Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Portrayal of Female Athletes in the Media

The media’s portrayal of female athletes poses a direct implication that women have always been inferior to men and that their importance in the sport’s world is very different than that of their male counterparts. Title IX, which was enacted in 1972, spoke volumes about the need and acceptance for gender equality in sports and in education and yet the mass media, although predominantly male has yet to catch up to this need (Dunne, 2006). In the media, women are sexualized to appeal to viewers and sponsors of their sports, which ultimately gives attention to their bodies instead of their skills. For years women have tried to prove themselves equal to men and have slowly made great strides in having and protecting the same rights that men have been given. These same rights play into sports and to have equal sports coverage, non-stereotyping, and the respect to be seen as a strong, female athlete who serves as a role model for others. There are many ways that the media tries to change how society views female athletes, since the media is our main source of information in this day and age.

One of the ways in which media portrays female athletes is sports coverage of women’s sports and events. In a recent study carried out by the two researchers at the Media Awareness Network, they found that not only does ESPN rarely televise women’s sports but they actually only devote roughly 3% to commenting on women’s sports and events, while 88% is devoted to male athletes and their sports (Network, 2008). Furthermore sports broadcasters, who are 97% male, use different terminology when commentating on women’s sports as opposed to when they commentate on men’s sports (Network, 2008). In men’s sports the commentators use words to describe the athletes such as “big”, “tough”, and “aggressive”, and “built for the game”, while women would be described as “small for her sport”, “pretty”, and “quick”. Women are distinctly shown in the media as inferior subjects to male athletes, and although a multitude of female athlete have made progressive movements towards equality in sports, women are still put down. A classic example of when women are seen not for their athleticism but for their beauty is in an issue of Sports Illustrated, where there was an article written about figure skating champion, Katarina Witt. The magazine described her as being “…so fresh-faced, so blue-eyed, so ruby-lipped, so 12-car pileup gorgeous, 5 feet 5 inches and 114 pounds worth of peacekeeping missile” (Foundation, 2007). Sports Illustrated, a magazine whose demographic reaches out to mostly men, markets their magazine and publishes articles that specifically speak to their demographics, thus this article is speaking about Katarina’s body and face, instead of her athleticism.

Today, the media continues to portray female athletes through images and texts about their bodies instead of focusing on their skills and achievements. A video came out in 2006 called "Playing Unfair: The Media Image of the Female Athlete" that clearly depicts how the media over the years has sought out to under represent female athletes by consistently playing up their gender roles as wives, mothers, and even sex objects instead of focusing on their achievements on the field and court. In the video there is an interview with Michael Messner from the University of Southern California who says that “…over the course of a decade that we were doing research on the coverage of women’s and men’s sports our predominant finding was how the coverage of women’s sports had not changed”. Media and journalism is still male dominated into days era of sports and athleticism because for the most part is has been male dominated. Nike, one of the biggest sponsors of professional athletes, has unbelievable commercials for women athletes of all ages. One of my favorite commercials is the Nike “Athlete Campaign” commercial that is distinctly directed towards women to take a stand against all the people who have ever told them “you can’t”. In 1967 Katherine Switzer took a huge stand for women athletes around the world when she became the first woman to officially enter an “all-male tradition” in the Boston Marathon. Switzer’s entry into the race served as a catalyst for a large amount of media attention she brought to the race and brought a spotlight to gender equality in sports. The most memorable moment of her race however was when a race official tried to “” in order to stop her from finishing the race. Since that incident she has “dedicated her multifaceted career to creating opportunities and equal sport status for women” (Switzer, 2009). Without Switzer, we would be another step behind in the fight towards equality in sports and the media.

The media has consistently placed female athletes into three general categories that summarize how they are portrayed in society, through the eyes of the media. The three categories are out of sports context, wives and mothers, and soft porn (Holste, 2000). The first category, out of sports context, is used when female athletes are seen in images that are out of their sport and are most likely in sexualized poses. A specific female athlete is Danica Patrick, a professional racecar driver, who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition in a small, white bikini holding her racing helmet. A feminist law professor at the University of South Carolina named Ann Bartow recently posted a blog about an interview with Dr. Mary Kane of the kinesiology department from the University of Minnesota. In the interview, Dr. Kane reveals that Danica Patrick is seen in the magazine as an extremely sexualized woman, not a race car driver. She also went on to say that the men “…want to buy the magazines but they didn’t want to consume the sports”, which mostly means the men are not seeing Danica for her awesome ability to race fast cars, but instead are seeing her for her body image alone. Furthermore, Dr. Kane questioned whether having Danica in a white, slinky bathing suit brought an “increase in the interest in women’s sports?” and the most “resounding answer was no” (Kane, 2008). I have heard many times that “sex sells”, but if the media continues to bare female athletes nude or partially clothed that obviously society is going to get used to the idea that it is “normal” for women to be exposed like this in order to increase interest in their sport, although the image of Danica Patrick proves that these images do not even increase the interest in women’s sports.

Another image the media create for female athletes is wives and mothers. The media has consistently portrayed female athletes in articles that show them as housewives or posing with their children, instead of focusing on the athletic careers and achievements. This is not to say that family is not important or that it has anything to do with their careers but the media have portrayed them to be this without giving mention to their athleticism. Dana Torres, a forty-one year old Olympic swimmer, who was interviewed on the TODAY show before the Beijing Olympics, vowed to defy all odds after getting into the pool. In the video interview, the caption under her name read “41-year old mother goes for gold”. It did not read “41-year old Olympic swimmer” or even “awesome athlete going for gold”; it read that she was a middle aged mother who happened to be swimming in the Olympics. The TODAY show clearly focused on her being a mother, taking a different tone with the achievement she had taken considering she was a mother, and not an athlete. The TODAY show could have interviewed her as an athlete, or they could have interviewed her as a mother who happened to be a swimmer; they decided to take the mother route and asked her many questions about her physical appearance and life as a mother and an athlete. This goes to show how the media constantly undermines a women’s ability to be an athlete first in their careers and a wife, mother, and family member second.

Female athletes are also photographed and viewed in images as “soft porn” where they are purposefully told to stand in sexualized poses that accentuate certain parts of their body. These images that are seen on the covers of Maxim, FHM, Playboy, and Sports Illustrated are examples of how female athletes are underrepresented for their abilities on the field and court and instead represented in an over sexualized manner. A great example of this is female bodybuilding because female bodybuilders live on the “line” of trying to be man-like and also trying to be feminine. Female bodybuilders however face a lot of sexism and criticism because these women are not the stereotypical “females” in society—the ones that are blonde, skinny and tan. Instead these women are strong, muscular, and may even be larger than other male competitors. Many female bodybuilders do not earn the respect they want as athletes because they are competing in a male dominated sport. Instead these women are looked at for their bodies—not their determination and athleticism. Many female bodybuilders are photographed in tight bathing suits that barely fit over their pulsating, large muscles and yet these magazines sell because people are attracted to the amazing physicality of the person’s body. In an article written by Leslie Heywood she discusses how female bodybuilding and athletic eroticism is often confused with pornographic eroticism. Heywood defines athletic eroticism as “a representation that includes sexuality as one dimension of human experience, as a quality that emerges from the self-possession, autonomy, and strength so evident in the body of a female athlete”, which is to say that athletic eroticism includes “sexuality as one quality among many, not a trait that is present to the exclusion”. Heywood then defined pornographic eroticism as “any representation that takes sexuality…” and “…makes sexuality the primary characteristic of the person represented” (Heywood, 1998). Flex, a muscle magazine that promotes bodybuilding and fitness training, has had a long history of portraying female bodybuilders in “teasing sex act” poses and other illicit photographs on the covers of their magazine. In the early nineties however the magazine photographed two women training in a gym instead of posing partially clothed and or on each other. This can only suggest that times may slowly be changing for the better in the hunt for equality in media content for female athletes.

A sub group of female athletes that are also highly criticized in the media are African-American female athletes. Not only are African-American female athletes discriminated for their gender, but they are also discriminated against for their race. Roughly less than 10% of African-American female athletes participate in collegiate athletics with the majority of that percentage being in basketball or track (Lopiano, 2008). Venus and Serena Williams, two of the top professional female tennis players in the world, are both female and African-American. Serena and Venus have drawn their fair share of negative media attention both on and off the courts. This negativity towards the two sisters has been said to come from the fact that they “…are not your typical small, cutesy, white, female tennis players. They are black, muscular, and solid….and they win with their hard hitting, hard return, power games” (Ott & Marieke Van Puymbroeck, 2007). The sisters are also criticized for their attire that they wear on the courts, which predominantly consists of tight fitting, bright, colored skirts and tennis dresses.

However, the media constantly criticizes these two sisters for being “loud” with their choice of clothing and for standing out in a “white woman sport”. This is absolutely absurd and the media should really focus more on the fact that these two women have overcome the hardship of being poor when they were younger to get to the top all by being trained by their father. In the documentary of the Williams sisters, “Raising Tennis Aces”, producers focus on how the girls grew up to be the best among the professional tennis players and how they overcame a multitude of struggles and critics in the media. Over the years media has focused in on bringing negative attention to them by saying that they only win by their “hard hitting”. Not only is that dehumanizing to a professional athlete but the media stoops so low to focus on pointless negative media content instead of respectfully recognizing their hard-working, developed talent that has brought them to the top of their game in professional sports.

Female athletes have come a long way in the sports world because they have consistently fought through adversity and through negative portrayals in the media to reach their goals. The media controls what society views and sees, so it is up to the viewer to potentially decide for his or herself what is true and what they believe to be true in the media. Media puts content out there in magazines and on television, the radio, and on websites with the main purpose that we, as a technological generation, will see and absorb the information. The portrayal of female athletes in the media is a direct correlation of how they perceive the athletes and in turn we “believe” what we are told. I know that we as a society need to change our outlook on how female athletes are portrayed because although woman may be looked at for their beauty it is important for female athletes to be equally respected for their talents, abilities and hard work ethic since they constantly have to compete alongside male athletes as well. The media should present sports coverage and media content to society that is true, equal and overall presents a respectable image for both men and women athletes in their sports. If the media refuses their overall perception of female athletes for profitable reasons then they must have no morals or code of ethics with respect to gender equality. Perhaps instituting more women in the field of sports coverage and sports media would help to embrace female athletes more in the media in hopes of changing the perception that society shares.


Celizic, M. (2008). At 41, Dara Torres is in the swim for a fifth Olympics. New York, NY: TODAY Show.

Dunne, S. (2006, December 5). Title IX- Gender Equity in Education. Retrieved April 2010, from American Civil Liberties Union:

Foundation, W. S. (2007). Mixed Media: Images of Female Athletes.

Heywood, L. (1998). Athletic vs. Pornographic Eroticism: How Muscle Magazines Compromise Female Athletes and Delegitimize the Sport of Bodybuilding in the Public Eye. Binghamton, NY.

Holste, G. (2000). Women Athletes Often Debased by Media Images. Retrieved April 2010, from Womens E-News:

Kane, D. M. (2008, June 29). Female Athletes Show Their Skin. (D. Zurin, Interviewer)

Lopiano, D. (2008). Gender Equity and the Black Female in Sport. Retrieved April 2010, from Women's Sports Foundation:

Network, M. A. (2008). Media Coverage of Women and Women's Issues. Retrieved April 2010, from Media Awareness Network:

Ott, K., & Marieke Van Puymbroeck, P. (2007). Does the Media Impact Athletic Performance.

Switzer, K. (2009). Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women's Sports. Da Capo Press.

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