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Women, Sport,
and Film - 2003


On Serendip

Disturbing Images and Cultural Ideals

Laurel Jackson

Looking back on the last century, the role of women in culture has changed significantly. Women have gained the right to vote, they have gained a voice in the political arena, and they have become more independent in general. Women athletes are prime examples of independent women. It has been a long and difficult fight for women, but thanks to Title XI, and the changing cultural perceptions of women, female athletes have garnered respect and a fan base. This is not to say that there are still problems and obstacles that often stand in the way for women.

Although it is culturally acceptable for women to participate in sports, there are limitations for women, not only in sports but also in the corporate world and politics. A woman who wants to be the mayor of a city, who gives up time with her family to campaign is considered heartless by some, courageous by others. If that woman decides to not run for office again, people automatically assume that she feels she has been neglecting her family. Our culture would never question a father's decision to not run for mayor again. A woman who is promoted to the top authority position in a company is usually criticized in some way for being nasty or for "sleeping her way to the top". When men are promoted to similar status, no such accusations follow them.

In the same sense, a female athlete such as Brandy Chastain, who rips off her shirt at the end of an amazing game, culture sees her as unacceptable. She is supposed to be calm and collected. Culture wants women to play sports, but it expects them to contain themselves within unreasonable bounds, acting like proper ladies. Why is it that men do not have to live up to similar standards? Culture is not made up strictly of men. It is also made up of women. Perhaps if more women accepted the role of athlete, and challenged the present cultural perceptions of women athletes, the problems that female athletes face would be diminished.

Because of the cultural desire to see women live up to the cultural standard of femininity, the images presented of female athletes are almost always out of the context of the sport in which they participate. Very rarely are women photographed in an aggressive way, unless the idea of the photo is to prove that the woman is a lesbian or mean. It is ridiculous that a woman cannot be seen grimacing, dripping with sweat, or behaving aggressively without some negative consequence. Open any sports magazine, and if women are even included in the features, in most instances, the athlete will be pictured in some "feminine" role, such as cooking, curled up on the couch with a puppy, playing her children.

Many female athletes decide to pose nude or scantily clad because those types of pictures attract attention. For some women it is empowering; some women believe that when they pose this way they are attracting people to their sport. The fact is that these pictures do attract a great deal of attention, but it is the wrong kind of attention. Female athletes should realize that negative attention is not winning any battles. If their goal is to be seen as a professional, serious athlete, they are failing. For the most part, men do not choose to pose naked or in their underwear. For them it is demeaning.

So what is to be done? How can cultural expectations of female athletes change for the better? If we refuse to buy sports magazines that portray women in racy photographs, will the battle be won? I believe that until the female athletes make a stand and say that they refuse to be pictured in such ways, there will be little change. Not to be overly pessimistic, but a change such as this is unlikely to happen because the market for such images is so valued by some that they will pay huge sums of money. It is unfortunate that in this day and age, with the long history of trials it took to get to where we are, our culture still has not redefined "feminine". Why is it not feminine for a woman to fume over a bad call, or to roar in victory? As a young woman living in this time, I am amazed to see that although Title XI has opened many doors for women in many arenas, our culture on the whole is so narrow-minded. People make culture, and when people realize their ridiculous ideals and change their perceptions, culture does so as well. It may be a gradual change, but as long as it continues to change, there is hope for the future.

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