Representation of Athletes in the Media

There has been an abundance literature on the subject of the representation of female athletes in the media, from television coverage and newspapers to magazines and websites. From ancient Greece where it was not allowed for women to partake in or even watch the Olympic Games and the power and independence of the Amazonian tribal warrior woman, to present day and the struggles with underrepresentation and misrepresentation of female athletes in sport media (George, Hartley, Paris, 2001; Creedon, 1994; Bernstein, 2002).
The mass media is a sociocultural machine that churns out influential images and articles about (sporting) issues that reflect ideologies, values and beliefs that shape societies attitudes towards that issue, such as the underrepresentation of female athletes and women’s sport causing society to believe that women’s sporting achievement and participation in sport is inferior or of little value or less exciting then male athletes and male sport (George, Hartly, Paris, 2001; Bernsein, 2002; Duncan, 1990; Sagas et al, 2000; Economos, C. D. , Brownson, R. C. , DeAngelis, M. A. , Foerster, S. B. , Foreman, C. T. , Gregson, J. Kumanyika, S. K. and Pate, R. R. , 2001). Harris (1999) puts it that the ‘attitudes towards the institution of sport generate and support sexist ideologies and beliefs about gender’ (; 98). The literature focusses its research analysis on two main underlying issues, these being the amount of coverage and secondly, the type of representation created in the mass media of female athletes and women’s sport. These issues can be broken down further into ‘sub-issues’ which focus on the representation of women in visual media – photos, verbal descriptors – commentary, contextual – articles (Alexander, 1994; Bernstein, 2002).
The amount of coverage in all mass media forms in certain time frames are usually consisting of the analysis of media revolving around the largest sporting event in history – The Olympics. It has been proven that aside from the two weeks every four years for the Olympics and arguably the two weeks for the Commonwealth Games, sport media coverage of female sports is almost forgotten, non-existent or even ignored (Jones, 2006), for example; less than 10 per cent of coverage increases to an average of 26 per cent during major sporting events such as the Olympics (Bruce, 2008).

The media’s coverage of female athletes does not carry a fair portrayal of women in sport but serves to reinforce ideologies that women are inferior and are ‘socially constructed as an alternative to their male counterparts, who play the version of the sport that “really counts”’ (Jones and Jackson, 1999. p 99). Many of the ways in which media has been found to represent women can be deconstructed in the photographs used in the media.
Lee (1992) found, in his analysis of the Globe and Mail and the New York Times coverage of the 1984 and the 1988 Olympic Games, that male athletes received 60. 4% of the photographic coverage in parallel with the female athletes who had only 26%. So we can already begin to understand how the media is responsible for this under and miss representations of female athletes.
Vincent, Imwold, Masemann and Johnson (2002) suggests 4 ways in which one can break down the denotations of imagery; 1 – Competitive: where the athlete is actively pictured partaking in his/her sport, 2 – Non-competitive: this is when an athlete is not actively participating in the sport but is in a setting whereby the sport is apparent, 3 – Active: the athlete is physically doing something other than the sport, for example spectating, 3 – Posed: when the athlete is depicted in a non-sport setting and is posed for the camera.
Duncan (1990) suggests women represent ‘otherness’ in photographs when there is a focus on A) women’s physical appearance (the ‘best looking’, ‘best kept’ athletes are captured more, B) poses with sexual connotations (images revealing body prats to resemble soft-core pornography), C) displays of emotion (tearful athletes, in victory or defeat) and D) sexual differences (women being passive and men as active).
So, female athletes being pictured in a way that suggests passiveness, sexually difference and non-competitiveness, for example, will only function to perpetuate ‘otherness’ and inferiority in the sport, therefore cause to devalue and marginalise the accomplishments of female athletes (Jones, 2006). When female athletes do get high percentages of photographic coverage in the media, the photographs depict the female athletes in a passive or non-athletic role.
Boutlilier and SanGoivannis’ (1983) study of the 25 year special edition of Sports Illustrated found 60 per cent of the photos of women showed them in this way and those photos depicting men in the same way was only 44 per cent. It can be argued this is because, in western culture, women that show traits of active physicality, toughness and aggressiveness are seen in the eyes of society as lesbian, due to these classically masculine sporting characteristics (Kane and Lenskyj, 1989).
Homosexuality is only just being appreciated as a socio-acceptable sexuality, France is set to legalize same-sex marriages in 2013. But at the moment it would seem that sporting ideologies are behind the times as far as progression in social changes are concerned. In sport it can be seen as a threat to the male dominance that surrounds sport. A lesbian presence in sport is a threat because it disrupts and challenges the male hegemony by ‘upsetting existing power structures based on gender and sexuality’ (Kane and Lenskyj, 1989, p. 89), this leads to the media and the sporting industry to underrepresent female athletes and/or fix the female athletes with a heterosexual role, like wife or mother, or emphasize their heterosexuality with ‘heterosexy images’ (Griffin, 1992, p 225; Kane and Lenskyj, 1989). Heterosexy images can best be explained like this, ‘for women, being an athlete contradicts the conventional female roles, and thus the media coverage emphazises other aspects of their “femaleness”’ (such as their attractiveness) (Knight and Giuliano, 2002, p 219).
Martina Narvatiolva, a professional tennis player who won 18 Grand slam titles through the 80s, has always been open about her homosexuality and due to this fact received less endorsements and sponsorships throughout her career than her predecessor Chris Evert (Creedon, 1998). These two female tennis players both won the same amount of Grand slam singles titles, so it seems like a blatant strike against those who challenge dominant beliefs about male hegemony in sport.
Others have learned from this, Nelson (1991) remarks on the LPGA (Ladies Pro Golf Association) and how the ‘[s]ponsors, LPGA staff, and players attempt to… play up marriages and mothers, employ an image consultant to serve as hairstylist and make-up artists and maintain…a “silence so loud it screams”. Sponsors are only interested in sport which gains the most coverage, women’s sport and female athletes do not feature enough in the media for the sponsors to be interested, therefore when females are ‘glammed’ up and conforming to heterosexy images like mother or wife, they are more appropriate for mass media coverage (Berstein, 2002).
What has happened and is happening in women’s sport is that women find themselves emphasizing their femininity so that they do not get pigeonholed as socially different, Del Ray (1978) and Felshin (1981) call this the apologetic approach theory. Women such as Jessica Ennis are encouraged to feel like they have to be overtly feminine, for example pose for fashion magazines and take part in interviews which constantly undermine the achievements of female athletes. Female athletes are conforming to a very old patriarchal ideology of women that is increasingly forgotten in society but is very much the way in sport.
This again is proof to what has previously been stated, that sporting ideologies are behind the times in regards to social change. The modern Olympic Games were reborn and were reserved for men only; in the first modern Olympics in 1896 there were not female participants. In the 1900 Games onward the number of women competing gradually grew until one millennia later more athletes competed that ever in 188 events including women’s weightlifting (Berstein, 2002) and now in 2012 is the first ever Olympics to allow female boxing.
Women who compete in, what are considered male ‘appropriate’ sports are said to be challenging traditional gender role expectations and so are going against the grain of conventional ideologies in sport and society (Creedon, 1994). Boxing is absolutely seen as a male dominated sport and so are many others such as rugby, football, basketball and weightlifting, these are considered as ‘male appropriate’ sports.
The idea of male and female appropriate sports further increases the social differences between men and women in sport and by imbedding this social dichotomy sexual (physical) difference becomes gender (social) difference (Lenskyj, 1987; Kane and Greendorfer, 1994). This suggests that men and women in sport are equal to partake in any sport but the sport and media industry, by means of this segregation, are prescribing to male dominance through gender appropriating sports.
For example, Tuggle and Owen’s (1999) study of the 1996 Olympic Games discovered female athletes were more likely to receive media attention if they competed in female appropriate sports. They found that 61 per cent of media coverage of women was concentrated on swimming, diving and gymnastics. These sports, along with the likes of ice skating and tennis, are ranked more sex appropriate for women because they comprise of graceful, smooth and fluid body movements that require no heavy bodily contact or contests of strength and aggression (Colley, Nash, O’Donnell and Restorick, 1987; Metheny, 1967).
If men’s sport and therein masculinity is defined and associated with aggression and violence, then female athletes who take part in these sports are seen to cross the gap and are socially viewed as men and as lesbian and also vice-versa, male athletes who’s sports consists of diving and ice skating are seen and women and therefore ‘soft’ and homosexual (Eisler, 1987). With such a divide in sport, towards male and female, and the medias bias of representation and coverage towards male sport and male athletes then it can only lead the public opinion to assume that female athletes are the ‘social other’ and less important than male athletes.
Sabo and Curry Jansen (1992. 176) put that… the skills and strengths of women athletes are often devalued in comparison to cultural standards linked to dominant standards of male athletic excellence, which emphasize the cultural equivalences of hegemonic power, self-control, success, agency and aggression. The dichotomy can be argued as a good thing to inspire young women to play sport, according to one Australian female athlete who posed for a sexy calendar.
She said it was ‘nice to feel like a women because you just feel like a dog after training with your hair all wet’ (“Stars back glamour for promotion”, 1994). She went on to say how young girls today are turned off by sport because ‘they don’t want to look muscle bound and sweaty and ‘grimy’ and that ‘glamorous’ sportswomen in the calendar would encourage girls to participate’’ (Wells, 1994). It would seem that due to the underrepresentation of women’s sport in the media, young girls only see men in sport so automatically will assume they will become muscle bound and hairy.
The company that produced the calendar said that ‘the public image of female athletes is “masculine with hairy armpits” and the calendar presented women who appeared “feminine, soft and sexy”’ (Games girls’ fund-raising, 1994). However, one can argue that this type of encouragement into sport will have negative influences on young women such as the hyper-feminine athlete competing for recognition through her attractiveness instead of her achievements, leading away from social change and backing the patriarchal beliefs in sport. Anna Kournikova is a good example case study of this theory.
Anna was dubbed tennis’s pin-up girl and in the year 2000 Kournikova was ranked 8th in the world. Usually an 8th seed or and 8th ranked would very rarely get a mention in the media but as one web-based writer put it ‘the Anna Kournikova phenomenon proves you don’t need to win tournaments to get your name- and photo- in the media’ (see Thomas, 2001). Kournikova ‘herself and the people surrounding her orchestrate the type of media coverage and hype she generates…As a result she has made millions from endorsements and was ranked No. 4 on this year’s Forbes “celebrity 100” – higher than any other sportswomen’ (Thomas, 2001). Is the underlying message to young women you have to be attractive to succeed in sport or is it to succeed in sport, like anything else, you need to have the drive, motivation and skills. Mackay (1999) says there is a definitely a positive from athletes such as Kournikova in that girls are encouraged by her to run around and get sweaty and that twenty years ago this was not considered feminine.
Perhaps encouraging young women into sports this way and increasing the numbers of women in sport will force the media to change the way they represent women in the future. Gender marked sports/ appropriate sports. Leads to Language and stereotypes Journalists and reporters mainly male, women don’t want to cover females, it doesn’t pay aswell. With the passing of Title IX, which sates ‘[n]o person…shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in,…any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,’(Title IX, Education Amendments of 1972), so many young women now actively take part in sports.
For example, in the United States 2 million young women compared to just 300 000 now take part in school sports (Becker, 1988; National Federation of State High School Associations, 1991). So, all this new interest and up-and-coming talent and increased investments there has been post Title IX, $4 million in 1974 to $16 million (Sullivan, 1985), it begs the question of; why is the media not making any attempts to break out of the patriarchal belief system and encourage social change through the images in puts out? Also, who’s interests is it to portray and promote the modern female athletes as role models (Kane and Greendorfer, 1994).

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