What’s Wrong With The Media Coverage Of Women Olympians?

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The objectification and sexism faced by women in the media—like those competing in the Olympics—has serious implications. Sarah Jackson explains why.

The 2012 Summer Olympics are going strong in London and stirring up quite a bit of chatter, excitement, and criticism. NBC, in particular, has been lampooned for their decision to air the games on tape delay in order to bolster their primetime rating and for the use of commentators who don’t actually have any sport-related expertise—like Ryan Seacrest. On top of this, and despite women outnumbering their male counterparts on the U.S. Olympic team for the first time, watching the Olympics also seems to be a trial in trying to ignore (or becoming enraged by—depending on your approach) good old-fashioned sexism.

“Have you seen any diva moments yet?” one Olympic commentator asked of the Russian women’s gymnastics team as they competed against the United States for gold on Tuesday night. It wasn’t intended as a compliment; rather the flippant statement is just one example of the demeaning of women’s ambition and pride all too common in the media.

During the women’s road race on Sunday, commentators continually referred to the competitors as “girls” despite the fact that the top finishers for the U.S. were Shelley Olds, 32, Evelyn Stevens, 28, and a former Lehaman Brothers associate, and Kristin Armstrong, 39, and competing in her third Olympics. That adult women, at the top of their craft, with full lives and countless accomplishments continue to be referred to as “girls” in sports coverage is minimizing to say the least.

But it’s not just media makers who are guilty of denigrating women athletes. As Jezebel notes, some Olympic viewers have taken to Twitter to disparage the hair of Gabby Douglas—who just made history by being the first black woman to win individual Olympic gold in gymnastics—with comments like until she “gets her hair done” she “shouldn’t be the standout in those [women’s gymnastics] commercials.” Right, because it’s the hair, not the two gold medals at 16.

In perhaps the creepiest Olympic sexism, London Mayor Boris Johnson wrote in an editorial earlier in the week that the popularity of women’s beach volleyball at the Olympics could be attributed to the “semi-naked women” who were “glistening like wet otters.” Wet otters?

In fact, the question of whether or not women’s beach volleyball competitors would be able to wear bikinis at all, given the cool British weather, was one of the most talked about issues leading up to the Olympics this year. To be clear, it is not the bikinis themselves that are the problem—in fact, women beach volleyball players have reported feeling great pride in their bodies and the beach culture they come from, and they should. Rather, the problem lies in the fact that these incredible athletes who have worked hard and accomplished more than many people ever will in their lives continue to be valued primarily for the way their bodies look in said bikinis. The result is that media coverage of the event became nearly all about the bikinis instead of the women who play it. For example, NBC’s New York affiliate ran the headline “Olympic Beach Volleyball: Great Bodies, Bikinis and More.” Well gosh, what could the “and more” possibly be? World-class athletes at the top of their game representing their nation under tremendous pressure and doing it with focus and clarity maybe? But apparently none of that is headline worthy.

Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon has also noted NBC’s “obsession” with motherhood in this year’s Olympic coverage. It seems no commentator can talk about female Olympians who have given birth without reserving most of their praise and discussion for that fact. To top it off, Proctor & Gamble’s “Thank You, Mom” Olympic campaign wants us to spend a lot of time thinking about and being moved by the fact that Olympic athletes have supportive mothers. As Williams puts it, hey, “Suck it dads!” This media obsession with motherhood has some serious implications besides narrowing world-class athletes down to the value of their uteruses (or the one’s they came out of). It also demonstrates the way women athletes are constantly framed by judgments of their sexuality and femininity; something male athletes are simply not subjected to.

It wasn’t long ago that wanting to run track or play basketball automatically lead to women being labeled lesbians (by people who considered that a bad thing). The focus on the heterosexual reproduction of women athletes reproduces these sexuality-based judgments regarding what type of women are worthy of public praise. There are, of course, lesbian Olympians as well as Olympians who have no interest in becoming mothers who are due the exact same amount of respect and celebration as those who aren’t or those who have. After all, aren’t we supposed to praise Olympians for their athletic accomplishments, not the workings of their reproductive system?

Of course this type of media coverage and treatment of women athletes is nothing new. In 2010, the governing body of boxing, the International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA) began handing out skirts to its female fighters in a not so covert attempt to suggest these women, who mind you are accustomed to being repeatedly punched for fun, should be more feminine. One AIBA representative’s justification for the skirts was that audiences couldn’t “tell the difference between the men and the women, especially on TV, since they’re in the same uniforms and are wearing headgear.” Well now, God forbid we perceive men and women the same.

Sexist media coverage of women athletes often takes on an even more disturbing tone in the case of women of color like Venus and Serena Williams. Sports journalists have described the Williams sisters as “savage” along with a range of other animalistic adjectives, their bodies are constantly critiqued as “overweight” for not meeting Eurocentric beauty ideals, and in 2003 a Washington Post writer referred to Serena Williams’ competition attire as a “hooker look.”

Anyone who has seen Danica Patrick’s series of Go Daddy commercials knows that women are sometimes complicit in perpetuating such sexism, however, this occurs within a climate that very much limits the options available to female athletes for earning publicity and income as compared to their male counterparts.

The objectification and sexism faced by women in the media, and particularly powerful women and women in leadership—like those competing in the Olympics—has serious implications. Focusing on the supposed “diva” behavior, outfits, hair, and parenting of women athletes trivializes their accomplishments and makes them seem less powerful—and ultimately less valuable. Media makers who talk about women’s ambition and pride as if it is a bad thing while objectifying their bodies and deifying their wombs contribute to a culture that tells women of all ages, but especially young women, that they should not aspire too high or fight too hard and that their primary value rests in how others perceive their bodies. Ultimately, a media and culture that minimizes the accomplishments of and dehumanizes women justifies the exclusion of women from positions of power and reinforces the very ideologies that perpetuate wage inequality and sexualized violence.

It’s worth noting that some media are trying to get it right. While ESPN is certainly not guilt-free, ESPN magazine’s “Body Issue,” features nude female and male athletes and depicts women athletes of all body types (including paralympians!) in generally active, agential poses. This treatment of women athletes, which praises their athleticism and the hard work it takes to hone their bodies, is a huge fresh of breath air compared to how women athletes are styled, sexualized, and posed as if on display in magazines like Sports Illustrated.

Another triumph in the media representation of women athletes was this year’s Nike “Voices” ad, released in recognition on the 40th anniversary of Title IX and as part of Nike’s “Make the Rules” campaign. In the ad, women Olympians, including Lisa Leslie, Marlen Esparza, and Joan Benoit-Samuelson, discuss the gender-based discrimination they’ve faced throughout their lives alongside a diverse range of little girls who absolutely should not have to face the same.

Sarah Jackson is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Northeastern University in Boston. Her research and teaching focus on how media discourses of race, class, and gender reinforce and/or challenge concepts of national belonging. Outside her academic life, Sarah volunteers with youth in educational equity programs, does a lot of yoga, and fantasizes about being an artist. Read more of her writing on Wandering In Love and follow her on Twitter @sjjphd.

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