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Women, Sport,
and Film - 2003


On Serendip

Image of Women in Sport in America

Erika Fardig

In the United States, women sports figures tend to be portrayed in the media as feminine first and then as sports players. Since sports were traditionally a man's field, a place where men were celebrated for showing off their strength and skill, women are a threat to male dominance. When women began to play sports seriously, they had to overcome many prejudices, not the least of which was that men did not want to share the spotlight. Women also had to prove that they were physically capable of intense exertion without adverse reaction, that they could become skilled in sport, and that playing sports was not an indication of homosexuality. Women sports and athletes still are described with the prefix "women" with its negative connotation while men do not. Why else do we use WNBA but not MNBA, woman golfer but not male golfer, if not to set women apart, to say look at this anomaly? Even today, women not only have to excel in their sport, they have to be better than the men to gain a fraction of the recognition and praise showered upon our male sports figures.

In order to combat the stereotype that women in sport have lost their femininity, women often allow themselves to be portrayed in overly feminine ways. Instead of being celebrated for their excellence in their sport, their toned bodies are flaunted. Women in sport are, more often than not, depicted in sexualized poses because it objectifies them. Women who become objects do not threaten male society the way competent sports women do. In fact, this practice is so common that it is hard to find a recognizable female sports figure who has not had her picture taken in an overtly sexualized manner. Often the picture is of the woman naked except for strategically placed soccer balls or other sports equipment. It can be hard to tell if the woman is a sports figure or a model hired to promote a sports company's latest product. Rarely do women have their pictures taken in their uniforms, unless that consists of skimpy bathing suits. When these pictures are taken, most often they are with the woman's family to show that she is a woman, first and foremost. Rarest of all are pictures of sports women actually playing their sport: working hard, getting sweaty, and being competitive. These are not "feminine" images, so they do not appear in major publication such as newspapers and Sports Illustrated very often.

Since Title IX came into effect, women have made great strides in many areas that were formerly dominated by, if not exclusively the territory of, men. The greater American society, however, seems to hold tight to the image of women maintaining their feminine side. Our society still worships beauty, style, and glamour over brains and excellence in women. Therefore it is not surprising that the female athletes that receive the most media attention are the ones who are photogenic and the ones willing to pose nearly naked for sports magazines. A classic example is Anna Kournikova, the media darling of tennis. The attention she receives revolves around her beauty, rather than her skill at tennis, since she has never won a major tennis award. If recognition and media attention were the sole product of skill, Kournikova would not be the international star that she is today.

On television, and to a lesser extent, the sports coverage in newspapers, women's sports are rarely mentioned. Those that do receive attention are almost always the sports, such as figure skating and gymnastics, where women are rewarded for their grace as well as their athletic talent. Established national leagues of soccer and basketball are broadcasted on ESPN2, if at all. It was only when the United States Olympic teams were in the final matches deciding medals, that the games were finally given airtime and coverage in newspapers. Sports channels may argue that not enough people watch women's sports on television to warrant coverage, but how will these sports gain popularity if they are never shown to the larger public? If we tell young girls that they are just as important as men, then we need to demand that women's sport be given equal coverage time.

In the movies that we watched in class, the female characters went out of their way to prove their femininity to the audience. In National Velvet, Velvet is told that after the race, she must put away her dreams of being a famous jockey, and focus her attention on feminine pursuits. The final scenes show Velvet in a dress, content to stay home. In Love and Basketball, Monica goes on to play in the WNBA, but first she says that basketball holds no meaning for her without her guy. Again, a strong female character is sacrificed for the cultural ideal that women are still need men to succeed. In a more overt display, the women in A League of Their Own must attend classes to train them for their eventual roles as housewives. They are taught posture, proper manners, and ways to maintain and enhance their beauty. Furthermore, the women are forced to play in short, impractical skirts. The surfers in Blue Crush also conformed to society's ideal. The main character contemplates given up surfing to be the wife of a football player she has only just met. Even though it would be highly impractical for surfing, all the girls wear skimpy bikinis. Over and over again, the media shows images of women in sport as sex objects or domesticated ladies. Every one of the leads in these movies depends upon a male character or sacrifices a piece of herself for the approval of a male lead.

Until society begins to change its values and its expectations for female athletes, little will be done to alter the situation. The change, if and when it occurs, will be a gradual process over many years. If the young athletes of today are rewarded for the talent in their sport not for their bodies or their femininity, perhaps their generation will begin the cultural shift toward leveling the playing field for all athletes. Athletes should refuse to have their pictures taken in skimpy clothing and overly sexualized poses. If the media attention can be shifted to women in the midst of playing their sport, one step in the right direction will be achieved.

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