by Megan C.
Femininity can be defined as a socially constructed concept that states how women should look, act, and what they should value (Hardy, 2015). Hegemonic femininity is the sociologically “correct” version of women, which includes white, heterosexual, and middle-to-high class women. Additionally, hegemonic femininity is defined by traits such as “submissiveness, dependency, concern over physical appearance and emotional ability” (Hardy, 2015, p. 155).
“The social construction of sport [is] a space where hegemonic masculinity is defined, … and sport participation [is] associated with masculine traits, such as aggression, strength, power, dominance, and violence” (Hardy, 2015, p. 155). Therefore, women who participate in sport, specifically male-dominated sport, are often labelled with masculine traits and their sexuality is questioned. Female apologetic behaviour, in sport, exists to combat the masculine and lesbian stereotypes associated with female sport participation. Female apologetic behaviour is when female athletes ‘apologize’ for participating in sport by overemphasizing their femininity through clothing choice, physical appearance, self-expression, and style of athletic play.
The media plays an important role in continuing the trend of female apologetic behaviour in sport, specifically elite level sport, because increased media exposure and sponsorships are given to female athletes who conform to society’s idealized version of hegemonic femininity. “Emphasizing femininity reinforces females’ inferior status to males’ … and ensures that they remain desirable to men” (Hardy, 2015, p. 156). This is demonstrated through the media’s portrayal and sexualisation of female Olympic beach volleyball athletes. The women’s Olympic beach volleyball uniform and television coverage of the sport places a priority on the sexualisation and physical appeal of the athletes and the sport, over the comfort and skill level of the athletes, by focusing on the athletes’ body and not the sport. This demonstrates that being stereotypically ‘attractive’ should be more important to athletes than excelling in their sport, because that is the focal point of the broadcasting.
Female athletes “are always framed by their status as both athletes and women” (Hardy, 2015, p. 156). Furthermore, men can succeed and be publicly recognized as ‘just an athlete’, while women cannot solely have an athletic identity, it must be overshadowed by either their physical appearance or caregiving abilities. For example, the Olympic gold medalist curler, Jennifer Jones’, is the skip, a dominant and authoritative position within the sport of curling. However, when portrayed by the media and in commercials the focus is directed towards her nurturing and providing roles as a wife and a mother, not her success as an athlete, which gives the illusion her athletic accomplishments are not valid and not good enough. This may be harmful, particularly to young females, as it demonstrates that girl’s/women’s athletic dreams and ambitions do not matter, because being a wife and a mom should be the primary focus in your life, your main role, and what you will be known for.
These examples demonstrate that “women are still confined to two acceptable roles, sex object or mother, both of which trivialize their athletic abilities and inherent value” (Hardy, 2015, p. 157). Advancing women’s sport today proves to be a vicious cycle; increasing media exposure, sponsorships, and viewers seems to only be possible when female athletes degrade themselves and their sport, and focus on their sexuality and the physical appeal of their sport. Thus, the importance of female athletes such as Serena Williams who pushes boundaries and demonstrates that women do not need to limit themselves to be ‘approved’ by society; women can be strong, muscular, beautiful, and successful, all at once. And Lanni Marchant who is advocating for female body image in sport, by combatting the issue that female athletes’ appearance and uniforms attract more attention than their performances.
Female apologetic behaviour is more visible in elite level sport because of commercialization and media portrayal. However, this behaviour exists in all levels of sport. Therefore, it is important for coaches and parents to emphasize the importance of physical performance and not physical appearance in young athletes. This can be achieved by selecting athletes based on their talent and not physical appearance, which is particularly important in aesthetic sports. Furthermore, coaches should allow athletes complete control over their body’s and their choice of uniform (when possible), providing it fits within the guidelines and regulations of the sport.
We cannot alter the focal point ‘sex sells’ portrayed by the media industry, however, we can choose where our money goes. We select what products we buy and what we watch both live and on television. It is important to think critically and use your voice as a consumer, to give hope for upcoming generations of female athletes that their dreams are valid, and that talent and hard work is enough to be successful.
Hardy, E. (2015). The female ‘apologetic’ behavior within Canadian women’s rugby: athlete perceptions and media influences. Sport in Society, 18(2), 155-167. doi: 10.1080/17430437.2013.854515