as opposed to my first. There is a level of respect that comes with it, it seems in athletics.
    I think there is definitely some more work that needs to be done in terms of equality in gender when it comes to the sporting context. This post certainly shed a lot of light exposing some of the factors that are keeping women out of the major spotlight of the sporting world.

  4. Emily – this is a really impressive post! I almost experienced a “jaw drop” reaction as I read this. I have always recognized the different (lower) level that female sports and athletes seem to be on, but I have never analyzed it quite this way. It’s so true, commentators tend to focus on the physical traits of women’s bodies, instead of the ones pertaining to the skill of the sport – it needs to go past appearance. It is really unfortunate that women are viewed in this light. It very much minimizes the athletes are and the physical skill set they have worked to achieve. It seems that no matter how high of level females attain in their sport, and how successful they are, they are never compared to men. And if they are, it is once again on a completely different level, where the women is automatically at a disadvantage (because she is a woman). Regarding what you were saying about syncro swimming and how much of your physical skill is not recognized. This must be so frustrating! Fortunately, I don’t think that I have experienced something like this, or at least not as severe. Having swimming class with you and Julie this term, I can say that the amount of physicality your sport requires is ridiculous – I have no idea how you do it!! Again, really great post Emily, I appreciate your eye for this type of thing. Keep it up!


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