by Karlie S.
Sometimes, the latest sports news can be mixed up with “family stories”, when female athletes have been successful in making headlines. Marginalization and trivialization of women athletes is not something new. It has become all but a cliché to point out that their achievements are being undervalued whereas their contributions in boosting female esteem and stimulating gender equality are being ignored. But that’s the reality, for now, and possibly for the nearest future as well, unless resorting to certain compulsory means. Take the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, where U.S. women athletes made themselves the biggest winner out of the 206 nations competing at the Games, headlines turned out to be like this: “Corey Cogdell, wife of Bears lineman Mitch Unrein, wins bronze in Rio”. The media later apologized for using the world “wife”, after remarks sparked outrage on social media platforms. But we all know that this can hardly be the end. Media will still follow the “norms” of news reporting, in particular within the sport context, by equating male as “athlete” itself, labeling them with words like “strong”, “powerful”, “fast”, “big”, and “greatest”, while portraying female as women doing sport, referring them to “unmarried”, “eye-candy”, “pregnant”, and sometimes “like a man”. Is it too difficult to make a change, or there too much reluctance to do so? Given the complexity of interests interwove in today’s economy, things can get a little bit tricky, especially for those insiders.
In fact, if we look at reports involving female athletes, which takes up only tiny amount of overall news reporting, it is easy to notice that trivialized stories are everywhere. Just think about it. How often do we see female athletes hit the “front page”?
Cooky et al. (2015) found through their 25 year longitudinal study that coverage of women’s sports hasn’t expanded–Los Angeles broadcast affiliates devote only 3.2% coverage to women’s sports whereas SportsCenter (a program run by ESPN) devote only 2%, a number has remained “remarkably(p7)” flat; 32 segments out of 934 news stories from 2014 were on women’s sports; only one out of the 145 teasers alerted the audience to an upcoming women’s sports story while only three out of 199 SportsCenter’s teasers were focused on women’s sports. What’s more, according to a 2014 Upper Midwest Emmy Award-winning documentary: “Media Coverage and Female Athletes,” out of all athletes, 40% are female, but they receive only 4% of all sport media coverage. Likewise, Billings and Young (2015) found that during 2013 and 2014, women’s sports were aired less than 1% in Sports Center and Fox Sports Live.
Despite all the efforts of encouraging females’ participation in sport, women’s sports coverage hasn’t kept up. Even though in some cases, they make it onto the front page, what the audience saw was often a beautiful woman, with a big smile and a suggestive posture, hardly reminding you of her athleticism. While magazine coverage is no exception, large institutions are “selling” female athletes not only in a more provocative manner, but also adding “family stories”. And seemingly, media agencies tend to shift gears from describing female athletes as sexual objects to portraying them as mothers, wives, girlfriends, and caregivers (Cooky et al., 2015; Messner, 2010)
But that’s not the whole story. When it comes to female athletes’ cover page shooting, there is a larger possibility of sharing that cover shot with a male athlete, depicting female athletes in a sexually objectifying pose. One study noted that out of the 35 female included covers, only 18 featured the female as the primary or sole image (Weber & Carini, 2013).
Media never failed us in using this stunt. As “weaker” and “less important” constitute female athletes’ role, the media makes no small effort in cementing it as a social norm.
However, should they be the only one to blame? When economic interests make the call, what we’ve seen cannot be judged with simply “right” or “wrong”, especially in an era when new media stimulates the evolution of communication, fostering an insatiable desire for entertainment and news consumption. Everyone is an insider——For either sports TV or magazines, the tail wags the dog. While viewers’ appetite leads the coverage, media improve revenues by give whatever images viewers want. The more coverage or airtime given to men’s sports, the more male followers will subscribe, and they will be more willing to buy magazines if the cover girl looks pretty, sexy, and attractive. And if that cover girls happens to be a female athlete, even better. At least, this is how the most media is sorted out. While for those who made it to a cover page, be it sole image or partnered with a male athlete, they get the money, which might play a significant part in keeping her athletic career funded, especially considering that female athletes’ wages are remarkably low compared to their male counterpart. A reporter from CNN noted that “The average salary for a WNBA player is $72,000, which doesn’t include bonuses and benefits, while the average salary for an NBA player is around $5 million, or about 70 times what the average female basketball player makes.” With that being said, it’s even impossible for female athletes to get high quality training, not to mention to blow audience’s mind with a fabulous performance.
If they can get funding by just simply shooting a picture, why not? Regardless of the reasons, female athletes need money to support themselves and their family. They also need media exposure to build fan base. Audiences will purchase whatever “sports kit” is provided by the media, creating false impressions of how media portrays female athletes. And the circle goes on.
When everyone is the stakeholder, it’s hard to make change. As for media, they could just simply apology when things went wrong and at the same time enjoy higher pageviews. Even though female athletes might feel uncomfortable sometimes in the face of sexualized shooting, still, they are more likely to accept it instead of taking risks of ending their career because of lack of funding. There’s less space in the society accessible for women to fall and rebound.
You fall, you fail.
However, one thing we need to acknowledge is that we are living in a more open and quickly developing world, where people are inclined and able to create new norms, in particular through networked devices. Changes are on the way. And, if attitudes about women sports, or the way female athletes are presented in the media, still have a long way to go before we reach out to true gender equality, some strategies should be adopted in the meantime. With a certain amount of airtime devoted to women’s sports, female athletes would have opportunities to build up their own followers, fostering the development of an audience base for women’s sports, and presenting their commercial values in an athletic way. Since the money goes where audience is, the more supporters female athletes get, the more money they would possibly make, and the leadership is more likely to make change “voluntarily”. As rules of the game changed, we will make a big step further towards gender equality. At that time, it will be easier, and in many ways safer, for female athletes to say no in the face of sexualized media portrayals.
Billings, A. C., & Young, B. D. (2015). Comparing Flagship News Programs: Women’s Sport Coverage in ESPN’s SportsCenter and FOX Sports 1’s FOX Sports Live. Electronic News, 9(1), 3–16. https://doi.org/10.1177/1931243115572824
Cooky, C., Messner, M. A., & Musto, M. (2015). “It’s Dude Time!”: A Quarter Century of Excluding Women’s Sports in Televised News and Highlight Shows. Communication & Sport, 3(3), 261–287. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167479515588761
Messner, M. A. (2010). Gender in televised sports : news and highlights shows, 1989-2009. [California]: Center for Feminist Research, University of Southern California, . Retrieved from https://search.library.wisc.edu/catalog/9910104196502121
Weber, J. D., & Carini, R. M. (2013). Where are the female athletes in Sports Illustrated? A content analysis of covers (2000–2011). International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 48(2), 196–203. https://doi.org/10.1177/1012690211434230