Thursday, May 14, 2009

Pro-Athlete or Sex Symbol? : The Portrayal of Women in Sports

By: Sandra Castellón 

There is a very long history of sports in America. It has been around since the beginning of this nation. Something that is evident in sport is its reflection of the values and attitudes society has in that point in time. “Sport is a product and producer of society” (Schultz, 2009a). Each generation goes through some struggle and it is evident through ‘who’ we get to see participate in sport. African Americans struggled to break into sports, and when they finally did break into sports, they had to fight for equal treatment and for respect from society. Then, there was a struggle for women. This struggle still lives on. Yes, it is true that women are now participating in basketball, soccer, tennis, volleyball, golf, swimming, track & field, and hundreds of other sports, there are also leagues and organizations for women, but is there full equality between men’s sports and women’s sports? Do women get paid the same as men for participating in the same sport? Do women’s sports receive the same amount of attention through the media as men’s sports? Or the same recognition after they have accomplished something so amazing? These are all hot topics of discussion of sports in contemporary society. One of the things that may be interesting to investigate is the portrayal of women athletes through the media.

Gender plays a big role in how an athlete is viewed. Our society has shaped a stereotypical female athlete and a stereotypical male athlete, so when the public becomes witness to something out of the ordinary, it is sometimes ridiculed. This was the biggest challenge for women to overcome in the twentieth century. In order for women to participate in sport, they had to comply to sports reserved for their gender. These “gender appropriate sports” (Schultz, 2009b) for women, limited them to sports that expressed grace and beauty. It was unacceptable to see a woman play rough and tumble sports that required strength because they were then labeled as too ‘manly’ or as ‘lesbian’, but women like Babe Didrikson, Billie Jean King, Gertrude Ederle, and so many others didn’t only prove that they were capable of engaging in these type of sports, they also proved that they could perform as good or even better than men.           

Although there has been a lot of change in our society, some attitudes from long ago of women are still present. For example, the notion that women should always behave ladylike. Image is a big component that can either favor a woman’s career or hurt it. Nowadays, in many sports, women wear tight, exposing outfits, such as in tennis, volleyball, swimming, competitive cheerleading, and gymnastics. Due to this, women can easily become ‘sex symbols’ to the public for their high level of attractiveness. In a journal article by Michael Messner and other colleagues (Messner et al, 2003), an investigation of how the media portrays women was carried out. They found that certain sport TV networks, such as KABC, presented coverage that “tended much more to trivialization of women athletes and sexualized humor and put-downs of women in general” (Messner et al, 2003). Basically, women athletes are exploited because more attention is given to their physical attractiveness rather than their accomplishments in sport.  An example of this: in mid July, after the World Cup Championship in which the U.S. soccer team won, KABC and KCBS constantly went back to the story of how the soccer player Brandi Chastain had stripped off her jersey, revealing her sports bra, after the victory (Messner et al, 2003).  Obviously, sports coverage of women’s sports can be degrading instead of celebratory and respectful of a woman’s accomplishment.                      

I would think that women athletes wouldn’t want their potential of being ‘eye candy’ overshadow the great athlete they are, but apparently I’m mistaken. Some athletes such as Olympic swimmer Jenny Thompson, high jumper Amy Cuff, and 200-meter breaststroke holder, Amanda Beard have posed in either Playboy, Maxim or FHM magazine (Drape, 2004). Can this be called another “Flapper Era” (Cahn, 1994)? Women are breaking away from the traditional athlete façade. Women are taking much riskier actions. But the question is what are the reasons they are doing this for? Amy Cuff confesses she did it for the money, “It’s really hard to make that kind of money in the real world” (Drape, 2004). Some women might do it for more exposure of themselves to the world or simply for the fun of it. Maybe their doing it to send the message that they can do what they please without facing ramifications for it in the society we live in today. Whatever the reason may be, they have exacerbated the media’s view of women as sex symbols. 

Many years ago, the Olympic Committee or any sport organization might have severely punished women athletes for this type of exposure of themselves, so women of today are taking advantage of the freedom they possess to make their own decisions of how they want to be portrayed in the media. Like always, there are different perspectives among people on one subject. In respects to how women portray themselves, some may think that women are doing certain sports a favor by making them more popular through their physicality.  Others might think that women athletes are in fact hurting themselves more than helping themselves when they expose their bodies in provocative magazines. A consequence of such exposure might be that people will first remember a photo of the sports star in a magazine rather than first recognizing them as a pro athlete. Other consequences might be further sexualized humor, trivialization, and more put-downs of women in general, in sport broadcasts of women’s sports. Women have gone too far, to turn back to humiliation and degradation of self.

Recommended Readings:

·      Araton H. (2001, June 28). Women as Athletes: The Pictures Don’t Lie. New York Times, pg.D2.

·      Tuggle C.A., & Owens A. (1999). A Descriptive Analysis of NBC’s Coverage of the Centennial Olympics. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, Vol. 23, 171-184.


 Works Cited:

·      Cahn, S. (1994). Grass-roots growth and sexual sensation in the flapper era. In S. Cahn, Coming On Strong (pp.31-41). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

·      Drape, J. (2004, August 12). Lots of Skin But Not Much Fuss As Olympians Strike Pinup Pose. New York Times, pg.A1, D7.

·      Messner M. (2003). Silence, Sports Bras and Wrestling Porn: Women in Televised Sports News and Highlights Shows. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, Vol.27, 38-51.

·      Schultz, J. (2009a). The Relationship Between Sport and History. Lecture presented in KNES293. University of Maryland, College Park, MD.

·      Schultz, J. (2009b). The 1970’s Quest for Equity In Women’s Sport. Lecture presented in KNES293. University of Maryland, College Park, MD.











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