Gender Bland Sexism in Sport

By Michela Musto, Cheryl Cooky, and Michael A. Messner

“If [Serena Williams] played in the men’s circuit, she’d be like 700 in the world.” – John McEnroe

During a recent interview on National Public Radio, former American tennis champion and current sports commentator John McEnroe was asked whether Serena Williams was the best tennis player in the world (see here). Williams has been ranked number one at least eight times during her career and holds the most Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles among active players. She is also the only player—male or female—who has won three of four Grand Slam tournaments six times. Many sports commentators and former tennis champions, including Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, and Andre Agassi, agree she is one of the greatest players of all time[i]. Despite calling her the best female player in the world, McEnroe said that “like 700” male players could outperform her.

Muscio

McEnroe is part of a long history of male sports commentators and journalists making trivializing and objectifying remarks about sportswomen. Consider Don Imus’s racist, sexist, and classist comments in 2007, when he described the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as a “bunch of nappy headed ho’s.[ii]” Or when sports news commentator Bill Weir trivialized the 1999 World Cup champion U.S. national women’s soccer team by referring to them as the “ponytail express[iii].”

Despite these egregious examples of sexist commentary, our recent research in Gender & Society suggests a shift in how televised news and highlight shows cover women’s sports. Once every five years, we have examined six weeks of sports news on three Los Angeles-based network affiliate stations (KCBS, KNBC, and KABC) and three weeks of ESPN’s SportsCenter. When we first began the study in 1989, we found that sports commentators regularly made overtly sexist comments similar to the ones made by McEnroe, Imus, or Weir.

But in our most recent study we found that sports news commentators now cover women athletes differently. Rather than sexualizing or trivializing women athletes, sports shows depict women athletes in a lackluster, matter-of-fact manner, which we call “gender bland sexism.” Gender bland sexism is a contemporary gender framework that disguises sexism against women athletes as reactions to individual athletes’ merit and performance, which makes women’s athletic accomplishments appear lackluster, compared to men’s.

Gender bland sexism is evident in this excerpt from a SportsCenter “Top Ten Plays” segment.

The ninth best play goes to Missy Franklin. The commentator says, “Missy Franklin. In the NCAA women’s swimming and diving championship. Way ahead of the pack in the 200-yard freestyle. Wins easily.” The commentators also note that she “sets the American, NCAA and U.S. Open record in the event.” Number six is from a spring training MLB game between the Cubs and the White Sox. The second baseman catches the ball and tags a player out, and a commentator gushes, “I think he’s ready for the regular season! Let’s get it going!” Number four is from the Heat vs. Grizzlies basketball game, showing Ray Allen scoring. The voice-over from the in-studio commentator exclaims, “From fizzle to sizzle!”

If one were to rank the sports achievements included in this segment, winning an NCAA championship in multiple record-breaking time is certainly a more noteworthy athletic accomplishment than the routine men’s events presented (i.e., tagging a player out at second base during a pre-season game or scoring a basket during a regular season game). Yet the commentators’ delivery of the men’s stories sizzled, while coverage of Franklin’s record-shattering swim fizzled. Instead of exclaiming that Franklin “got it going!” the commentator flatly observed Franklin was “way ahead” and “wins easily.” His bland commentary makes it seem as if Franklin’s achievement was unimpressive, thus sending the audience a subtle message that women’s sports lack excitement. We found that sports news shows consistently covered women’s sports in this gender bland manner.

Commentators also regularly used dominant language when describing events that transpired during men’s games. For example, a SportsCenter segment described NBA basketball player Andrew Wiggins as putting two players “in the spin cycle” as he completed a “monstrous two-handed jam.” But when women’s sports were covered, dominant language was almost always missing from commentators’ analysis. For example, SportsCenter awarded an ESPN “Star of the Night” to Shannon Szabados, an Olympic gold medalist and the first woman to play in a Canadian men’s professional hockey league. The commentator explained, “She had 27 saves, it was a 4-3 loss for her Columbus Cottonmouths to the visiting Knoxville Ice Bears in the Southern Professional Hockey League, but Shannon Szabados did work.” Despite Szabados’ historic accomplishments, the discussion of her performance could not have been more literal. The commentator blandly concluded that she “did work.”

In the classic text Racism Without Racists, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva draws attention to the ways that white people express racist views in “color-blind” ways (such as when whites criticize the Black Lives Matter movement by saying that “all lives matter”). By couching contemporary forms of racism in ostensibly nonracial ways, color-blind racial discourses make the underlying dynamics difficult to detect. Like color-blind racism, gender bland sexism enables commentators to subtly convey beliefs about men’s athletic superiority. Coverage of women’s sports fizzles in comparison to men’s coverage, which continues the aggressive and celebratory audience-building for men’s sports while simultaneously shielding televised sports news and highlights shows from charges of sexism. After all, now commentators are speaking “respectfully” about women, even if this means delivering the facts in a monotone voice, with an uninspired delivery.

Gender bland sexism makes the overall lack of coverage of women’s sports (less than 2-3% of total coverage) appear to be a rational response to women’s presumably “naturally” lackluster performances. Gender bland sexism also lets sports media off the hook from investing more time, resources, and energy into covering women’s sports with the same degree of interest, quality and production values as they do when covering men’s sports. Consequently, gender-bland sexism is a form of stealth sexism, operating under the radar to reify gender boundaries and render invisible the very real and continued need to address persisting inequalities women face in sport.

For more on this study please also read: A Subtler Sexism Now Frames TV Coverage of Women in Sports

Michela Musto is a PhD Candidate in sociology at the University of Southern California. Her research focuses on gender, children & youth, education, and sport. She is the co-editor of Child’s Play: Sport in Kids’ Worldswith Michael Messner, and her work has been published in Gender & Society, Communication & Sport, and the Sociology of Sport Journal.

Cheryl Cooky is an associate professor in American studies at Purdue University. Her teaching and research focuses on gender and sports, and feminism in media and popular culture. She is the co-author of No Slam Dunk: Gender, Sports, and the Unevenness of Social Change, with Michael Messner, the Past-President of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, and serves on the editorial boards of the Sociology of Sport Journal, Communication & Sport, Qualitative Research on Sport, Exercise & Health and the International Review of the Sociology of Sport.

Michael Messner is professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California.  His teaching and research focuses on gender and sports, men and masculinities, gender-based violence, and war and peace.  He is author or editor of several books, including Child’s Play: Sport in Kids’ Worldsedited with Michela Musto, and No Slam Dunk: Gender, Sports, and the Unevenness of Social Changewith Cheryl Cooky.   


[ii]
http://journals.humankinetics.com/doi/abs/10.1123/ssj.27.2.139[i] http://www.newyorker.com/news/sporting-scene/serena-williams-americas-greatest-athlete

[iii] http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0193732502239583

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Gender & Society in The Classroom’s Guide for Syllabi on Bodies and Embodiment

 

These articles are offered as resources for courses that address gender, the body and embodiment. They approach the topic from a variety of perspectives and identity and are useful in disrupting assumptions about sex, gender and the body.

Mora, Richard. 2012. “Do it for your pubic hairs!”: Latino boys, masculinity and puberty. Gender & Society 26 (3): 433-460.

This article highlights the embodied experiences of Puerto Rican and Dominican adolescences. Through ethnographic research, the body becomes the central way boys in puberty understand their masculinity and social world. The author examines how the boys construct masculinity through social practices and interactions that directly reference their changing bodies. Due to the research subjects’ positionality as second generation immigrants, they construct a masculinity that emphasizes toughness and physical strength.

Hammer, Gili. 2012. Blind women’s appearance management: Negotiating normalcy between discipline and pleasure. Gender & Society 26 (3): 406-432.

This article discusses how blind women use appearance management and use their body as a tool to disrupt or reject stigmatizing beliefs about themselves made by society. The author confronts how most literature about women’s appearance focuses on visual interactions where women “see and are seen” with them taking an active role in using sight with these interactions, which ultimately leaves out how disabled blind women negotiate these interactions. What she found were women taking on a visibility politic that challenged normative beliefs about how blind women perform or embody femininity to actively challenge how others view them.

Schrock, Douglas, Lori Reid, and Emily M. Boyd. 2005. Transsexuals’ embodiment of womanhood. Gender & Society 19 (3): 317-355.

This article draws on in-depth interviews with nine white, middle-class, male-to-female transsexuals to examine how they produce and experience bodily transformation. Interviewees’ bodywork entailed retraining, redecorating, and reshaping the physical body, which shaped their feelings, role taking, and self-monitoring. These analyses make three contributions: They offer support for a perspective that embodies gender, further transsexual scholarship, and contribute to feminist debate over the sex/gender distinction. The authors conclude by exploring how viewing gender as embodied could influence medical discourse on transsexualism and have personal and political consequences for transsexuals.

Hennen, Peter. 2005. Bear bodies, bear masculinity: Recuperation, resistance, or retreat? Gender & Society 19 (1): 25-41.

Looking into the subculture of Bear communities, this article takes a look at how gay men embody Bear culture through resistance against stereotypical association of homosexuality with effeminacy by embracing larger, fleshy hairy bodies. This article also discusses how Bears look, act and perform masculinity within the subculture. By looking at how Bear embodiment is performed, Hennen shows that while Bears can be subversive in challenging normative forms of masculinity they still repurpose it as an attempt to form normalization.

Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Tamara. 2003. Strong and large black women?: Exploring relationships between deviant womanhood and weight. Gender & Society 17 (1): 111-121.

This article questions the societal and cultural image of Black women as strong and suggests that this seemingly affirming portrayal is derived from a discourse of enslaved women’s deviance. In highlighting connections between perceived strength and physical size among Black women, the analysis extends current feminist theory by considering the ways in which the weight many strong African American women carry is reflective of the deviant and devalued womanhood that they are expected to embody both within and outside their culture. This article also provides a stark contrast to the many of the themes found within literature about the body, eating disorders and body image that focuses on white women by taking into account the how the intersections of race and gender impact how black women’s bodies are framed in society.

Williams, Susan. 2002. Trying on gender, gender regimes, and the process of becoming a woman. Gender & Society 16 (1): 29-52.

In this article it discusses how adolescent girls “try on” or experiment with gender as a means to fully create sense of womanhood. Based on a 4 year study of 26 adolescent girls this article is a good reference to understanding how femininity or sense of gender is created not only through experimentation but also how communities have differing forms of femininity due to class, due to class, race and gender differences.

Gender & Society in the Classroom is curated by scholars in the field and is a listing of articles that would be relevant in certain classrooms. These lists are not exhaustive but contain a small section of important articles that can begin to start classroom discussion on a variety of topics.

Organized by: Amanda Levitt, Wayne State University.  Comments or suggestions please e-mail gendsoc@oaklnad.edu.

The Beauty and Strength of Wonder Woman

By Francesca Tripodi

I recently took in a poignant guest lecture on hook-up culture by Lisa Wade. During the talk, Wade detailed the link between rape culture and hook-up culture. While hooking up encourages women to behave “like men,” it simultaneously creates an environment that rejects feminine traits (kindness, care, empathy). Since then I’ve continuously noticed how we celebrate women who display traditionally masculine characteristics (be aggressive! lean in!). But, we often do so in ways that devalue feminine attributes. It is with this framework in mind that I went to see Wonder Woman.

Donning my “feminist mama” sweatshirt, I expected to be underwhelmed given the mediocre reviews describing the film as just another boilerplate superhero movie. With my critical 3D glasses on, I understood why many were frustrated. Steven Trevor always has a protecting arm over Diana, even after she demonstrates that she’s indestructible. The persistence of the male gaze was also disappointing. I recognize the need to reflect Marston’s 1940’s creation, but expecting Diana to run through forests, scale mountains, and beat down villains in a sensible wedge was as laughable as Steven Trevor’s ridiculous assurance to the audience that his genitalia was “above average.” It is no coincidence that Wonder Woman’s strong but “sexy” image was the one chosen by Douglas to represent her concept of enlightened sexism nearly a decade ago.

At the same time, I think it is important to recognize the film’s strengths. The women cast as Amazonians are athletes in real life with muscular bodies that challenge anglocentric beauty ideals. Diana is a unique combination of sex appeal, acumen, and wit. She is fierce but nurturing, emboldened to take down Ares but driven by her desire to protect children. Her outfit choices are elegant but practical and she even managed to stash a sword in her stolen evening gown. Diana asserted confidence and ability while her male sidekicks over-promised and under-delivered. In short, Wonder Woman seems to encapsulate the kind of feminism Wade described as lost: embracing aggression and kindness, strength and beauty.

Given Diana’s character complexity, I find language lauding the film for its ability to break the curse of Catwoman” particularly offensive. Perhaps if Hollywood had chosen to produce Joss Whedon’s version of Wonder Woman, where Diana’s uses a “sexy dance” to thwart the villain, it might warrant a film comparison. After all, the Catwoman “plot” was a lurid focus on Halle Berry in a tight-fitting costume, a hypersexualized (de)evolution of a female protagonist. It tanked in the box office because, like most female characters in superhero films, Patience Phillips was a two-dimensional stereotype of femininity – meek, fickle, a tease. She had to “overcome” her feminine traits to succeed and used sex appeal as a weapon. Comparing the films conflates the presence of a female lead with the notion that both films were made for women. It’s like those who questioned if Clinton supporters might vote for McCain in 2008 because he put Palin on the ticket. Having a woman lead doesn’t mean women’s interests are being considered.

Despite these attempts at male wish fulfillment, Wonder Woman’s success was not due to men aged 15-25. Unlike other superhero flicks, Wonder Woman’s audience was roughly 52 percent women, and women and older audience viewers continue to build its momentum. When the Alamo Drafthouse risked litigation to host an all-female screening it sold out so quickly it added more women-only events to respond to the demand. Nevertheless, the comparison to Catwoman persists as does the dominant narrative that films outside of the Captain America framework are a “gamble.”  Ignoring the success of films like Wonder Woman (Arrival or Get Out or Moonlight) allows executives to deflect the fact that most “flops” were made with an exclusively white, heterosexual, male audience in mind (I’m looking at you Cowboys & Aliens).  Yet celebrating Wonder Woman as a “triumph,” allows us to pretend that similar female protagonists dominate the screen instead of calling more attention to the fact that women still only accounted for 32 percent of all speaking roles in 2015 or that non-white actors are continuously overlooked at the Oscars.

wonder-woman

Diana showcases a physical resilience seldom credited to women – let’s celebrate that. She encapsulates a kind of feminism that Wade rightfully notes is nearly nonexistent. Diana is a warrior who is agentic, driven, nurturing, protective, and merciful. She exhibits masculine strength without having to cast aside her feminine traits.  She voices concern for those who cannot protect themselves but she is a trained killer. By labeling Wonder Woman not feminist enough we overlook the crux of the problem: Wonder Woman’s empowerment narrative was likely tempered because Hollywood doesn’t really care about appealing to women. Highlighting the importance of Diana’s feminist dichotomy challenges Hollywood to build on that momentum and make a sequel without pandering to young, heterosexual, male audiences. In doing so, my hope is that in the future we have so many superheroes like Diana (strong because of their femininity, not strong despite it) that critics will have ample—and equivalent—characters for comparison.

Francesca Tripodi is a sociologist who studies how participatory media perpetuates systems of inequality. This year she is researching how partisan groups interact with media and the role community plays in legitimating what constitutes news and information as a postdoctoral scholar at Data & Society. Francesca would like to thank Caroline Jack and Tristan Bridges for their helpful feedback on this piece.

Researching Magical Lesbians

by Penelope Dane

SuccubusIn mythology, a succubus is a woman demon who seduces men and sucks away their vitality. On Lost Girl, a Canadian supernatural drama, shown on Syfy and Netflix in the US, the heroine Bo is a succubus who belongs to a magical race called the Fae who often exploit humans. However, Bo uses her powers to protect other women from rapists, to fight for the rights of humans, and to restore life. Continue reading “Researching Magical Lesbians”