Search

Differential Media Coverage of Women’s Sports and Athletes

*Priyanka Ray



Introduction


Female athletes and women’s sports have witnessed a prolific advancement. However, the media portrayal is subjected to invisibility and objectification when compared to male counterparts or men’s sports. Sports remain to be for, by, and about men because media keep on provide fans with content that lacks serious and respectful coverage of women’s sports. Male athletes are still considered superior to female athletes although there has been popularity and immense growth of women sports. Despite the assertions that female athletes are nowadays considered equivalent to their male counterparts, there is an obsession with the female athlete’s body instead of a focus on her athletic skills. Sports broadcasting also remains an overwhelmingly male-dominated realm where women face severe scrutiny constantly. Unless the media re-examines the way, female athletes are portrayed, women’s sports will always be marginalized and silenced.


In developing gender values, the media is one of the most outstanding ways to socialize in today’s society.[1]Indeed, the media plays a notable role in the transference of inequality and gender differences through day-to-day visuals within television and print media. Newspapers and magazines inundate individuals with narratives and photographs of what being a man, or a woman is and specifically the gender disparities between women and men. In the field of sport, these differences in gender roles are highly apparent. Although women have acquired ground in the non-sporting sphere, within the boundaries of the field or court, they are still considered as females first and then athletes, while no such concerns are faced by their male counterparts.


In the field of sports, gender discrimination is recognized as the norm.[2] Media continually reinforces patriarchal values that have been historically associated with sports. In particular, sportswomen exist in two markedly separate cultures. One is the sporting culture, and the other larger culture is where they have to deal with the continuing clash between being a woman and an athlete.[3] This is a principal concept within the media and sport context since sports have commonly been regarded as a territory for men where the socio-cultural ideals are reflected and created at times. Unsurprisingly, gender disparity extends to sports journalism as well. Little improvement has been shown over time and although female sports broadcasters are more in number now, there are very few of them in the print media.


Coverage of Women’s Practice and Competitions


There is a continuous imbalance in the quantity and quality of coverage for women’s sports. Research has found that both broadcast and print media have an average of 4% coverage of women’s sports even when 40% of women participate in all kinds of sports. There are fluctuations during unusual occasions like the World Cup and the Olympics when women are seen competing against men.[4] A positive shift in the amount of women’s sports coverage is only seen in the absence of men’s sports. The lack of coverage results in girls dropping out of sports because there is a lack of role models. The rate of dropping out of girls is twice that of boys[5] due to underpromotion and underfunding of women’s sports and athletes and not because they lack passion or skill. Equal airtime would empower girls to reach their full potential in sports. Thus, campaigns like She Breaks Barriers and programs like @3StripeLive are launched to produce substantial visibility at all levels for women. Less coverage of women’s sports tells us about society’s perception of women in general. It is not very difficult to find a woman’s sporting event for attending but it is extremely difficult to see or read about it in mainstream media. Men and women playing the same sport at the same level get different support due to the differential media coverage. This results in the men’s team being more popular than the female one at the professional level or even at the college level. Exclusionary practices are adopted by both the online and print media to deny power to women athletes and sports.


“Socially acceptable” sport is an ideology that exists for both males and females. Men lean towards masculine sports like rugby and football which have a greater contact whereas women are expected to lean more towards softball and gymnastics which are considered feminine sports. Therefore, women playing sports that have a greater contact are not regarded as “real” women and their sexuality is instantly questioned. Women sports automatically get more coverage when they are aesthetically appealing. Media companies frequently preserve the reward system through more coverage for sportswomen who fit the gender pyramid.[6] Moreover, I have noticed that there is a difference in how male and female athletes are called. Whereas males are referred to by their last names, the females are usually called a “young lady” or by their first names. This indicates a hierarchical naming where females are infantilized. Sports television hours have been dedicated to men’s sports 90% of the time because women’s sports are not considered significant for media coverage.[7] There has been some progress but a lot more still needs to be done. Media coverage is normally seen for feminine sports like gymnastics or exaggerated coverage of females challenging their male counterparts. Even if coverage of other sports is there, it is not accessible for public appreciation. The audience, especially the younger generation is very enthusiastic about women’s sports. So, the unenthusiastic media coverage of women’s sports is not due to the public’s lack of interest. This unequal attention that females receive due to fewer media coverage protects the existing male privilege in sports. Media broadcasts women’s accomplishments with a focus on their sexuality, private lives, and physical appearances whereas men are portrayed as strong and enduring. Media coverage also showcases women’s sports as slower and less exciting than that of men. Men’s mistakes while playing sports are blamed on bad luck whereas women’s mistakes are shown to be a result of emotional troubles. Moreover, prime time coverage is usually given to men’s sports. The sexist, biased, and ignorant culture of the sports media should be challenged to create an environment that values women’s sports and athletes.


Women Broadcasters in Media


“The problem or the resentment was not from athletes or officials or people who were associated with the sport-part of it. It was the other journalists- not all, but some- who were around, the slightly older generation of men. They pretended like I was not there.” [8]


-Sharda Ugra


Sports broadcasting has in recent times become more attainable for women. Although, numbers still indicate a prominent gap. This gap is wider in the print media. The percentage of women in sports media is still comparatively low, including weekday hosts on sports broadcast stations.[9] This specific field of broadcasting remains a primarily male-dominated speciality around the world and relatively fewer women enter this field. Even articles are written by 90% male journalists and only 8% are written by chosen female journalists. Besides, 85%of articles concentrated on sportsmen.[10] Vertical and horizontal segregation is observable in media which means that women are frequently isolated from sports media at each of the levels. Not only is there underrepresentation of women in media leadership positions but also the topics covered by female journalists are stereotypically linked with women’s roles. Women cover a variety of topics amongst which sports coverage is the least.


Women’s Portrayal in Sports Media


Unhealthy gender stereotypes are established because of how the media represents athletes and sports. Female athletes are viewed as women first and then athletes. Women’s coverage is often influenced by remarks about age, appearance, or family life when in fact men are portrayed as independent, powerful, and dominating.


Significance of Masculinity


Males and females are socialized differently from an early age. Males grow up watching and playing sports because they are taught this by schools, peers, and families. Females on the other hand are chiefly taught that sports are only for males. This constant emphasis on sports being a domain for males is responsible female for generating a situation where masculinity and sports become interchangeable. The sports media further generates, regenerates, and encourages masculinity through the underrepresentation, underestimation, and sexualization of female athletes. Masculinity is also sustained by the continuous highlight on the femininity of sportswomen. Women are not covered by the media or the coverage portrays them as women first. To reinforce the concept of masculinity, the pose or physical appearance of a female athlete is highlighted through the photographs and even the writing that might follow. Women have always been considered unequal to men, but they are now challenging this myth so that women in sports can be viewed as a possible reality for all, especially the younger generations. However, women being portrayed as sexual objects is still prominent. The ones who stick to traditional gender norms are covered more than those who do not stick to the traditional ideals that are used to judge women.


Trivialization and Underrepresentation


The trivialization and underrepresentation of women athletes and their events in media coverage are one of the most pressing concerns. This preserves the power that men have always had over women. The concept of being women first and athletes second is a key ingredient in this. When the media does not acknowledge women’s sports and athletes, it clearly shows that there are not valued equally, leading to the sport consumer’s belief that they are unimportant and unprofitable. The media coverage continuously minimizes the achievements of women’s teams and athletes in a manner that the public does not come to know of their accomplishments. Research on Sports Illustrated covers for more than 34 years has shown that there is only a 5% representation of women. These women-only played “socially acceptable” sports.[11] This underrepresentation still prevails in sports pages of newspapers and sports magazines. Women who play sports that are considered appropriate for men face exclusion from coverage because they fail to conform to the gender norms.


The individual versus team sport is an interesting context in media coverage. Women playing team sports, especially contact sports are underrepresented when compared to females playing non-contact individual sports. For example, I have seen that although women’s sports coverage increases during the Olympics, the focus is on individual sports like diving and swimming. The airtime of individual sports is double that of team sports. Therefore, women playing team sports and even masculine sports are underrepresented more by the print and online media. Trivialization of women’s sports is done by commenting on the bodies or physical appearances of the athletes. Although, these have nothing to do with how good a sportswoman is, the media gives less attention to less attractive athletes. The focus on non-athletic achievements trivializes the accomplishments of sportswomen.


Sexualization and Encouraged Heterosexualization


The sexual polarization in sports results in the inferior status of women in the sports media. The focus always shifts from their skills to their femininity and attractivity because this would mean less threat to men in sports. Sport is a strong setting for understanding gender ideologies because of the obsession with the female body. It also tells us how women are always viewed as sexual objects and media portrays them as decorative and passive objects.

“…beauty of face and form is one of the chief characteristics (for women), but unlimited indulgence in violent, outdoor sports, cricket and most odious of all games for women – hockey, cannot have an unwomanly effect on a young girl’s mind, no less on her appearance…let young girls ride, skate, dance in moderation, but let them leave field sports to those for whom they were intended for – men.”[12]


Modern sports nowadays follow the notion of the previous eras. Therefore, a masculine sport polarizes men and women. Moreover, women’s bodies are still considered weak and soft. So, women who take part in masculine sports are considered as promoting unfeminine traits and lesbianism. The female athlete’s body is still seen as an object and media promotes its sexualization. The most important concept is that of appearance. Instead of focusing on the athlete’s abilities and skills, importance was given to the body shape, hair, makeup, and overall aesthetic appeal. However, men never face this sexualization. Additionally, an important part of the hierarchical gender order is heterosexism. Heterosexual attractiveness in women is seen as a parameter to excel in sports. This means that even if a sportswoman does not have major achievements, she will still receive coverage because the media is focused on her personal life and body. Sexploitation of women has been there for ages. The problem is that the present generation believes that is good for them because they can use the sex card to garner media attention and coverage.


Femininity seems like a code word for heterosexuality. Being too athletic or masculine would mean that the sportswoman is a lesbian. Also, successful athletes are labelled as lesbians to ostracize them because they fear being called lesbians. This is a result of the stigma associated with lesbianism. Female athletes try following the ideas of constructed femininity which would help them to succeed in getting the desired coverage. Provocative and sexually appealing poses accompany in magazines are used to promote women’s sports which in turn promotes hegemonic masculinity. Nonetheless, sportsmen are rarely portrayed in this manner.


Conclusion


A considerable amount of research in the field of sport sociology has been created by scrutinizing the relationship between sports media and gender.[13] Much of this study has depended on content analysis which dealt with the textual commentary, language, and stereotypes images of sportswomen that have given a framework that devalues, sexualizes, and trivializes women’s sporting potentials and accomplishments. Across all sports, this devaluation is evident. Sport is not only an objective institution, but it can also impact the beliefs, customs, and values of the bigger social practices. Therefore, although there has been an ever-growing view that women belong to the field of sports, the portrayal has sent an underlying message that women should still conform to how society views femininity. The symbiotic relationship between sports and media constructs and uses gender norms, both explicitly through written words and implicitly through photographs, to maintain gender differences and gender disparities. Mass media sells sport and sport sell media. Therefore, there is biased coverage by the media because it considers its audiences are men and conforms its coverage to please its potential customers. It was eloquently stated that the symbiotic relationship strengthens the approval of masculinity as the deciding character and the media device and display this hegemonic masculinity.


Research has also found that there is not only dissimilarity in the amount of broadcasting given to female athletes and sports but also in the standard of the coverage. Within the research materials, the main themes that materialized were sexualizing, heterosexualizing, trivializing, and underrepresenting female’s bodies within the sport’s context. This style of reporting has significant implications for both sexes at a young age. The dominance and symbolic annihilation lead to women’s sports and athletes becoming ambivalent. Therefore, as a means of dominance over women, people, especially males, can then accept hegemonic masculinity. Women are denigrated through emotions and physical weaknesses when this happens and are thus not considered as real athletes as they are considered women first second as athletes.

The media needs to sell papers and the continuing efforts of men to maintain power in a consumption-oriented community begins with the objectification of the body of females. Such attempts are seen and circulated by the engrossing public in the field of sports. Women athletes must also adhere to the ‘male ideal’ that defines what a sportswoman should be. Society has sought to increase the heterosexual aspects and eroticism of the female body of this ‘ideal’ female athlete, expressly, men perceived other women athletes and these idealized women as subordinate and concentrated less on their athletic skills and more on their physical form. Therefore, men have objectified female bodies as being comparable to soft-core pornography. So, men will discriminate against women as athletes by aligning women’s sports with soft-core pornography. In order to transform women’s sports into a more heavily commercialized format, the media have set this ideal, and the “feminine” characteristics of the athletes have also been emphasized by the media. For women to have control over their bodies, it will take a symbolic and ideological change in society, and not just in sport. This shift is necessary at every level of society and regarding sport; change will take place when more programs are developed to enable women at all levels to compete in sports. The incorporation of women in high-level sports administration will be given importance when increased women coaches are employed and more women are employed in media as analysts and reporters. Female sports journalists still experience rampant sexism and have not gained complete acceptance. A proactive approach in appointing women editors, commentators, writers, and anchors to cover all kinds of sports could be the way out. Sports organizations can provide better information about sportswomen to change the perception towards them. Online streaming services make streaming women’s sports easier. It is also a step forward in women’s sports coverage and slowly into the conventional media. These improvements will only happen if people at the highest level are convinced that progress must occur. Although, these proposals are only a handful of the aspects that need to be carried out to change the image of female athletes. It is important for all of us to become concerned about improving the way sport is viewed. Sport is still perceived as a “man’s” game and progress will be slow. However, it can occur because sport belongs to us all.


*Priyanka is an Associate Editor at Global Sports Policy Review and a law scholar from Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat.


(The image used here is for representational purposes only)


References


1. Paul Mark Pedersen, ‘Examining equity in newspaper photographs’ (2002) 37(3-4) IRSS 303.

2. Michael A. Messner, ‘Sports and Male Domination: The Female Athlete as Contested Ideological Terrain’ (1988) 5(3) SSJ 197.

3. Vikki Krane, Precilla Y.L. Choi, Shannon M. Baird, Christine M. Aimar, and Kerrie J. Kauer, ‘Living the Paradox: Female Athletes Negotiate Femininity and Muscularity’ (2004) 50(5/6) Sex Roles 315.

4. Ali Bowes, ‘Coverage of women’s sport is pathetic at the best of times – the lockdown has made it even worse’ (The Conversation, 15 June 2020) <https://theconversation.com/coverage-of-womens-sport-is-pathetic-at-the-best-of-times-the-lockdown-has-made-it-even-worse-140593> accessed 6 December 2020.

5. Macaela MacKenzie, ‘Female Athletes Receive Only 4% of Sports Media Coverage-Adidas Wants to Change That’ (Glamour, 16 July 2019) <https://www.glamour.com/story/female-athletes-receive-only-4-of-sports-media-coverage-adidas-wants-to-change-that> accessed 6 December 2020.

6. John Vincent, ‘Game, Sex, and Match: The Construction of Gender in British Newspaper Coverage of the 2000 Wimbledon Championships’ (2004) 21(4) SSJ 435.

7. MarigaMarig, ‘Women in Sports – Issue on Pay Gap, Media Coverage and Women Representation in Sports’ (15 May 2019) <https://mariga0099.medium.com/women-in-sports-issue-on-pay-gap-media-coverage-and-women-representation-in-sports-205ac4dd287d> accessed 9 December 2020.

8. Monalisa Das, ‘We are here to stay: Sharda Ugra gets candid on women in sports journalism’ (The News Minute, 15 December 2017) <https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/we-are-here-stay-sharda-ugra-gets-candid-women-sports-journalism-73211> accessed 8 December 2020.

9. ‘Gender Equality in Sports Media’ (UNESCO) <https://en.unesco.org/themes/gender-equality-sports-media> accessed 7 December 2020.

10. ‘First Results of the International Sports Press Survey 2011’ (3 October 2011) <https://www.playthegame.org/fileadmin/image/PTG2011/Presentation/PTG_Nieland-Horky_ISPS_2011_3.10.2011_final.pdf> accessed 8 December 2020.

11. Eoin J. Trolan, ‘The impact of the media on gender inequality within sport’ (2013) 91 Procedia Soc Behav Sci 215.

12. ibid.

13. Eileen Kennedy, ‘She Wants to be a Sledgehammer?: Tennis Femininities on British Television’ (2001) 25 JSSI 56.