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The Changing Model of Female Athletes’ Representation on TV

Sports has historically been identified with men and dominated by masculinity, and until now, gender inequality in sports remains a major problem. It encompasses gender discrimination, the wage gap, unequal representation of male and female athletes, and the lack of media attention to women’s events. Women in sports have traditionally been either masculinized or portrayed as sexual objects, with the focus placed on their unconformity to gender norms. 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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The perception of women athletes has changed significantly over the years. The article by Sutton explores the so-called “masculinization” of women in Weimar 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 changed at that time, and gender roles started to shift, with culture struggling to embrace the new, strong and athletic, model of femininity.

This struggle continues to be an issue in the 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 male sports across all media” (237). Sports TV channels and publications primality 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). Sports is still not considered an appropriate career for women, and female athletes need to put more effort into their branding than sportsmen in order to gain publicity.

Furthermore, sexuality is more often used to market sportswomen than athleticism. In sports news, sportswomen are “usually depicted in feminine-stereotyped roles,” and in printed media, they are often made to pose in photos that are sexualized (Smallwood et al. 6). With the perceptions of female athletes still based on gender stereotypes, they are often presented as sexual objects, and the focus is placed on their femininity and sexuality rather than strength and professionalism.

However, the strong and athletic model of femininity is starting to gain 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 athletes 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.

The conclusions about the lack of coverage of women’s events, sexualization of female athletes, and the changing model of femininity are confirmed by the observation of modern sports media. The analysis of the ESPN coverage of sports events shows some gender discrimination. On the ESPN YouTube channel, most videos focus on 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 (“espnW”). This observation proves that women still receive significantly less coverage in sports media than men.

The analysis of the intro to the first day of the 2021 Australian Open broadcasted by the ESPN channel has not detected any racial framing devices. 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”). Male and female players are given equal screen time and portrayed in a gender-neutral manner. The only difference that can be noted is in the footage presenting the winners of the last year’s Australian Open. Naomi Osaka, who became the champion in women’s singles, is shown crying, while Novak Djokovic, the winner of man’s singles, is shown triumphantly raising his hands (“2021 Australia Open on ESPN Intro” 00-00:03:28-00:03:54). It 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.

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Overall, it can be concluded that the public perception of female athletes is starting to change. With sports traditionally being a male-dominated industry, women are often portrayed as sexual objects or 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. The analysis of the ESPN broadcasts shows that women are starting to be depicted in a new way, but still receive significantly less coverage, which partially supports the evidence from the readings. The far-reaching conclusion is that the issues of unequal coverage of men’s and women’s events and the sexualized model of female athletes’ representation are still unresolved and need to be addressed.

References

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.

“espnW” [Playlist]. YouTube, 2020. Web.

Smallwood, Rachel, et al. “Female Bodies on Display: Attitudes Regarding Female Athlete Photos in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue and ESPN: The Magazine’s Body Issue.” Journal of Sports Media, vol. 8, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1-122.

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. Web.

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