Where are the female athletes?

At Sport in Society, we often discuss the coverage of female athletes in sports media. Or, rather, lack thereof. It’s a central topic in the discussion group Out of Bounds. After we wonder about inequalities in presence of men versus female athletes, the impact this may have on our society, and the expectation we unconsciously have of female athletes, we tend to conclude that popular media just do not cover female sports and athletes.

A recent study shows that on 4,9% of Sports Illustrated’s covers between 2000 and 2011, a female athlete appeared. Title IX, and an increasing number of women participating in sports since the 1990s suggest that this percentage has been lower in the past. However, Sports Illustrated featured almost three times as many female athletes between 1954 and 1965 (12,6%). Regardless these numbers, the manner in which these women are portrayed is worth a closer look. Often times, women share the spotlight with a male athlete while wearing clothes that clearly not fit for a work-out. In their conclusion, Weber and Carini suggest that Sports Illustrated promotes the objectification of female athletes to their 21 million readers.

In contrast, Frank Deford of NPR thinks fans of women’s sports can increase female athlete’s media coverage. To him, Title IX is something women should practice. It would be too easy to blame men for their dominance, while women continue to be men’s sports spectators: “if more women buy tickets to watch female athletes play, then more coverage will follow”. The real gap exists, according to Deford, between commercial and recreational youth sports. Newspapers do cover local middle- and high school women’s sports. In other words, coverage changes when money plays a role.

In my opinion, both media and sport fans can narrow the gap between coverage of male athletes versus female athletes. I, for example, can change myself and with that, my surroundings, but Justine Siegal is a perfect example for this, as she advocates an increase in participation for women in baseball. On the other hand, media have the power to influence many individuals at once… So instead of questioning the female athletes’ presence, let’s figure out where their platform is hidden.

Breaking the Box.

          Bikinis. Astronauts. Shark attacks. Running in slow motion. What do these things have in common? According to Axe’s newest commercial “Lifeguard”, this combination naturally makes one think of men’s cologne.  The vignette features a blonde young woman being dramatically rescued by an attractive male lifeguard, only to have the girl chase a man in a spacesuit walking on the beach. The phrase “Nothing beats an astronaut…Ever” appears across her bikini-clad body as the camera pans her running after him. Hardly Axe’s most offensive advertisement (my vote is for this “Chocolate Man” ad) I still noted the obvious stereotypes when this commercial aired during the Super Bowl last Sunday.

          This obvious “sex sells” approach is so ubiquitous in advertising today that its almost expected, but after the Mentors in Violence Prevention training we had last week I watched the Super Bowl commercials with a renewed interest in commercially-enforced gender stereotypes. One of the activities we did at the three-day training was The Box exercise, where we split into men’s and women’s groups to discuss gender pressures, and list what attributes were stereotypically male and female. Those qualities were listed inside a large box; in the space outside we listed the names given to individuals who fall outside that socially accepted norm. For the women’s sheet, we wrote things like “thin, domestic, sexy (but not too sexy), feminine, emotional” and outside the box we had words like “slutty” and “butch”. After this activity the male and female groups came back together and watched almost fifteen minutes of commercials that really proved how enforced and pervasive these stereotypes are.

          When selling a product, it’s easy to reach for the stereotypes, either featuring the obviously sexy woman in ads, or exclusively aiming yogurt commercials at women. But are the sellers of appetizing dairy products really concerned with female calcium intake? Or are they pushing the stereotype of women who are constantly concerned with dieting and who eat yogurt instead of dessert, lest they fall outside the “thin, sexy” box? If we aren’t careful, we’ll simply accept these stereotypes and eventually be complicit in constructing these boxes ourselves. And as we discussed in our MVP training, these stereotypes encourage sexist attitudes and language, and propagate the objectification of women. Both of these are methods for demeaning females in society, which only escalates through the Pyramid of Sexism, which is a tool that maps how these lower-level, non-violent ways of degrading women support more violent and abusive acts.

          That’s not to argue that stereotypes can’t be a useful method for advertising at a select demographic; focus groups confirm similar interests for certain age or gender groups. And I think everyone enjoys the Old Spice “Man Your Man Could Smell Like” cheeky, over-the-top commercials that mock Axe advertising. But we need to be careful what interests we support when we talk about the Super Bowl commercials this week. Jarrod, one of our MVP facilitators, actually mentioned an old Super Bowl commercial during our unit on media stereotypes.

          In 2007 Snickers aired a spot called “Kiss” which featured two mechanics accidentally kissing while eating a Snickers bar. The men panicked and immediately needed to do something “manly” to offset their lip lock; they began pulling out their chest hair to prove their stereotypical manhood. After an immediate and overwhelmingly negative response, Snickers pulled the advertisement and its related web content. This is a great example of the impact we can have when facing sexism in media stereotypes. And it’s even easier today, with outlets like Twitter and FaceBook, to condemn sexist or homophobic media. Everyone has the opportunity to be an active bystander, and to rebuild our own boxes to include us all.