A response to fans of the NYT “Women Who Hit Hard” piece

8 09 2010

In a past post I critiqued the NYT Magazine “Women Who Hit Hard” piece on female professional tennis players, and argued the expose was “soft core porn that had nothing to do with tennis”. While it is a strong statement, I stand by it, even when others disagree with me including Laura Pappano of Fairgamenews.com and a blogger on After Ellen. As always I welcome dialogue about this topic, and present here a critical perspective.

Some more specific reasons based on sport media scholarship to back up my claim are below which further expand why I think this piece is particularly problematic.

Image of Kim Clijsters in NYT Magazine p 30-31, August 29, 2010

1. In sport media, scholars have used the term “ambivalence” (Duncan & Hasbrook, 1988) to describe how female athletes are routinely marginalized in the media. Ambivalence is manifest when two statements, or a picture and the text, are contradictory and conflicting. One seems positive and flattering, and the other has subtle or overt negative, sexualizing or belittling tones.  The NYT piece is classic ambivalence. The article is quite positive and includes discussion of the depth of the women’s field, the increased global audience and prize money, and how much stronger and more fit female players are today. However, the accompanying slide show and particularly the video are what make the packaged piece ambivalent.

Sam Stosur

The 2 biggest pictures, both two-page  color spreads (dare I say centerfolds?), are the most sexualizing. First, the picture of Kim Clijsters (included here) in gold dust has nothing to do with tennis. You can’t tell she is even a tennis player from looking at the picture. Second, the picture of Sam Stosur (also included here) has her playing in a nude tube top, a piece of equipment she would NEVER play a match in.

In fact last night watching the US Open, Clijsters played Stosur in the fourth round in a great match.  So last night when I was watching the match, I thought to myself “Who is Stosur? I’ve never heard of her or seen her.” So I looked her up and found out she is an accomplished Aussie player. Is wasn’t until I sat down to write this blog and looked at the pics again that I put 2 and 2 together…the woman featured in this picture and the woman I watched last night were the same person! My point is, if we want to increase recognition of female athletes, this is NOT the way to do it. Emerging research indicates that sex does not sell women’s sport (I’ve written about this numerous times in the blog but to read one click here, or click on the “sexualization” blog tag)

The videos are also ambivalent. Yes they feature strong female athletes hitting the ball, which many think is really cool, but the slow motion, ballerina music, and the elongated shot time on the buttocks, crotch, and chest areas make it contradictory and sexualizing. Not to mention the make-up, hair down, and wearing of uniforms that most of the WTA players would dare not play.

2. Sport media scholars, study patterns of portrayals of female athletes, namely if the athlete is in uniform, on the court, and in action. The slides and videos do portray all three…kind of (I’ll expand on this point below).

3. Females athletes get so little coverage from sport and regular media, that when they are covered and it is in sexualized ways, it undermines their athletic achievements. In fact, in a recent report “Gender in Televised Sports” by two well-known sport media scholars, Professors Michael Messner and Cheryl Cooky, based on the data they illustrate that network sport coverage of female athletes is at an all time low–only 1.6% which was a decline from 6.3% in 2004!

Therefore, based on the data we rarely see females athletes, and when we do it often resembles soft core porn (or “muscle porn” as one person on the After Ellen blog dubbed it). Even though we disagree on this one, I agree with Laura Pappano’s statement below when she argues in her blog “ We have to find a way to consider athletic female bodies without automatically finding that because they are fit they are sex objects.”  Unfortunately because we see athletic female bodies in primarily sexualized ways, it will be hard to tease out bodies, fitness levels, and athleticism without objectifying those same bodies. The  NYT Magazine pieces only perpetuate the problem by again linking the female athleticism to sexualized bodies. What we have to get away from is the thinking pattern that female athletes and women’s sport is only interesting and marketable when their bodies are highlighted and sold. Highlight their athletic bodies in a natural setting–on the court (the real court, not a blacked out studio setting), in action (hitting real tennis balls not rolled in glitter), and in uniform (a real uniform in which certain body parts would not fly out or be exposed upon moving or hitting a real tennis ball).

To illustrate my point, imagine a similar NYT expose on ATP male professional players such as Nadal, Murray, Roddick, and Federer with their shirts off, chests oiled with gold glitter stuck to their muscles, glammed up, hair spiked, wearing super tight and short tennis shorts, lips slightly parted, hitting balls rolled in chalk or glitter to the same music. Wouldn’t that seem weird?

I invite further dialogue and counter arguments to this blog. What do you think?





What Do Fans of Women’s Sport Want to See?

25 01 2010

Leading up to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver the US Women’s National Hockey Team has been training here in Blaine, MN and going on tour to play exhibition games to prepare. I had the opportunity to support the team and watch two games over the winter break. While at the game I saw the program (Thanks to The Good Dr.!) and immediately felt my blood pressure rising. This program, which was being sold at both the games I attended, looks nothing like the team’s online media guide. The program starts out appropriately as you can see with the Team Roster picture. As you flip through the program, you see pictures of the team in “street clothes” and get a synopsis about “The Player” and “The Person” in the “Get To Know ‘Em” centerfold section (scroll down to see pictures of program pages). Why is this problematic?

For decades sport media researchers have demonstrated that female athletes (compared to their male counterparts) are much more likely to be pictured out of uniform, off the ice/court, and in poses that depict femininity and/or sexiness. Where are the pictures of the team IN THEIR UNIFORMS and IN ACTION? These women are some of the best female hockey players in the world!

Marketing the athlete-person duality of female athletes has become the default strategy for a majority of sport marketers in the last five years. Where did this strategy come from? Who decided this was the status quo? Is it based on research pertaining to what is effective in marketing female athletes and women’s sport? Is this what fans of women’s sport want to  see? I want to to see the evidence! Some of the evidence that I and colleagues have collected indicates that fans of women’s sports and female athletes attend because of the athleticism, not because the athletes are cute “girls next door” or look good in a sundress.

So here is my question: Are the “Get To Know ‘Em” pictures, what fans want to see or have fans been sold these images so they do not know any different?

My logic: If marketers continually pitch the athlete-person duality, this is what fans see and expect, and it becomes the norm, so fans think they like this approach. But what if consumers only saw images of female athletes IN ACTION, IN UNIFORM, DOING WHAT THEY DO BEST? Would that become the expected and the norm? I really want to know when and who decided that to successfully market elite female athletes that a “personal”/ human interest component has to be included. It is also not coincidental that a good portion of the “Team Tidbits” in the bottom picture below reinforce very feminine, traditional roles for women.

NOTE: In the Qwest Tour program, in which these 3 images were taken from,  I counted only 4 action shots in the entire 37 pages program.

RELATED NOTE: Do fans really want to see pictures of tennis player Venus Williams’ flesh-colored underwear? I would argue they do not, but when the media covers and makes it “newsworthy” then fans and general sport consumers are told this is important and begin to pay attention. I am wagering that more people know about V. Williams’ underwear than how she is playing in the Australian Open. Newsflash: female tennis players have been wearing “flesh colored” underwear for years. However, when the “flesh” color matches that of an African American skin tone it becomes international news.

US Women's National Hockey Team Roster page

US Women's National Hockey Team "Get to Know 'Em"

US National Women's Hockey Team Tidbits





The “Best” of 2009 and the State of Girls & Women in Sports

27 12 2009

As 2009 comes to an end, there are some trends for those who care about sports–particularly sports for females–that you should keep an eye on in the months to come. Many groups and organizations that have been cornerstones of advocacy, programming, outreach and research for girls and women in sports are in trouble or on the rumored brink of existing no more.  Yes, girls and women in sports have made major advances in participation in the last 35+ years, but gender equity has yet to be achieved, we now have fewer females in positions of power in sport leadership, and sportswomen are constantly under attack. Some stories from the past year put the fact that fighting for gender equity in participation, leadership, and media coverage, to name a few, are not issues of the past.

Under what criteria do organizations decide to shut down or “put out” important programs that make a difference in the lives of sporting girls and women? Who decides what is “out” and what is included?  Who is left out, and who continues to play, lead, and enjoy the benefits of sports, and be portrayed in what ways by the media?  What constitutes “A Real Life Out Clause?” This is real life and the consequences of the decisions of those in positions of power will continue to shape the future of sport for females in 2010 and beyond.

Consider the following, some of these topics I’ve written about in previous blogs, some I have not:

The Melpomene Institute for Women’s Health Research is struggling to survive in this economy.

The National Association for Girls and Women in Sport (NAGWS) “strives to be one of the premiere organizations dedicated to advocacy, education and the promotion of girls and women in sport”. There were rumors this year that AAHPERD, the parent organization of NAGWS, was discussing whether or not to keep or disband NAGWS. So far it appears it has survived.

It Takes a Team (ITAT) is being discontinued as a programming and outreach arm of the Women’s Sport Foundation. ITAT’s purpose was to “address LGBT issues in high school and college athletics… and make sport teams safe and respectful for all athletes regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity”. To read more about  ITAT ‘s “outing” go to former ITAT Director Pat Griffin’s blog post. Be sure the program is not being eliminated because homophobia in sports has been eliminated and is no longer an issue. Homophobia still exists and affects all athletes, coaches, administrators and those involved in sports.

The International Olympic Committee voted not to allow and include ski jumping for females, and endures as a sexist organization.

ESPN sports journalist Erin Andrews, one of the few in the profession, endured a terrible event where she was stalked and sexually harassed. Sportswomen also continue to be sexualized or erased in all types of media-print, broadcast and social.

In 2009 major “newsworthy” stories in women’s sport included “girls behaving badly” such as “extraneous and loud grunting” by one WTA player, a verbal attack on a line judge by another, and”overly aggressive” play by a collegiate soccer player, and the drunk driving of a WNBA MVP …not reports of stellar athleticism. Lest we not forget the obsession of the sex verification of runner Caster Semenya…which only came about because she was FAST, really fast.

Early last spring, when Tennesee Head Women’s Basketball Coach Pat Summitt won her 1,000th game, and Auriemma’s UConn Huskies won another national championship many speculated if they should coach men…the obvious pinnacle of any coach’s career. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprising, Summitt did NOT appear in Sports Illustrated “Coaches of the Decade“, but Auriemma did.

The WNBA lost a team, the Sacramento Monarchs, and another very successful team the Detroit Shock moved to Tulsa. I fear the WNBA is teetering on the brink of collapse in 2010, I hope I’m wrong. The WNBA now has 10 teams.

With 10 teams, The Lingerie Football League debuted its inaugural season in 2009 in cities across the US. According to the LFL website, the mission of the LFL includes: “the LFL will offer the ultimate fan experience providing unyielding access to players, teams and game action.” I fear the LFL will thrive and survive, I hope I’m wrong.

Women’s collegiate sports will never achieve gender equity unless real reform occurs unilaterally at the highest administrative level of institutions of higher learning. This was a clear message of the Knight Commission Report on Intercollegiate Athletics released in late 2009.

Earlier this year I critiqued a piece on ESPN.com titled The State of Uncertainty of Women’s Sports. I’m not certain if there is stability or uncertainty or both pertaining to women’s sports. What I do know, and these stories above (and many others not included here) provide evidence, that the work for those who care about sports for females is never done. We must work together to ensure girls and women in sports are not left out, or pushed out.

Stay tuned in 2010 for more information, and certainly more critiques, of these important issues. I’d also encourage you to visit the Women Talk Sports Network and read blogs by colleagues who also write about these issues here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Other WomenTalkSports posts of “Best of ’09”:





Speechless Over Serena

30 11 2009

I just got word via the BBC that “Serena Williams has been fined and given a suspended three-year ban from the US Open for her tirade at a line judge”

I really hope this is a bad joke. Three years? That seems a bit harsh doesn’t it? Would a male players be fined and suspended the same amount? I think players who have tested positive for an illegal substance, say steroids, have been banned for less time!

What does this say about the intersections of class, race and gender in the game of tennis in the 21st century? Who plays and under what conditions? Who is punished (or not) and for what transgressions? Who decides, under what conditions, using what criteria to determine “major offence of aggravated behaviour”. I’m speechless.





A Pattern Has Emerged

8 10 2009

I’m not a big fan of ESPN The Magazine, as I’ve written about their cover photos and coverage of women’s sport in a previous blog….or should I say LACK of coverage that focuses on athleticism, rather than being feminine and sexy.

Serena ESPN mag_Oct 2009

Their latest series of 6 covers for the October 19, 2009  “The Body Issue” has Serena Williams posing naked (thanks for the head’s up EH). It seems to me a recent pattern has emerged.

Here is the pattern:

1) A Black female athlete performs well and dominates opponents,

2) During the course of competition she acts outside prescribed gender norms (i.e., looks like a man, yells and argues with a referee),

3) Subsequently she is grilled and sanctioned by the public and the media,

4) Therefore she has to recover by performing versions of the female athlete apologetic by literally apologizing like S. Williams, and/or highlighting heterosexy femininity on the cover of  magazines. I’m talking about first, Caster Semenya and now Serena Williams (see picture here).

Underlying sport media portrayals of highly talented Black female athletes are racism and sexism. I suppose my blog title should really read…A Pattern Has REemerged.

NOTE: If you want to see the making of The Body Issue and gain insight to the ‘issue’ (and see a whole lot naked) click here.





Who Knew Tampons Could Be So Funny?

30 09 2009

About a month ago I was watching TV and saw a strange commercial for Always, a feminine pad hygiene product, with the tag line “Have a happy period” with a woman dressed in white pulling a pristine pad out of a box, like as in a magic trick. I couldn’t find that ad but did find a French counterpart in which…well just watch it.

happy period
The themes in the Always ad campaign connote freshness, cleanliness, and relaxation. All words that women think of while menstruating (not).According to a New York Times piece women who use pads versus tampons have a different attitude about their periods. Which leads me to….

Yesterday I was alerted by @mhueter to a TV ad for Tampax in which Serena Williams takes on Mother Nature in a tennis match. When I first saw it, I wasn’t sure if it was hysterically funny and clever or super sexist. After watching it a few times, I’m going with the former. I love this ad! I love it because it uses humor to connect with women, rather than try to sell the idea of sanitary freshness regarding the process of menstruation (a rather mythical idea).

The Tampax ad uses strength, athleticism, physical activity, trash talking, and female athletes to promote a very different message to girls and women, than do the Always ads. The Always ad closely mirrors outdated gender stereotypes which were packaged and sold to women in the 1950’s, while the Tampax ad is a contemporary re-brand that females can do anything…and are not slowed down or marginalized by menstruation. I’m sure others out there find the video offensive, or as one colleague said “insipid”, but I’m sticking with funny. Sometimes one must put her critical lens aside and lighten up. Excuse me while I go watch it again. Game, Set and Match to Tampax 6-0, 6-0.





Social Media & Sport Apologies

14 09 2009

Discussion in the Tucker Center this morning was very lively around the topic of Serena Williams’ U.S. Open semifinal outburst, fine, and subsequent apology via her blog and Twitter account (also see picture here).

serena apology

I have a few other thoughts on Williams’ ill-timed and ill-fated outburst.
1. From a sport psychology perspective one cannot control the calls made by the umpire or referee, regardless of if a “bad” call occurs on match point or the first point of the match. Let it go. An athlete can only control his/her reaction to the call. This particular reaction showed a lack of mental toughness. In her blog Williams wrote, “We all learn from experiences both good and bad. I will learn and grow from this, and be a better person as a result.” I’m sure it will also make her an even better competitor than she already is.

2. How has social media changed the way athletes interact with fans and the media? Even though Serena lost control of her emotions on the court, she took control of her “brand” off the court by quickly posting apologies using social media tools. It left us wondering if these tools existed when John McEnroe was in the heyday of his outbursts (which were much more frequent, prolonged and arguably egregious), would he of used social media to apologize? (NOTE: In a Google search for “John McEnroe apologizes” I found one result for apologizing for bad behavior, and one story of an apology for bad play.)

3. Then it got me thinking how race and gender intersect with the outburst issue. Do we expect female athletes to apologize more frequently than we do male athletes? We certainly expect female athletes to act “ladylike”, refrain from grunting loudly, not throw tantrums or have outbursts. How much of the criticism leveled against Serena Williams has to do with the fact she is African American? Would the public react similarly if the outburst came from a White female tennis player–for example Maria Sharapova? After perusing one of my favorite blogs–After Atalanta–it seems I am not the only one who noticed or is thinking about these issues. What do you think?