May 11, 2008

Recent sports articles remind us that female athletes are (sexual and maternal) women first

Posted in beauty culture, body politics, exnomination, feminism, gender, gender stereotypes, mass media, objectification, representation, sexual politics, sports at 1:00 pm by LB

First, from Feministing:

The Chicago Tribune online story with this headline:

“WNBA offers advice to rookies: Trying to expand fan base by marketing its players, the WNBA for the first time offers rookies lessons in fashion and makeup”

Yes, you read that right. According to the story, one-third of the WNBA rookie orientation offered makeup and fashion tips. Other seminars included “financial advice, media training and fitness and nutrition”.

“I think it’s very important,” said Candace Parker, the Naperville product who was the league’s No. 1 draft pick out of Tennessee. “I’m the type who likes to put on basketball shorts and a white T, but I love to dress up and wear makeup. But as time goes on, I think [looks] will be less and less important.”

[…]

NBA rookies go through a similar orientation, although their off-court conduct is stressed far more than their wardrobe or physical appearance.

What’s unfortunate is it’s true. Female athletes are not only judged as athletes but are also judged for their adherence to conventional “femininity” (as I’ve written about elsewhere). Some of this happens in the way women’s sports is reported and discussed, and some of it is brought on by the ad campaigns female athletes participate in. While part of their participation in objectifying ads is likely for the income opportunity, I think part of it too is as a way for female athletes to “prove” (via social validation) that despite their physical strength and athletic bodies, they are still “sexy” and “feminine”. Since, of course, being sexually desirable according to socially prescribed standards is the ultimate standard of a woman’s worth.

From the Tribune:

Susan Ziegler, a Cleveland State professor of sports psychology, said disparity in wages and media coverage between male and female athletes, along with a battle against perceived negative stereotypes, are factors in marketing female sports figures for their physicality rather than their athletic assets.

Need examples? I could look up tons, but the Tribune article has several handy:

Tennis player Anna Kournikova, who never won a professional singles tournament, was the poster woman for marketing her sexuality in lieu of her athletic credentials. But far more accomplished female athletes are also marketed on the basis of their appearance.

Tennis player Maria Sharapova was the second youngest woman to win Wimbledon in 2004, which prompted Sports Illustrated to put her on its cover wearing a white tennis outfit under the words “Star Power.” She appeared in Sports Illustrated again in 2006, this time wearing a variety of string bikinis on a beach for the magazine’s swimsuit edition.

Last month, race car driver Danica Patrick became the first woman to win an IndyCar event. She made a name for herself posing in FHM in a red bustier atop a yellow Mustang and by starring in provocative TV commercials for GoDaddy.com. One such GoDaddy commercial was rejected for airing during this year’s Super Bowl.

Softball pitcher Jennie Finch, who plays for the Chicago Bandits, set an NCAA record with 60 consecutive victories in college at Arizona and won an Olympic gold medal in 2004. She wore gold again in ’05, posing in a metallic bikini for Sports Illustrated.

This has been so disappointing to me, as athletic achievement by women has/had such a potential to dispel gender stereotypes about what women’s bodies are useful for, what their capabilities are, and as an overall way to present women’s bodies as something that does things and not just something to be sexual or to look at. Indeed, I see women’ sports in terms of Judith Butler’s notion of repetitive parodic performances of gender in and through the body that have the capacity to disrupt ideologies of the gendered body (see her Gender Trouble, ch.3-iv). Sports is an especially effective way, in my view, to challenge traditional ideas about women’s bodies since sports achievement is of such a high value in American society. But unfortunately, the effect (so far) of women in professional sports has been less than desirable; female athletes are critiqued based on their physical attractiveness or on their femininity (think of the way WNBA players are talked about in terms of femininity vs. a graceful athlete like a female tennis player; this article by feminist scholar Judith Lorber covers this). It’s no wonder so many female athletes feel pressure to say “hey, I’m still a sexy (thus valuable) woman!” by all sorts of objectifying photo spreads and beauty-focused ad campaigns. Rather than challenging the gendered body, this behavior reiterates it.

It’s bad enough that the sports industry and the lad-mag industry sees female athletes in this way (and see this earlier post for some of my thoughts about how the SI swimsuit issue contributes to the devaluing of female athletes). It’s absolutely disheartening that the WNBA is caving into this mentality. As Jessica at feministing said,

Marj Snyder of the Women’s Sports Foundation, says, “The problem is if only 8 percent of the coverage is on women, and the vast majority of the time we’re talking about who they’re married to, what clothing they’re wearing, what kind of parents they are, there’s not much room left to say, ‘What a great athlete.’ ” But instead of fighting back against this superficial focus, the WNBA is embracing it.

And from the Chicago Tribune:

“It’s all contributing to how to be a professional,” league President Donna Orender said of the orientation classes. “I do believe there’s more focus on a woman’s physical appearance. Men are straight out accepted for their athletic ability. That’s reality. I think it’s true in every aspect of the work force. This is all about a broader-based education.”

Wow. So since society as a whole has sexist double standards, the WNBA thinks it should cave into them and embrace them instead of demanding that those in their own industry treat female athletes as athletes! If anyone is in a position to demand accountability for sports reporting it’s the sports associations themselves. Instead, they are choosing the path of least resistance.

I think it is the very disruptive potential of female athletics to gender assumptions about women and the female body that makes me so incredibly disappointed in how female athletes have been received culturally. But it’s also really no surprise as I have previously written about how women in general are women first (both woman-as-person and woman-as-body) and are assessed in terms of their womanhood/femininity in light of their sports, politics, etc. Men have the luxury of being the ex-nominated gender– when was the last time you read an article about whether people are voting their gender if they vote for John McCain? Or about how a football player maintains his masculinity in light of his athletic participation?

From the Tribune:

Renee Brown, the WNBA’s vice president of player personnel, said the league aims to show its players as “mothers, daughters, sisters, nieces and entrepreneurs” and their “womanhood” is important to promote the league.

“You’re a woman first,” Brown said. “You just happen to play sports. They enjoy dressing up and trying on outfits, where back in the day, everyone just wore sweats.

“Call it what you want. We’re just celebrating their womanhood.”

Unfortunate, yet unfortunately true in our society.

Which leads me to the next sports story, this one via Thomas at Feministe.

The article Thomas discusses was about a female weightlifter that ran in the New York Times sports section. However, the article was more about the woman as wife and mother (of an autistic child) than about the woman as a weightlifter.

In this story, family and spouses are highlighted to a degree that they aren’t in stories about men. It’s as if some explanation is needed for why/how she is able to live as a “successful (traditional) female” outside of other traditional gender expectations.

Whereas earlier I was saying that women objectify themselves outside of their sports activity as a kind of femininity apology. In this story, the femininity apology is about motherhood rather than sexuality (as they are the two social values for women’s bodies), in the form of “I may be an athlete, but really, I’m also a good mother”.

As Thomas wrote in the post,

If a man of 31, an international class athlete, were headed to the Olympic trials after a career of triumph, injuries and comebacks, with three kids and a spouse, it would also be true that it took a village to get him there. But I don’t think it would get much attention. I think everyone would just call it normal. But when a woman has kids, how she negotiates the demands of the rest of her life is The Big Question, the one that prompts several paragraphs in a major newspaper. It’s not just the way the role of mother is presumed to take over a woman’s life; it’s especially that this presumption goes unexamined.

And it wasn’t just the reporter. Her coach’s juxtaposition of “average everyday woman” (clearly a pejorative there) with high-level competition and positioning her ambition as “selfish” is exactly the problem. When men compete, they represent. The village isn’t just supporting them, they are bringing the triumph home for their family and friends, communities, nations, etc. But this guy is telling his lifter that she’s doing it all for herself. Way to motivate, coach!

Further, this plays on the idea that once a woman is a mother, anything she does for herself is critiqued as to its “selfishness”. Women who work outside the home? Selfish. Women who think their careers are of equal importance to their partner’s? Selfish. Women who want orgasms as standard practice? Well, you get the idea. Now in a world when women as mothers are expected to put everyone else first, I suppose I can see why her coach might want to encourage her, telling her she’s doing something “for herself”. But to term doing something for oneself as “selfish” feeds all sort of negative stereotypes about women who “dare” to do anything outside of their motherly/wifely role.

Lastly, this good bit of news: feministing posted about a report that says girls are participating in sports in record numbers. My only hope is that we can create a sports culture that’s more friendly to female athletes and doesn’t force onto them the requirement of embodying ideal, traditional femininity too.

(Cross-posted to The Reaction)

2 Comments »

  1. […] post by lindabeth Bookmark and Share: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and […]

  2. […] with the way female athletes are written about in the media, the sports industry is telling me loud and clear where I as a female belong: on the sidelines, […]


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