Why We Need More Positive Representations of Women in Sports Media and How We Can Support Them

Source: Penn Live

Source: Penn Live

In the wake of Title IX’s fortieth anniversary, we have a lot to celebrate.

The 2012 Summer Olympics were lauded as the “Title IX Games” by most, because this was the first generation that largely grew up in the post-Title IX era. For the first time, female athletes brought home more gold medals than male athletes (29 to 17). 55% of the Olympics news coverage was dedicated to women’s sports that year.

Last year, the sports world was abuzz discussing the possibility of powerhouse Brittney Griner playing alongside men in the men’s NBA.

But despite this progress, we still have a long way to go.

Amidst her huge success, Griner also faced critiques that her talent and style negated her female-ness. (Just type “Is Brittney Griner” in your search bar, and you will see the top searches: Is Brittney Griner a man? …married? …really a girl?)

Griner’s ability to dominate in basketball made her less of a woman in some people’s eyes. Because Griner dared to be extraordinary, some fans even speculated that she possessed male parts.

And let’s not forget the 2012 Summer Olympics controversy around skirts and bikinis.

For the first time, Olympic female boxers were not forced to wear skirts at boxing matches. While fans found the skirts necessary to distinguish between male and female boxers (really?!), boxers like world champion Katie Taylor called the mini-skirts a “disgrace.”

Also in 2012, Olympic female volleyball players were not required to wear bikinis during games, because, you know, it’s about the game and not their bodies, right?

The sexualization of women in sports is not new.

The April edition of Golf Digest features not a professional female golfer, but the girlfriend of a golfer. Model and professional girlfriend, Paulina Gretzky, wears a two-piece, belly-baring “golf outfit” on the cover and poses with a golf club – as a prop.

It has been six years since Golf Digest has featured a female pro golfer on its cover.

Not surprisingly, golfers from the Ladies Professional Golf Association were offended by the April cover.

And female athletes are not alone here. Women throughout the sports world are sexualized, too.

Just Google the images for “female sportscaster” and then “male sportscaster.” You will notice a stark contrast between the two searches.

The male sportscasters are fully clothed and presented in their professional setting. The female sportscasters, on the other hand, are often photographed in sexy angles and revealing attire.

While male sportscasters are analyzed for their talent, female sportscasters are valued for their looks.

Female sportscasters like Ines Sainz have been catcalled and harassed by players. Erin Andrews’ career is still haunted by a stalker’s peephole video of her changing in her hotel room.

Needless to say, we need more positive representations of women in sports media for several reasons. Here are just a few!

1. Young Women and Girls Need Healthy Role Models

We need to see more images of healthy women and girls in the media. We need to see them kicking, throwing, swinging, sprinting, and swimming.

In an age of thinspiration, thigh gaps, and bikini bridges, positive representations of women in sports can alleviate some of the stress around body policing.

Instead of dieting  to meet a beauty standard, female athletes can usher in a new era of exercising and healthy eating.

Instead of exercising and dieting for form and beauty, we can learn how to exercise and diet for function.

2. Women’s Involvement in Sports Should Not Indicate Their Sexuality

With more positive representations of women in sports, we can start valuing great female athletes for who they are: great athletes.

Women who play sports are often labeled as lesbians, butch, and just freakish. In other words, sporty girls are seen as anomalies and exceptional from “normal” women.

Take the phrase “You throw like a girl.” It implies that females have an innate weakness in physical activity.

Title IX and the 2012 Summer Olympics have shown us that athletic prowess is more dependent on training than your gender identity or chromosomal makeup.

So let’s get more positive representations of women in sports so that we can acknowledge women in sports for their physical and mental strength, not for their novelty as female athletes.

3. Women in Sports Become Better Leaders and Work Better in Teams

Did you know that 80% of executive women played sports growing up and 69% said that sports helped them develop leadership skills?

More positive representations of women in sports will encourage more young women and girls to not only stay active, but to obtain leadership positions in the future.

Sports teach young girls the value of perseverance, how to set and reach short- and long-term goals, work together as a team, and how to overcome failure.

Don’t we want more competent leaders in our society? It just makes sense.

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Don’t play sports or work in sports media? Me neither, but here are four ways you can help out in your everyday life:

1. Practice Sports Media Literacy and Encourage Others as Well

It’s easy to practice sports media literacy.

Ally Boguhn recently wrote on how to think critically about problematic media. And Kat Lazo even offers some easy steps on how to teach media literacy to kids.

We are bombarded with media every day. What can we do as viewers? You may not have a career in sports media, but you can choose how you react to sports media.

Joseph Gordon Levitt explains, on Ellen, that we can simply start by questioning why things are the way they are.

For instance, why is it that women are the cheerleaders, but not the athletes? Why are men the heroes and women the pretty objects?

Who writes those scripts?

2. Acknowledge Women’s Sports

Seek out alternative news sources and change your language!

Watch ESPN, and you will see that football, basketball, and baseball (the Big Three sports) control the news cycle. Unfortunately, these are sports dominated by men. We don’t often see female athletes in the news, but they exist!

Women have really excelled in soccer, tennis, golf, and even NASCAR, but study after study shows us that women’s sports only receive about 4% of media news coverage, despite the fact that 40% of athletes are women.

Seek out alternative news sources such as The Equalizer for women’s professional soccer news, the Women’s Tennis Association, and the Ladies Professional Golf Association.

You can also do your part by acknowledging women’s sports in your everyday language.

Explicitly change your language. When we say “NBA Playoffs,” we mean “the men’s NBA Playoffs.” This marginalizes women’s basketball (WNBA teams compete in playoff games, too!).

We can look to President Obama as a model. Obama began sharing his bracket for both the NBA and WNBA Playoffs in 2010.

3. Support Women’s Sports Teams

Whether you identify as a woman or not, we all need to support women’s sports teams and increase attendance at women’s sports games. Only then will mainstream sports media get the message: We want more women represented in sports media!

Women’s sports teams, in general, receive less financial support, so your attendance and support will go a long way.

4. Encourage Women and Girls to Participate

Paige Lucas-Stannard’s advice on how to engage in gender-neutral parenting is relevant here. In order to encourage young girls to participate in sports and enter sports media, we need to check our implicit sexism when we engage with girls.

First of all, we need to pause before telling our girls to “be careful” and allow them to build their confidence.

I am not an athletic person. I am afraid to play sports, because I am afraid of getting hurt. But people get hurt all the time, and our bodies heal. Avoid leading conversations with excessive caution. Allow girls to explore and have fun!

Allow girls to engage in physical activity and feel confident with their bodies. Let them know that they can achieve whatever they want to as long as they work hard.

Who knows, you might be supporting a future athlete or sportscaster!

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This will not change overnight. It took over forty years for Title IX’s changes to take effect.

But there is hope. Title IX’s success show us that so much can change even within a generation.

Want to discuss this further? Visit our online forum and start a post!

Amy Sun is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She has worked with providing resources and support for Asian/Pacific Islander survivors of domestic violence in the DC, Maryland, and Virginia areas. She also holds her Masters in Women’s Studies from the George Washington University, where she has researched the coming out processes for trans* who identify as FTM and MTF.