Feminist Criticisms of Media Portrayal of Female Athletes & the Evolving Role of Social Media

Portraying female athletes is just one of several criticisms of the main stream media's coverage of women's sports.

Feminism as a movement has been ingrained in American culture for nearly two centuries. Similar to the way blacks have been fighting for their rights and equality for ages, women, although not necessarily experiencing a longstanding cultural atrocity such as slavery, have had to struggle for theirs as well. According to Delaney and Madigan (2009, p.32), “as a social movement, feminism is an ideology in support of the idea that a larger share of scarce resources should be distributed to women.”  As a theory, it is designed to reveal how sexual discrimination is a result of man-made conditions as opposed to actual genetic inferiority (Delaney & Madigan, 2009, p.32). Basically put, feminists fight for the equality of women.

Although at the onset of feminism women focused more on basic things like the right to vote and equal pay, feminism soon made its way into the world of sports with Title IX, a statute passed in 1972 essentially banning gender discrimination in school sports. Although they have made strides in many areas involving athletics, feminist thinkers still believe one area that could use some improvement is the media’s depiction of women in sports.

The first criticism of the media in regards to women’s sports is that there is a significant lack of coverage in general, something that in their minds is an outrage given the amount of 24-hour sports coverage that the internet and television networks such as ESPN provide in this day and age. Sure, the exposure of female athletes improves once every four years during the Olympic Games and World Cup soccer where they demonstrate ratings successes, and ESPN does a great job during the NCAA women’s basketball Final Four, which takes place every March (Lopiano, 2008).  But these are such monumental events and they do not occur regularly, it is easy for the media to throw women’s sports a bone every now and then. But the disparity in coverage is obvious – every major male sport receives an incredible amount of national coverage at nearly every level, including high school sports where games are televised on ESPN now and entire magazines are dedicated to the high school recruiting scene – the male one, that is.

The remaining two criticisms are very similar and they both pertain not to the amount of coverage female athletes receive, but to the depiction of these athletes when they are covered. The first part of the issue deals with actual in-game coverage and how in those rare instances when female athletes are on television, the tone and verbiage of the commentators differs greatly from those of men’s telecasts. A recent study noted that commentators (97 per cent of whom are men) use different language when they talk about female athletes (Media Coverage, 2010). Where men are described as “big,” “strong,” “brilliant,” “gutsy” and “aggressive,” women are more often referred to as “weary,” “fatigued,” “frustrated,” “panicked,” “vulnerable” and “choking.” Commentators are also twice as likely to call men by their last names only, and three times as likely to call women by their first names only (Media Coverage, 2010).

Likewise, there is a growing concern among feminists that female athletes are being objectified by the media and portrayed more as sex symbols than as actual athletes. When female athletes do receive media attention, the media is much more likely to focus on their physical attractiveness or non-sport-related activities. Anna Kournikova, who has yet to win a professional tennis tournament, was one of only six women ranked among the most important people in sports. ESPN The Magazine’s “Body Issue” has only perpetuated this view. The issue, which features male and female athletes posing nude, is supposed to celebrate the human body, but it simultaneously continues to make female athletes more famous for the wrong reason, showcasing their physical beauty as opposed to their athletic performance.

ESPN Body Issue – helpful exposure or perpetuation of a troubling stereotype?

Fortunately for these women and their fans, the bevy of new media that has come to fruition in the past few years give them a voice of their own. Thanks to blogging, social media sites and instant and seemingly limitless capabilities of the internet, nearly anyone who wishes can be a reporter on a given subject. And while journalistic diehards scorn the notion of such pop-up journalism being a viable source of information, the fact of the matter is that people will consume them. Social media and Web site availability provide these women, their teams and their leagues the platform they need to get their own message out there – to be their own media.

For example, a couple years ago Utica College Journalism Major Jeff Kassouf started his own Web site, equalizersoccer.com, dedicated to women’s professional soccer. “I really just wanted to give the sport of women’s soccer a voice, and provide fans and others with a platform for news and discussion,” Kassouf says of his reasoning behind launching the site back in 2009. Kassouf’s site has experienced a tremendous amount of success, currently averaging more than 30,000 viewers per month. He has become the Women’s Pro Soccer League (WPS)’s unofficial beat reporter, and through several years of running his site, syncing it with Twitter and Facebook accounts, he received opportunities to write online for Sports Illustrated and ESPN, and finally get women’s soccer some much-needed attention. In fact, thanks to those feature spots on mainstream web sites, traffic to Kassouf’s site saw a monumental spike during the 2011 Women’s World Cup as more than 8,000 viewers visited The Equalizer daily.

Kassouf readily admits that the stereotypes of female athletes portrayed by the media will not disappear any time soon. And while social and new media may not provide the cure for the problems women face when it comes to sports coverage, it certainly provides somewhere to start.

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