Women in Sports Media: Time for a Victory Lap?

11.11.2002

By Alina Bernstein
Knowledge bank: Research findings of the routine, day-to-day amount of coverage of women in sport, remain that female athletes are still, in many cases, symbolically annihilated.

Changes are happening, but media researcher Alina Bernstein asks whether more coverage is an aim to strive for if it also means more stories that mainly assess female athletes in terms of their appearance and attractiveness.

Anna Kournikova
Girl I want to know ya
Anna Kournikova with the eyes so blue
If it wasn't for tennis I would never know you

You can stay at my place if you want to crash
Backhand, forehand, overhead smash

Anna Kournikova with the legs so long
Please don't hate me when I sing this song to you

Let me be your Ball Boy now

Anna Kournikova with the real short hemline
Will you take my hand and let's go to the Krem-O-Line

These are most of the lyrics of a song by the pop band Binge titled "Anna Kournikova" - the music video that accompanies it is currently ranked number one on Lycos' search engine Top Ten Videos. Following an email worm that was named after her this is yet another testimony to Kournikova's icon status on the Internet (and beyond).

These are some aspects that define the Kournikova in the title of our session. The definition of Syndrome - according to the Webster dictionary - is a pattern of symptoms indicative of some disease.

So I would like to first address the disease, so to speak.

From a feminist perspective sport has been viewed for a long time as a sexist institution, male dominated and masculine in orientation. However, it is a fact that in recent years women have truly advanced in organized, competitive sport.

Why should the media be discussed in relation to this? Mainly because the mass media - which are an essential feature of modern social life - preserve, transmit and create important cultural information. Indeed, one central assumption within media studies is that media reprsentation to a great extent determine how members of society see themselves, how they are viewed and even treated by others.

When it comes to sport, the media assume an even greater importance since nowadays the overwhelming majority of spectators experience sporting events in their mediated form.

To date, a substantial body of work examining the role of the media in relation to women and sport has accumulated, and broadly speaking it tends to focus on two main issues: the amount of coverage and the portrayal of women's sports and female athletes by the media.

I too would like to follow these directions.

The amount of coverage of female sport
First to the amount of coverage: during the 1980's and most of the 1990's, a consistent finding  - well documented in the literature - is the underreporting (and thus underrepresentation) of female athletes and their sporting events throughout all media.

Since the media is seen as reflecting on what is important and has prestige, this severe underrepresentation is seen as creating the impression that women athletes are nonexistent in the sporting world or of little value when they do exist. Which, in turn, creates a false impression of women's athleticism by denying the reality of the modern female athlete.

This underrepresentation is also viewed as creating a vicious circle since the growth of womens sport is hindered by the lack of funds which nowadays come primarily from sponsorship and sponsors, who are interested in sports and teams which feature regularly on television.

Even towards the end of the 1990's, the research findings of the routine, day-to-day amount of coverage of women in sport, remain that female athletes are still, in many cases, symbolically annihilated.

However, certain changes in the amount of coverage can certainly be traced, especially when it comes to major sporting events. The Olympic Games are a revealing example in this context.

In a study of the 1996 Games, Eastman and Billings found that NBC succeeded in equalizing coverage for men's and women's sports in two respects: in the number of different events and in the total quantity of minutes devoted to sports of each gender group.

And yet, many buts emerge from such studies. For instance, Tuggle and Owen in their study of the same Olympics - and in a similar vein to previous studies - found that female competitors at the Games were more likely to receive attention if they competed in what some have called socially acceptable individual sports.

Eastman and Billings argue that their results support the conclusion that the NBC network executives were very concerned about the appearance of gender equity in 1996 and that this concern had a powerful impact on some aspects of the telecast.

But they emphasize that a network can dictate the philosophy of coverage, but the professional talent within the organization carry it out, and a policy of gender parity does not necessarily alleviate bias in coverage.

Indeed, as both sets of writers point out, the predominantly male gender of hosts, reporters, and producers might be a primary cause of unknowing or knowing bias. As Eastman and Billings put it, what the highest executives at NBC wanted and what they actually received may not have been the same.

Overall, nowadays women's tennis might be the only clear example of a sport to which television dedicates much airtime in Western countries on a regular basis. Moreover, according to a recent Sports Illustrated article, this is the only sport in which the US Television ratings for women's matches routinely surpass the men's. At the 2002 Wimbledon tournament the women's doubles final outdrew the men's singles final.

I will get back to tennis in a moment.

Is the amount of coverage important?
As I hope my brief discussion up to this point shows, women have gained some ground as far as media visibility is concerned, especially in major sporting events. Moreover, it seems that media organizations - at least in Western societies are nowadays far more aware of, and sensitive to, the need for gender equality in the coverage of sport.

However, the question has to be asked: Does size matter? Does more coverage necessarily bring about a truly equal representation of women in sport? Or are we simply getting more, which is in fact of the same? Personally, I would even go as far as to speculate that more of certain types of portrayals which I will discuss in a moment are even worse, since they may well fixate views of women in sport by repeating them in more volume.

Visibility is certainly important but a closer look is required at the type coverage women get from the media.

The media portrayal of women's sports and female athletes
The question whether sports reports of female athletes are not only fewer but also different from those of their male counterparts has been answered in the literature - including that from the 1990's - with a clear yes, although explanations as to how exactly this takes place and what should be done to change it, differ.

In 1992 Sabo and Curry Jansen, for example, argued that while male athletes are "valorized, lionized, and put on cultural pedestals",  female athletes are infantilised by sport commentators who refer to them as "girls" or "young ladies" whereas male athletes are "men" or "young men".

Another practice - much referred to in the literature - is the use of names in commentary. In an article published in 1990, Messner, Duncan and Jensen found that commentators referred to female tennis players by their first names about 53 per cent of the time and to men only 8 per cent of the time. Various writers perceive this as a linguistic practice that reinforces the existing gender-based status differences.

Studies found a variety of practices by which the media trivialize, and therefore undermine, womens athletic achievements, thus constructing female athleticism not only as 'other than' but as 'lesser than' the males.

More recent studies reveal that some changes did take place in this respect too. For instance, in their study of the 1996 Olympics Jones, Murrell and Jackson (1999) write regarding female athletes playing female-appropriate sports,

t is promising to see a trend toward print media accounts that focus more on describing their performance - providing details of what a gymnast does - as opposed to simply describing how graceful she looked or how she has the personality to make her America's next sweetheart.

However, the buts in this case outweigh the positive findings. For example, Koivula (1999) in her study of the Swedish media still found that the language commentators used for referring to women sometimes included cases of infantilism. She also found that women athletes were referred to by their first names about four times as often as the men.

In concluding his study of the representation of women in football-related stories during the course of the 1996 European Championships in the British popular press, Harris (1999) writes that the message that is being portrayed to women and young girls is that sport is still an essentially male activity in which women are afforded only subordinate and/or highly sexualized roles.

This is the point I would like to turn to next.

Appearance and attractiveness
Researchers analyzing the portrayal of female athletes found the coverage to be often framed within stereotypes which emphasize appearance and attractiveness rather than athletic skill. Moreover, scholars found that the media tend to focus on the female athletes as sexual beings rather than serious performers. According to this argument, the sexualization of female athletes trivializes them and in fact robs them of athletic legitimacy, thus preserving hegemonic masculinity.

As I am attempting to asses change, it is worth noting that Eastman and Billings (1999) found that although instances of gender stereotyping were located, their presence was not as overwhelming as expected, but as traditional gender stereotyping suggests, the descriptors applied to women athletes contained more commentary about physical appearance than the descriptors applied to male athletes.

This is the issue I would like dedicate the rest of my discussion to - considering the amount and type of coverage in a couple of specific cases which provide examples of the ways in which the media persist in emphasizing appearance and attractiveness when it comes to female athletes.

Importantly, what I say here does not focus on television but mainly on popular newspapers, magazines and web sites. The reason for doing that is that I believe, as mentioned before, that television organizations, particularly the American ones, are far more sensitive to gender related issues than ever before. Thus I find it more fruitful to look at the broader media world in order to reveal the existence of deeply embedded perceptions of female athletes beyond the reach of television executives.

Marion Jones
Clearly, no underreporting can be argued when it comes to Marion Jones. However, it is worth considering her coverage in the American media prior to the 2000 Sydney Games in which she planned on winning five gold medals. As the British journalist Sharon Krum put it, from the beginning, Jones did not dare to suggest, wish, or hope she might win five medals. She declared it a certainty. According to Krum, writing prior to the Games, especially for the media,

ones is too much. She is too boastful, too assertive, too cocksure she will bring home the gold. In short, she is displaying character traits Americans ascribe to male athletes. But in men the chest-thumping is admired. In women, it is shocking and has led to Jones being called arrogant, pretentious, and a certain word that rhymes with rich.

Moreover, physically, Jones is not frail or model-like-thin, she is visibly strong and muscular which has long been viewed as being unfeminine. Combined with her strong statements, she certainly does not confirm with stereotypes of femininity.

Thus, it should come as no surprise to realize that in the US media build-up towards the Sydney Games the most photographed female athlete was not Marion Jones but Amy Acuff, a 6ft 2in blonde, part-time model high jumper whose ambition, as it was reported, was not to win an Olympic gold medal but to work on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition: "Because people get a lot of attention for that."

Although Jones certainly attracted much media attention prior to, and during the Sydney Games, this pre-Games bias is yet another example of the fact that female athletes tend to gain media attention at least as far as photographs are concerned - for what they look like and not necessarily for their sporting achievements.

More recently Acuff, one of the most photographed female athletes in the world, infuriated some feminist writers when she said in an interview (Rolling Stone) following provocative photographs of her in magazines like Esquire: "I wanted to show that a woman athlete can be extremely competitive and driven and successful and still retain feminine qualities." Thus implying that competitive, driven, and successful are not feminine qualities whereas posing nude in magazines is.

This can be linked into the compliment bestowed on some female athletes: "she plays like a man" which reflects the continuing cultural contradictions between femininity and athleticism. The athlete is being complimented, yet at the same time the implication is that in being such a strong athlete she is somehow not a "real" woman.

But let me move on from Acuff, who was recently voted the fourth sexiest athlete in the world by ESPN to the number one on that list.

Anna Kournikova
Since the late 90s, women's tennis gets no less and sometimes even more media coverage than the men's, and the ratings are higher too. But this is not the case only because women's tennis seems more interesting in sporting terms but also, as many have noticed, due to the beauty of the some of the players, most notably Anna Kournikova.

Despite the much mentioned fact that she is yet to win her first singles title, it is important to recall that she was ranked as high as eight in the 2000/01 season and has won two Grand Slam tournament doubles titles. It is true that in the singles she is now ranked 36th (in doubles she is 9th) but in 1997, as a 16-year-old, she became only the second woman in the Open Era to reach the semifinals in her Wimbledon debut. In 1998, she was the first Russian woman to be seeded at the US Open in 22 years. Also in 1998, she beat Steffi Graf in the quarterfinals at Eastbourne. At that point, she became one of only eight players ever to have defeated Martina Hingis and Graf.

And yet, the amount and type of coverage she gains does not correlate with her tennis achievements. As a point of illustration: During Wimbledon 2000 there were 20 pictures of Kournikova in British newspapers for every one of the singles finalist Lindsay Davenport.

The extensive media attention to the blonde model-looking Kournikova  - also dubbed tenniss pinup girl - clearly shows the importance that at least certain branches of the media ascribe to looks and image over tennis skills. As one web-based writer put it the Anna Kournikova phenomenon proves you don't need to win tournaments to get your name - and photo - in the media.

Moreover, as the introduction to an 8 page spread of Hello! Magazine featuring Kournikova put it, [...] the waist-length flaxen hair, endless legs, smooth tan and metallic silver-blue eyes [...] have undoubtedly helped her into the celebrity stratosphere.

In a 2001 issue of the same magazine paparazzi photos of the sun-bathing Kournikova were accompanied by statements like: "Tennis heart-throb Anna Kournikova, whose stunning looks have launched thousands of websites and sold millions of bras and Adidas trainers, was topping up her tan recently at her 3 million pounds Miami mansion."

To the point about websites it is worth mentioning that a search for "Anna Kournikova" a few days ago came up with over 320,000 mentions, including sites boasting they have sexy pictures of the hottest tennis babe (a search for Marion Jones came up with 35,000 mentions). Although many of the Internet sites are constructed by fans, and not by media organizations, I believe this does reflect on society's attitude towards this tennis player.

It is worth emphasizing that the views of this phenomenon and its implications vary considerably. Within sport itself, some view this trend as highly problematic. In her book "The Underside of Women's Tennis",  the French player Nathalie Tauziat claims that aesthetics and charisma are winning out over sporting performance. She uses Kournikova as the clearest example of how the tennis circuit is now fixated on the style, and not substance, of the women's tour and the media certainly play an important role in promoting this.

Testimony to this is also the fact that this summer as Kournikova's play became consistently disappointing, the media tried to promote other players as tennis babes. Daniela Hantuchova being a prime example (TIME, July 8, 2002).

However, although the media try to push the tall, blonde, 19 year old Hantuchova, who is currently ranked 8th, into what some have referred to as the "Anna vacuum", she herself does not cooperate in becoming the Bratislava Babe, explaining in an interview: "I'm concentrating on my tennis I don't need the other things."

Simonya Popova
A further interesting case in this context is that of Simonya Popova.

In September 2002, Sports Illustrated ran a story about this tennis player who combined the looks of Kournikova with the playing ability of the Williams sisters. Only the last sentence of the straight-face written article revealed it was a hoax. But apparently, not a lot of people noticed. Lycos (search engine) reported she became the third most popular searched for athlete during that week it all came about as a play on the film Simone, about a computer-generated actress.

And yet, some believe there is an up side to this phenomena, Chris Evert, three-time Wimbledon champion and now a commentator for NBC, said in an interview: 'Girls now want to grow up and be athletes [...] there are attractive, appealing girls out there and now they realise that it is okay to run around and sweat and be tough. Twenty years ago it was frowned upon and wasn't feminine'.

Furthermore, according to Sports Sponsorship Advisory Service, women should "play the sex appeal card to attract more media coverage and therefore more sponsorship". This suggestion infuriated Yvonne Barker, director of Women in Sport, who said:

We believe that women's sport should be sponsored for exactly the same reason as men - because they appeal to their audience for their achievement and intrinsic value.

In this context it is important to recall that some male tennis players ride the sex and sex appeal card on their way to media exposure and lucrative sponsorship contracts. For instance, one can easily find web sites dedicated to sexy male tennis players such as Patrick Rafter.

And yet, overall, we don't see as many sexy images of male tennis players as we do of their female counterparts. Furthermore, it can be argued that men are more easily allowed to be sex symbols and serious tennis players while women have to make a choice.

Having said all that it is also important to stress that Kournikova is not necessarily a victim of the media. She herself and the people surrounding her, as Tauziat claims orchestrate the type of media coverage and hype she in generating. She clearly poses for many of the photographs and in general doesn't shy away from the tennis Madonna label. Thus her case also shows how much cooperation from the athletes part is required to create the syndrome we are talking about as I have mentioned in relation to Hantuchova.

But then, as the paparazzi photos and the serious sports pages show, it can get out of the athlete's control.

As a result of this cooperation, Kournikova has made millions from endorsements, she is currently one of the five female athletes on the Forbes Celebrity 100 list along with four other pro tennis players. This is especially noteworthy when only one male pro Andre Agassi made the list. In fact, the short statement explaining her ranking on the list declared: So what if she has more cover stories than championship trophies? Her popularity makes her the game's top endorser. Anna-mania stretches well beyond the hard courts: Her image remains one of the most popular on the Internet.

Generally speaking, a certain ambivalence emerges every time a female athlete is framed as a sexual being or is in fact covered by the media not for her sport performance but because she is attractive and conveys sex appeal.

Although it can be argued that the media cannot change the world, I believe it can help - along with other societal forces - change attitudes about women in sports, but for now with all the improvements that have been made they still dont do enough.

Wonderful stories to be told - the test is how
To conclude, Anita DeFrantz - the first woman to reach the International Olympic Committee vice-presidency said over a year ago: "The good news is, finally journalists have realised that we're here to stay. There are wonderful stories to be told."

Based on recent studies I tend to agree with this statement, at least to some extent. Overall, I believe many steps have been taken in what I regard as the right direction especially in relation to the amount of coverage in major sporting events but also in the type of coverage women's sports and female athletes get.

And yet, there is still some bad news, which is revealed when looking more closely at some of those wonderful stories told particularly by certain branches of the media about female athletes.

I believe there are questions that beg to be asked: If more media coverage means more sexualized images, is more necessarily better? Or is more even worse? If the moment we step a little bit away from the more aware - and dare I say politically correct - television coverage we still find much emphasis on appearance and attractiveness when it comes to female athletes, to what extent did the media's views of them, and by extension society's, truly change? Is any media story good news as far as female athletes are concerned - as long as they spell their name right? I dont think so.

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