Media Coverage and Sexualization of Women in Sports

by Matthew C.

Since its inception almost 40 years ago (1972), Title IX has shown great strides in bridging the gender gap in athletics. Legislating that equal opportunities be provided in athletics for both males and females, we are beginning to see the positive results intended of this titles passing. Intended to focus mainly on college athletics, we are now seeing the results extend to a national level as well. Over the recent past Olympic periods, several countries including Canada and the United States of America have been composed of teams that are represented by an equal number of male and female athletes. Along with this, women have recently contributed to more medal wins for Canada at Olympic events than that of men. With all this success in bridging the gap between participation rates among women, we are still bearing witness to women’s athletics being oppressed through narrowly defined ideals about women in sport, fortified through the presentation of women’s sports through the lens of a male dominated media.

Sports media continues to be a male dominated domain. With 92% of sports coverage centering on male athletics, while only 5% of that is focused on women’s athletics, with the remaining 3% accounted for by gender-neutral topics. Not only is the ratio of women’s sport coverage greatly under represented in contrast to male sports, often times, the media attention that female athletics receives, focuses on the sexualization of the female athlete, and her experience of sport, as opposed to her athletic ability. This approach perpetuates negative ideals suggesting the merit of female athletes or value, lies in assets such as her appearance or relationships, thus taking away from attention paid to her athletic ability, contributions to the sport, or achievements.   Female sport is also the continual recipient of negative promotion by being portrayed or discussed as boring, entertainment value being contingent on the form of sexualization associated with the coverage. Examples of such sexism can be examined in the 2012 Summer Olympics held in London. Due to cold temperatures, female beach volleyball players were “permitted” to wear body suits consisting of long sleeves, and longer pants to stay warm. This caused a blow up on several social media platforms, suggesting that there was no longer a point to watch the women’s event now that the athlete’s bodies were covered up. The media’s attention being focalized on the sexualization of female athletes can be observed in the argued opinion of some, in regards to Russian tennis player Anna Kournikova. She possesses countless ads and sponsorships over her competition, despite the fact she has never won a major championship.

With all the strides Title IX has made over the past four decades, it is time for the media to evolve past damaging and sexist ideals. In recent years, such sports channels as TSN have made efforts to bridge the obvious gap between male and female sport coverage, and in such sports like curling, airtime is now equal for both male and female competitions. Along with this increased female coverage, interest in the sport has been increasing at a steady rate across Canada having visible female role models at the forefront. Recent rankings have even shown that the Women’s Final of the Pinty’s All-Star Skins game that took place in January between Team Homan and Team Jones attracted more viewers than that of their male counterparts.

Cases like this suggest that it is possible to gain interest in female athletics without the sexualization of the female body, but gain viewership and interest based solely on the athlete’s performance and ability. Other networks and media outlets need to use this example and increase female sports coverage and allow a fan base to develop. Title IX has shown an increase in female participation, and it’s now time for the media to make the changes to increase female sport coverage.

In closing, it is under evolved of us to ask female athletes to absolve themselves of their sexuality or physicality, in an effort to be taken seriously as participants of the athletic community, as Olympians and as professionals. But rather WE should be the ones, as consumers, as sport participants and as fellow human beings to absolve ourselves of our sexist ideals that serve to be constricting of female identity and experience within sport, and to think more critically of the portrayal in sport media.


4 responses

  1. Great Post Matthew.

    You raised a lot of interesting points that I think are completely valid. I think it is a great thing that channels like TSN are starting to increase their coverage on women’s sports. I had always looked at it in a perspective that demand would have to increase, leading to more media coverage; however, I had never considered that increasing the media coverage first would lead to increased interest in a sport. The reason that I believe it could go either way is that many media outlets would not want to risk increasing coverage of a sport before they had validation that it would attract a lot of viewers. I think that it is very beneficial that TSN was willing to take a risk of potentially losing some money in order to advance women’s presence in curling. And as you stated, having women’s curling televised brought in a large amount of viewers and was very good for women’s curling. I think that if more media sources were willing to increase coverage of women’s sports, it would lead to a huge increase in interest for those sports.

    Chris M

  2. I really enjoyed this post Matt.

    Female sport coverage is a topic that I feel quite strongly about, and I thought you raised many valid points. It is very true, as you mentioned, that women’s participation in athletics has been increasing ever since the implementation of Title IX in 1972, however, has not shown nearly the same progression of female athletes portrayal in the media. Popular sports magazines such as ESPN magazines and Sports Illustrated still have overwhelming male athletes dominating their pages. Despite the athletic success and ability of many women, when they are represented in the media, it is more often in a gender appropriate sport, where they are sexualized and displayed in weak positions. I thought this video clip really shed light on how the media ensures that women remain characterized as “feminine and fragile” although their male counterparts were inevitably captured in a pose that reassures how successful they are in their respective sport:

    I really enjoyed how you raised the point of equal coverage in curling. As a competitive female curler, this is one of many aspects that draws me to the sport. Having played against Team Homan at my first Nationals, I can certainly appreciate what these women have done to increase not only interest in the sport itself, but also to bring equal media coverage to the forefront. They are a great example demonstrating that women should not feel obligated to pose semi nude in magazines to receive the recognition they deserve, more so, that their successes of winning National and World gold medals have closed that gap of unequal coverage.

    – Jessica

  3. Great post Matthew

    Yes I agree there have been slow but steady improvements in reducing the sexualisation and objectification of women in sports and presentation within the media. However, we still today see the male dominance over sports media coverage versus women. I truly believe this still continues because women are underrepresented.

    As a female athlete, I am readily exposed to opinions of others (male and females) who think that female sport is boring and lacks entertainment value. I do agree that the only reason some audiences and spectators attend women’s sport is due the exploitation of female athletes and their body parts.

    Related to the example of beach volleyball athletes in the London Olympics, and as a beach volleyball player, wearing a two piece when playing is an obligation rather than choice. Speaking for myself and likelihood of other female players, we do not wear the bikini to generate attraction of the male audience but due to the rules of the game. I was both appalled and not surprised at the media who suggested that there was no longer a point to watch the beach volleyball games at London 2012 as the female athletes were “covered up”.

    It’s pretty sad that the media, despite a pinnacle event and opportunity to see the best athletes in their sport at the games, are not worthy of attendance because they are fully clothed. I really hope that over time, the media and other audiences will appreciate female athletes athletic competence and ability as the reason to watch women sports, over how “hot” they look in a two piece in the sand.
    In relation to female athletes and the development of recognition for ones athletic ability, contributions to sport and achievements, numerous studies have explained that women would rather be displayed and perceived as an athlete for their athletic ability over means of success through the portrayal of “femininity”, and nudity (e.g. posing in soft porn images).

    Understandably, posing in soft porn images displays characteristics of beauty and femininity. Despite intention to demonstrate these characteristics, posing in soft porn can disregard the idea of the athletes “physical power, strength and athleticism” (Kane, LaVoi & Fink, 2013) by the target audience. At the end of the day, female athletes can contribute to reducing the sexualisation of women’s sports coverage in the media; along with fellow human beings; if they look to stress the importance of athletic competence over sexualized depictions of women’s sport and female athletes.

    Attached is a video of the GB women’s volleyball team training ahead of their appearance at the London 2012 Olympics. The video is by a critic, clearly media attention like this degrades the significance of female athletes who play beach volleyball. He quotes that the sport was defined as “glamorous” and a “party atmosphere”, but when attending the training, he was surprised it was not the spectacle he had assumed, and more miserable than anything.

  4. Really great post with some intriguing points Matt –

    Alike your stats about how little media exposure females get I read similar results for the UK Olympic team – even though the females had received more medals at the Olympic games female sport coverage decreased the next year, absolutely mind boggling.

    Having had the argument before that women don’t receive as much media coverage because they aren’t as popular because “they’re simply not as good men” and feeling like it goes round and round forever never getting anywhere. However, now seeing some of the stats for how as coverage of women’s curling has increased so has viewership/ fan base that is some proof that other sports could have that affect as well!

    I think it’s really exciting that channels like TSN are starting to increase their coverage on women’s sports. This station is typically dominated by a male audience so its really encouraging that female sports will be covered more hopefully leading to more females continuing to tune into the sports world!

    Your closing line stating that “rather WE should be the ones, as consumers, as sport participants and as fellow human beings to absolve ourselves of our sexist ideals that serve to be constricting of female identity and experience within sport” really struck me and I completely agree. Society needs to take responsibility for providing more coverage of female athletes just as we do for male athletes, rather than dependent and/ for solely their body appearance.

    – Meghan S

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