The Media's Sexualization of Female Athletes: A Bad Call for the Modern Game

By Emily Liang
2011, Vol. 3 No. 10 | pg. 1/2 |

Since the early 20th century, the feminist movement has made enormous strides to improve the status of female athletes. Prior to the movement’s achievements, female athletes had to play in much poorer facilities, under different rules, and with stricter dress codes than male athletes. Society also largely ignored and discriminated against female athletes, portraying them as masculine and homosexual and further deterring women from participating in sports. After noticing these problems, feminists attempted to reverse these trends and produce better opportunities for female athletes. By advocating for equal rights as well as pushing for legislation, they enabled women to use sports to improve their health, create new identities, and venture into male-dominated areas (Prakash 22-23). Title IX of the Education Amendments remains the law that has most impacted women’s sports. Written by U.S. Representative Patsy Mink and passed by Congress in 1972, it declared, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” (20 U.S.C. §1681a). Because of Title IX, especially in the past few decades, a growing number of girls and women have become involved in high school and college sports, generating an unprecedented amount of publicity, support, and media coverage.[1] Women’s sports are written about and televised more frequently, drawing millions of followers every year.[2]

ESPN's "Body Issue"Although this progress does realize some goals of the feminist movement, numerous predicaments remain to be addressed and solved. One of the most important issues today is the media’s sexualization of female athletes. Unlike male athletes, female athletes do not have the luxury of being primarily portrayed as performance athletes, as coverage of their beauty and sex appeal usually overshadow highlights of their on-field endeavors. Depicting female athletes in suggestive poses and clothing, or even nude, magazines and commercials basically project a “woman first, athlete second” attitude that challenges athletes’ achievements and self-esteem. To complicate these matters, the athletes often accept the media’s actions, and some Olympic athletes, most recently skier Lindsey Vonn, have come under controversy for their decisions.[3] By sexualizing female athletes and encouraging them to prioritize sex appeal over strength, the media not only degrade the athletes’ accomplishments and self-esteem, but also alienate viewers and impede the feminist movement. This essay begins with a brief description of the reasons behind the media’s sexualization of female athletes before analyzing its repercussions for the athletes themselves. Then, to illustrate greater implications of the issue, this essay will delve into the impact on the media’s audience as well as on the feminist movement in general.

The media’s sexualization of female athletes has been originated from practicality and, to a larger extent, sexist social norms. In his 1993 study, Michael Messner, a University of Southern California professor who focuses on gender and sociology in sports, taped basketball games and tennis matches to compare the reporters’ commentary about women to that about men. Messner and his colleagues found that, by constantly displaying pink on-screen logos and reminding viewers that they were watching women’s games, the commentators “gender marked” competitions to maintain a “necessary sense of clarity for the viewers,” especially when the men’s and women’s competitions took place in the same arena (Messner, Duncan, Jensen 130). Thus, the sexualization of female athletes could be just a side effect of how the media must distinguish between the two genders. While this explanation could be correct, deeper reasons are clearly at play in such a widespread aspect of the media. Societal influences also permeate the media’s sexualization of female athletes. According to the Harvard Law Review, despite the advancements of the feminist movement, the American public still “has not yet become comfortable with the ways in which female athletes challenge traditional notions of femininity and masculinity” (1629). Therefore, to have a great influence in American society, the media have used sexualization to reflect and cater to the opinions and desires of their audience. While the media may use sexualization practically as a distinction for viewers, the sexualization of female athletes ultimately arises from the sexist traditionalism of American society.

Technical Fouls: Detrimental Repercussions for Female Athletes

Because the American public has not yet deemed women’s sports on par with men’s sports, female athletes have had to embrace the media’s sexualization to emphasize their femininity and gain publicity and money. According to Susah K. Cahn, a professor at the University of Buffalo who researches the history of women in sports, since female athletes inherently express strength and independence, which are not traditionally feminine qualities, they are often categorized as masculine and lesbian (57). To counteract such claims, female athletes assert their femininity through the media. Since only a few actually earn large salaries from playing sports, many embrace the media’s sexualization because they can show off their bodies while attaining exposure and endorsements.[4] For example, Anna Kournikova does not actually make a lot of money from playing tennis, and in fact, has never won a major tournament. Instead, she has become the world’s most highly paid women’s tennis player through endorsements that emphasize her sex appeal over her athleticism (Carty 138). Even athletes from conservative communities, such as the Taiwanese track and field runner and Olympic medalist Chi Cheng, have thus taken advantage of the media’s sexualization (Prakash 25). But female athletes should not even search for such opportunities. Modernist feminist Virginia Woolf contends that women should earn just “enough to be independent of any other human being and to buy that modicum of health, leisure, knowledge and so on that is needed for the full development of body and mind” (80). According to this idea, female athletes who pursue sexualized roles only limit their own spiritual growth. However, because they benefit financially from sexualization, balancing material comforts and feminist ideals is highly difficult. Consequently, the media’s sexualization of female athletes has only grown increasingly popular despite efforts to resist it.

Even when female athletes attempt to abstain from the media’s sexualization, they experience backlash from their viewers and even peers, further establishing the priority of sex appeal in women’s sports. In 1997 the Harvard Law Review found that “female athletes in the United States have historically faced resistance, even outright hostility, for not confining themselves to ‘feminine’ activities” (1629). Since they further diminish their femininity by refusing to participate in sexualized portrayals, these female athletes encounter much criticism from society, especially male viewers, for being stubborn and aggressive. On top of this backlash, female athletes who do not feel the need for or oppose sexualization face disapproval from fellow athletes.[5] Female athletes who embrace sexualization mostly respect the decision of those who oppose sexualization, but some, such as Olympic champion swimmers Jenny Thompson and Ashley Tappin, have actually criticized their peers for not showing off their bodies and following the popular trend. According to Mark O’Keefe, a national correspondent for the Newshouse News Service, they argue that female athletes should just “lighten up” and seize the opportunity to glorify their bodies while raising awareness for women’s sports, as having such opportunities should be a source of pride rather than shame (O’Keefe). As female athletes who oppose sexualization are confronted with criticism from society and their peers, they lose support, money, and camaraderie, seemingly leaving them no choice but to comply with the media’s actions. Because sex appeal holds such a substantial influence in today’s society, female athletes who challenge the media’s sexualization only alienate themselves.

While the media’s sexualization does grant female athletes more publicity, by concentrating on sex appeal instead of athleticism and skill, the media fail to adequately reflect the athletes’ accomplishments. Jo Ann Buysse, the Director of Sport Studies at the University of Minnesota, and Melissa Embser-Herbert, a researcher on gender and sexuality in athletics at the University of New Brunswick, analyzed intercollegiate media cover photographs from 1989 to 1990 and 1996 to 1997. They found that although the media may be trying to emphasize the athletes’ heterosexuality and femininity along with their athleticism, they only “further distance the image of women athletes from athletic competence” (Buysse and Embsert-Herbert 79). According to Modernist feminist Betty Friedan, whose The Feminine Mystique ignited the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 70s, “for the woman who lives according to the feminine mystique, there is no road to achievement, or status, or identity, except the sexual one” (Friedan 267). Living with the restrictive “feminine mystique,” athletes who volunteer for sexualized poses consequently perpetuate their debasement and relinquish their athletic achievements in favor of their sex appeal, which begins to dominate their lives. In her 2004 ESPN article “Olympians Posing Nude, Poses Questions,” Laura Boswell, a former college athlete, claims that by being “sexy,” these female athletes could also undermine the accomplishments of past and future athletes (Boswell). It may be argued that the media’s sexualization of female athletes can encourage people, especially men, to support women’s sports, but increasing true support would take much more than merely exploiting shallow sexuality (Harvard Law Review 1633). As the media’s sexualized representations of female athletes have increasingly emphasized sex appeal over athleticism, they have essentially legitimized a lack of recognition for the athletes’ accomplishments.

Besides minimizing athletic accomplishments, the media’s sexualization of female reduces the athletes’ self-esteem and identity by dehumanizing and pressuring them into an unhealthy obsession with body image. In portraying female sexuality as a commodity, the media degrade the athletes’ confidence by expressing the idea that they are merely second-class citizens, if not objects (Interviews with Betty Friedan 91-92). As the sexualization of female athletes becomes more widespread, the athletes will feel pressured to pose for such images and succumb to even more detrimental self-objectification. Elizabeth Daniels, a professor at the University of Oregon who researches well-being and positive youth development, asserts that as female athletes adhere to sexualized standards and strive for the perfect physique, they can experience “severe dissatisfaction with their appearance,” which can cause “disordered eating, negative body esteem, and negative effects on psychological well-being” (Daniels 401). Critics of this argument, such as Boswell, may claim that posing for sexualized pictures can increase an athlete’s self-esteem because she feels empowered and flattered, and as long as she volunteers to pose in sexualized images, her self-esteem would not be greatly affected. Nevertheless, the fact that an athlete must cater her body to fit the demands of the media and public contradicts the claim that she is posing for her self-confidence. As long as she complies with the media’s demands, she cannot be genuine to her own identity. By emphasizing female athletes’ sex appeal over athleticism and encouraging the athletes to do the same, the media’s sexualization takes away self-esteem and individuality from women’s sports.

Missed Shots: An Ineffective Method for Communicating to the Audience

In addition to impacting athletes, the media’s sexualization of female athletes affects viewers because while it intends to engage them, it actually creates deep divisions between them and the media’s messages. Revealing the pervasiveness of sex appeal in everyday life, the media’s sexualized images and commentary appear in national magazines, advertisements, and broadcasts so that most, if not all, of the American public can see them (APA Task Force 9). According to Catherine MacKinnon, a Modernist feminist who specializes in pornography and sexual harassment, the media’s actions essentially degrade female athletes into objects unrelatable to viewers since “as the human becomes thing and the mutual becomes one-sided and the given becomes stolen and sold, objectification comes to define femininity” (26). As a result, the American public cannot confer upon female athletes the same respect as male athletes, and even actual sports fans cannot be informed of the current trends in sports. Thus, the media effectively impede “the development of a base of women's sports fans—a base that could financially sustain professional sports opportunities for women” (Harvard Law Review 1630). According to Modernist feminist ideals, the objectification of female athletes even endangers the inherent value of sex, which, instead of giving “infinite orgastic bliss,” can become a “strangely joyless national compulsion, if not a contemptuous mockery” (Friedan 261). While illustrating the value of sex appeal to attract viewers, the popularity of the media’s sexualization ultimately detracts from the media’s more meaningful messages.

By publicizing glorified, seemingly unattainable standards of women, the media’s sexualization of female athletes can actually diminish the self-esteem of female viewers at large. The media’s actions can exhibit a negative influence on all women, particularly younger athletes. In fact, high school girls and college women exhibit more self-objectification and negativity towards their own physical appearances when they view images of sexualized athletes than when they view images of performance athletes (Daniels 417). This tendency results from the way that the media sustains an “antifeminist stereotype of Superwoman,” which characterizes female athletes as incomparable idols of beauty and sex appeal (Steinem 155). Female viewers may not only succumb to low self-esteem, but may also view the athletes as sell-outs, taking away valuable support and popularity from women’s sports. On the other hand, according to Allison Tracy and Sumru Erkut, professors at Wellesley College Centers for Women, the media’s images may not diminish the self-confidence of female viewers. After studying sports participation and self-esteem in teenagers, Tracy and Erkut discovered that despite the media’s sexualized depictions, more and more girls have joined sports and subsequently developed greater self-esteem (446). However, they also found that while the self-esteem of girls increased from sports, it was significantly less than that of boys who played sports (454). This trend can be explained by the fact that boys face less exposure to sexualized representations. Therefore, the media’s sexualization can even limit the benefits of sports on young female viewers. Because of the emphasis on sex appeal and objectification of women, the media’s actions tend to produce harmful self-objectification and alienation in female viewers.

The media targets male viewers with their sexualization of female athletes, but through objectifying women, the media ultimately fail to engage men in women’s sports. In their commentaries and broadcasts, the media use sexualized phrases like “naked aggression” to reinforce “already-existing negative attitudes or ambivalences about women’s sports and women athletes” (Messner, Duncan, and Jensen 129, 133). Thus, the media distract men from the real essence of women’s athletics, preventing the spread of further awareness and support from the American public. In addition, by highlighting only female athletes’ sex appeal and debasing their identities, the media effectively prevent the enjoyment of male viewers. For instance, according to Friedan, because pornographic images deny any part of women’s identities besides their sexuality, they not only suggest the idea that “women are supposed to serve men, sexually and otherwise,” but they also do not allow men to attain real sexual liberation, which cannot be achieved when one side is rendered passive (Interviews with Betty Friedan 92). By extension of this Modernist feminist theory, if male viewers are not even sexually engaged in the media’s phrases or images, they will feel awfully uninspired to attend women’s competitions. Even though the media gears its sexualization of female athletes toward men, they only reinforce harmful stereotypes and fail to entice male viewers into becoming true female sports fans.

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