Monday, February 9, 2015

Pretty vs. power: how the sexualization of female athletes is twirling out of control

Recently, after a big win at the Australian Open (one of the four most important tournaments in professional tennis), a rising star was asked to twirl. Eugenie Bouchard, who is ranked number seven in the world for women’s professional tennis, was asked by a male reporter to “Give us a twirl and tell us about your outfit.” When she questionably responded “a twirl?”, the male interviewer replied, “A twirl, like a pirouette, here you go.Sigh. While she did it rather uncomfortably – awkwardly laughing and burying her face – she still agreed. Mind you, this incredible player had just handily won her match to advance to the next round of a world renowned tournament. I guess the reporter thought that was unimportant compared to her neon pink Nike dress, right?

I wish I could say tennis was the only sport where this happens and that the sexualization of female athletes was not a growing problem. Sadly, that’s not the case. I recently asked a male colleague to name women in various professional sports. Tennis? Anna Kournikova. Softball? Jenny Finch. Soccer? Hope Solo. Skiing? Jenny Vonn. Volleyball? “The two pretty girls who won the Olympics.” When I asked what stood out about these athletes, it was not their fierce competitive natures or incredible athletic skills. Nope, not at all. Rather, he only knew of them because of their physical attractiveness and social activities covered by the media.

For the most part, boys grow up observing male athletes who are presented as skillful, confident, and successful. These children then have someone to look up to and something to aspire to. Unfortunately, the media does not present young girls with the same idols. While male athletes most often receive attention regarding their skilled performances, female athletes are often mentioned for their beauty or non-athletic activities. General research shows that media often focuses on female athletes as sexual beings, instead of heroic athletes like their male counterparts. Further, this focus on athletes’ attractiveness ultimately robs these females of athletic legitimacy.

Anna Kournikova is one of the best examples of this depressing phenomenon. During her career, she never won a major professional tennis tournament but was well known in the athletic world because of her beauty. However, without any major wins under her belt, she was still one of (only) six women ranked among the most important people in sports. Maria Sharapova, another tennis player, also has received more media attention regarding her attractiveness rather than her skills on the court. While Maria (unlike Anna) was once the number one female player in the world, research shows that commentators almost always comment on her appearance when reporting on her athletic endeavors. As I mentioned earlier, tennis isn’t the only sport where this happens. Marion Jones’s Olympic fame took the opposite road – the media portrayed her as assertive, muscular, and often “unfeminine.” Because of this, the most photographed female that during the Sydney Olympics was instead a part-time model and high jumper, Amy Acuff, despite Jones's incredible victories.

While it may be difficult (and even impossible) to restrict how the media portrays women athletes, these individuals need take control when possible. When Eugenie was asked to twirl, she did it – albeit awkwardly and embarrassed, she still complied. Several days earlier, tennis powerhouse Serena Williams had also been requested to twirl. Instead of complying, she simply noted life was too short and that she just didn’t really want to twirl. She further stated she did not want to comment on whether this was sexist and then went on to say she always twirls anyway after her matches while she thanks the crowd. Sigh. What will it take for a female athlete to deny the request and also say how inappropriate it is? While individuals are outraged and saying that no one would ask the same question to male counterparts, why don't the players feel the same?

At the end of the day, I don’t care what Eugenie (or any competitor) is wearing on the court -- and let’s be honest, if I really did, I would google it. When it comes down to it, I don’t want an athlete spinning around on the court at the request of a reporter to see how her dress flares and how cute she looks. I don’t want athletes like Marion Jones to be punished by the media for being strong and “unfeminine”. I don’t want players, like Anna Kournikova, to become outrageously popular only because they are “sexy.” And I certainly don’t want females like Serena to casually avoid the issues of sexism they face both on the court and by the media. What I do want and what we need is for society to start demanding that athletic ability trump attractiveness and for females to gain actual legitimacy as professional athletes.


Jessica S. said...

Oversexualizing women in any profession tied with fame or ability is degrading both to the women and to the audience. I agree it is so overdone. People really need to accept the fact that women can be athletic, and not point out their "femininity." As if that somehow allows them to exercise their talents without disturbing gender lines.

Rebecca F. said...

I wholeheartedly agree. It's unacceptable that this over sexualization continues to happen in professional athletics and that it continues to trump athletic ability. Far too often the media focuses on these athlete's physical beauty, outfits, or romantic relationships, rather than on their talent and skill. I haven't seen the Serena interview you referenced, but the kind of casual resignation to the question that you have described is particularly troubling. Declining to twirl is a positive step forward. But then also declining to say that you won't twirl because it's sexist seems to cede the ground you've gained.

Damon Alimouri said...

I think the main issue here is the huge disparity between professional female athletics and male athletics. The disparity is striking. I think one would be hard pressed to name a single member of the WNBA, whereas I could name a couple NBA stars, and I don't even care for commercial sports.

What does this disparity say about gender roles in our society? Does it say that men are supposed to be athletic and women dainty? Or does it say that women are to be commodified on the basis of their sexuality, not on their athleticism? Is athleticism not a feature of the dominant notion of female sexuality? Probably not.

Jessica S. said...

I agree, Rebecca. The resignation makes me feel bad for these women. Even if they wanted to speak out, it would hurt their brand (according to the PR folks or whoever gauges these things). Would it really ruin their marketability though? It makes me wonder.
Damon, I think all of your points about gender roles and sexuality are on target. The NFL is a nonprofit organization, and it certainly seems we promote male athleticism when we pay NFL players so much money, while cheerleaders fight for minimum wage. The cheerleaders' training and skill is utterly dwarfed by the emphasis on their sex appeal.

Juliana said...

Like Jessica mentioned, oversexualizing women in any profession is a huge problem. With the Oscars this past weekend, and generally in film awards, #AskHerMore has become a movement on the red carpet, with celebrities pushing reporters to ask women about their work and not just their dresses. You can read #askhermore here:

Ahva said...

I too am disconcerted by the fact that the media only seems to feature female athletes who are physically attractive, and not necessarily the ones with the greatest or most impressive athletic achievements. Going to Damon's point about the recognition of NBA players versus WNBA players, I once asked a male friend (and huge sports fan) why he thinks female competitive sports are not given as much media attention or air-time as male sports. He responded that there is no significant market for female sports because, in general, most women do not watch or follow sports. I don't know the official percentage breakdown of how many females versus males watch sports, but I know several females who are huge sports fans. Moreover, I can't reconcile the alleged lack of enthusiasm for female sports like the WNBA or women's softball year-round with the sudden interest that members of both sexes display every Olympics season for both male and female competitors in categories like swimming, volleyball, and gymnastics. If the US can show that kind of interest for female athletes during the Olympics, why don't we show that same interest in female athleticism year-round?

Your post also suggested that the media usually focuses on female athletes' appearance, while male athletes are praised for their skill and success. We see a similar pattern of biased reporting with regard to race. For example, the media overwhelmingly discusses black NBA players in terms of their physical characteristics, emphasizing their quickness, strength, and size. White NBA players are overwhelmingly discussed in terms of their brainpower, intelligence, and motivation.

Hart Ku said...

I think part of the fascination with conventionally good-looking female athletes is that their achievements -- if they are based on merit like they typically are in sports -- seem to fly in the face of our societal expectations. To many, an intelligent or skilled "beautiful" woman is an enigma. It's often assumed they don't need to work as hard in life to receive favorable treatment. As a result, the public either becomes confused with why an attractive person would work so hard, or they steal her reputation by suggesting she only got where she is because of her beauty. I'm certainly not suggesting that we need to start a campaign to help beautiful people get better opportunities in life.

To some extent, I think it's a shame that many athletes these days need to focus more and more on their own celebrity, rather than their sport.

Maria Sharapova is an interesting case because - as the blogger mentioned - she has won her fair share of grand slam titles. However, she has never been particularly dominant in the game, yet she is regularly the world's highest paid female athlete. Only a small portion of her income is attributed to tournament prize money - it mostly comes from endorsements and advertisement deals. So what exactly is her job? Is it to be a great tennis player, or be beautiful?