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The Changing Model of Female Athletes’ Representation in Sports Media


Sports have historically been identified with men and dominated by masculinity, and until now, gender inequality in sports remains a major problem. Female athletes generally receive less media attention than men and are either masculinized or portrayed as sexual objects, with the focus placed on their femininity rather than athletic achievements. However, in recent years, the situation is gradually starting to change. Today, the depiction of female athletes both in sports magazines and on TV is starting to shift from the sexualized model to equal representation, as becomes evident from the analysis of readings and the ESPN broadcasts.

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Problem overview

Gender inequality in sports has always been a major problem. Women’s sports history started in the 19th century, and since that time, women had to fight to be treated and paid equally. Despite the growing level of participation of female athletes at all competition levels, coverage of women’s sports still remains inferior to that given to male sports across all media (Adams and Tuggle 238). As of today, gender inequality encompasses unequal representation of male and female athletes, gender discrimination, the wage gap, and the lack of media attention to women’s events.

History of female athletes’ representation in sports media

Since the 19th century, the perception of female athletes has changed significantly. The article by Sutton explores the so-called “masculinization” of women in Western Germany in the 1920s when more attention started to be paid to the issues of women’s sport, athleticism, and physicality (28). The women’s growing participation in sports became symbolic of their political emancipation, and the female ideal changed from traditional feminine to “masculine” and athletic (Sutton 28). It became the focus of public concerns about changing gender relations, female sexuality, and acceptable women’s behavior (Sutton 28). In media coverage, commentators strived to develop strategies to reaffirm the traditional gender order, drawing attention from female athletes’ sports achievements to their reproductive and domestic responsibilities (Sutton 39). The perception of women started to change at that time, and gender roles began to shift, with culture struggling to embrace the new, strong, and athletic, model of femininity.

Over the years, as the participation of female athletes at all levels of competition increased, they had to overcome numerous difficulties to succeed. Women were encouraged to play “sex-appropriate” sports, “graceful, nonaggressive, and aesthetically pleasing,” which posed no danger to their reproductive system nor traditional characteristics of femininity, and their participation in competitive sports often met sexist criticism (Brachmann 16). They had to adhere to feminine principles regarding their appearance, off-field conduct, and personal life (Brackmann 20). By mid-century, women’s sports have also started to be associated with racial stigma, as more African American female athletes began to dominate the international arena (Brackmann 20). In addition, the Cold Era also perpetuated the stigma of homosexuality based on the belief that sport “masculinized” women, making them develop masculine qualities, including attraction to their own sex (Brackmann 20). For the most part of the 20th century, almost every aspect of women’s participation in sports was stigmatized, and they had to fight to overcome traditional views of femininity and athleticism.

A major shift in women’s sports occurred in the 1970s, when Billie Jean King, a professional tennis player and an advocate for gender equality, started to campaign for equal prize money in the men’s and women’s tournaments. In 1972, she won the “Battle of the Sexes” against the American tennis champion Bobby Riggs, which became a turning point in the public acceptance of women’s tennis and sports in general (“Billie Jean King”). King used her “victory against sexism” and the prize money to establish the Women’s Sports Foundation aimed to provide opportunities for aspiring female athletes in sports and overcome the existing disparity (“Billie Jean King”). Formal changes started to be introduced to competitions to alleviate the gender gap, and together with the growing feminist movement, this contributed to the popularization of women’s sports and an increase in gender equality.

However, the contradictions in the way female athletes were perceived in society still remained. Sports was largely regarded to be a threat to femininity, and sports coverage focused on the sexualized feminine portrayal of athletes rather than athleticism. When in the 1970s and 1980s, an increasing number of women took up jogging, aerobics, bicycling and swimming in pursuit of improved physical and mental health, a skinny body image ideal emerged (Brackmann 24). Women were encouraged to sculpt their bodies into “objects for public display and evaluation” (Brackmann 24). Female athletes represented this new ideal only partially because many characteristics which they embodied have historically been associated with masculinity (Brackmann 30). The traditional views on femininity were challenged by women competing and succeeding in a variety of sports, but they had to overcome multiple social barriers and balance a feminine image with “masculine” athletic qualities.

Modern representation of female athletes in sports media

The struggle between femininity and masculinity in the depiction of athletes and unequal gender representation continue to be major issues in modern sports media. According to Adams and Tuggle, despite the growing participation of women in competitions at all levels, “coverage of women’s sports remains inferior to that given to male sports across all media” (237). This conclusion is proved by the 1997 and 2002 studies of female athletics coverage by two national highlights programs (CNN’s Sports Tonight and ESPN’s Sports Center) (Adams and Tuggle 237). The results showed that only 5% of airtime was devoted to female competitions in 1997, and even less in 2002 (Adams and Tuggle 237). The observation of the modern sports channels also confirms the pattern. On ESPN’s YouTube channel, most videos are devoted to men’s events, and it is hard to find commentary on women’s sports. The channel has a special playlist on women’s sports, but it has not been updated for a long time (“ESPN”). This observation proves that women still receive significantly less coverage than men.

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Furthermore, gender inequality can be observed in the way women’s sports are covered. Sports TV channels and publications primarily focus on “either top-level, competitive, and feminine-appropriate events or the achievements and aspects of the lives of sportswomen that are deemed to be unusual, spectacular, controversial, or newsworthy” (Smallwood et al. 6). Sexuality is more often used to market sportswomen than athleticism. In sports news, female athletes are usually depicted in feminine-stereotyped roles (Smallwood et al., 6), and in printed media, they are often portrayed as sexual icons rather than elite athletes (Brackmann 5). With the perceptions of female athletes still largely based on gender stereotypes, the focus in the coverage of women’s events is often placed on their femininity and sexuality rather than strength and professionalism.

As is observed in ESPN’s coverage of sports events, women are sometimes depicted as more vulnerable than men in the same situations. For example, this is evident from the analysis of the intro to the first day of 2021 Australian Open broadcasted by the ESPN channel. In the video, the four most prominent players participating in the tournament are mentioned, and the winners of the last year’s Australian Open men’s and women’s singles are presented (“2021 Australian Open on ESPN Intro”). Although men and female players are given equal screen time and portrayed in a gender-neutral manner, some differences can be observed. Naomi Osaka, who became the champion of women’s singles, is shown crying, while Novak Djokovic, the winner man’s singles, is shown triumphantly raising his hands (“2021 Australian Open on ESPN Intro” 00-00:03:28-00:03:54). This can be regarded as an attempt to portray the female player as more vulnerable. However, the choice of the shots can be explained as accurately depicting the players’ reactions to their victories rather than an attempt at gender framing.

Changes in the model of female athletes’ representation in sports media

Although gender inequality still remains a major problem, some changes can be observed in the way female athletes are portrayed in sports media, with the strong and athletic model of femininity gaining increased recognition. The article by Smallwood et al. studies the perceptions of sexuality and athleticism on the example of two publications featuring female athletes (1). The Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue shows sportswomen in sexualized poses alongside bathing suit models, while ESPN: The Magazine’s Body Issue features nude images that “highlight athletic bodies of all shapes and sizes” (Smallwood et al. 1). The respondents were asked to evaluate each picture using several variables, which included athleticism, femininity, sexuality, and masculinity (Smallwood et al. 10). The results showed that nude athletes were perceived as feminine, sexy, and athletic at the same time, which shows that the model of femininity is gradually changing, and society is learning to accept women athletes for who they are.

This conclusion is supported by the research conducted by Pegoraro et al., which examines the representation of female athletes during the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The content analysis of photos posted on Instagram under the #FIFAWWC and #SheBelieves hashtags revealed that users primarily portrayed sportswomen as athletically competent: either inaction or dressed for action (Pegoraro et al. 1072). This shows that social media users accept women as athletes and tend to refrain from reinforcing traditional gender norms in favor of a more progressive ideal.

The new progressive model of femininity is gradually starting to replace the sexualized model that dominated women’s sports coverage for decades. The sexualized model of female athletes’ representation was primarily targeted at a “heterosexual, white, male audience,” who were believed to be the primary consumers of sports-related media content (Brackmann 29). The sexualized images of sportswomen reflected age-old stereotypes regarding women’s athletic abilities, role in society, and appearance. Female athletes were presented as women who play sports rather than as athletes first and foremost (Pegoraro et al. 1063). Sexualization was perceived as the only possible way to sell women’s sports and attract an audience (Pegoraro et al. 1064). The main idea communicated by the media was that women can be fully engaged in competitive sports but not in a way that is deemed too threatening to conventional gender norms.

The new model of female athletes’ representation is based on embracing diversity and accepting women for who they are. According to Smallwood et al. (16), there is little correlation between athleticism and sexuality, and selling sex as a means to sell sports is not palatable in women’s athletics. People start to perceive sportswomen for who they are — female athletes, rather than sex icons — as is proved by the study by Pegoraro et al. (1076). According to the research cited in Pegoraro et al. (1072), women athletes themselves want to be portrayed as athletically competent, and it is now evident that this message is starting to reach the audience. With sportswomen beginning to be accepted for their athletic achievements rather than sexuality, they are no longer compelled to use sex appeal as the only possible means to achieve recognition.


Based on the analysis of the readings and sports media observations, it can be concluded that both the perception and representation of female athletes are starting to change. With sports traditionally being a male-dominated industry, women are still often portrayed as sexual objects or who need to do something controversial or noteworthy to obtain media attention. However, evidence can be found in the recent literature on the subject that the new athletic model of femininity is gaining increased recognition, and female athletes are accepted for being both feminine and athletic. Social media users tend to depict female athletes as being athletically competent, and in printed media, the less sexualized images are met with increased approval. The analysis of TV broadcasts showed that women are indeed starting to be depicted in a new way but still receive significantly less coverage than men. The far-reaching conclusion is that actions need to be taken by social and traditional media to further improve women’s representation and address the issues of unequal coverage and sexualization.

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Works Cited

Adams, Terry, and Charlie Tuggle. “ESPN’s SportsCenter and Coverage of Women’s Athletics: “It’s a Boys’ Club.” Mass Communication & Society, vol. 7, no. 2, 2009, pp. 237-248.

“Billie Jean King.” American Masters, season 27, PBS, 2013.

Brackmann, Kris. “Gender Division is Sport: Through the Eyes of Female Student-Athletes at CMS.” CMC Senior Theses, 1718, 2017.

“espnW” [Playlist]. YouTube, 2020.

Pegoraro, Ann, Gina S. Comeau, and Evan L. Frederick. “#SheBelieves: The Use of Instagram to Frame the US Women’s Soccer Team during #FIFAWWC.” Sport in Society, vol. 21, no. 7, 2017, pp. 1063–1077.

Sutton, Kattie. “The Masculinized Female Athlete in Weimar Germany.” German Politics and Society, vol. 92, no. 3, 2009, pp. 28-49.

“2021 Australian Open on ESPN Intro.” YouTube, uploaded by The Intro Network, 2021. Web.

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