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Trivialising Female Athletic Performance

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"It’s still the old patriarchal fear, or doubt, that women can do outstanding athletic performances. If they do, they can’t be real women. It’s that clear, it’s that prejudicial..." Bruce Kidd talking about the IAAF  & IOC's 'gender policing'.

In a previous post I spoke about how our immersion in a patriarchal society makes us blind to the existence of the biases that surround us, define our world view & even ourselves. Gender roles dominate our lives from the moment we are born. We are welcomed into the world with an "It's a boy/girl!" & from that moment forth that's the role we are assigned. Boys are wrapped in blue blankets, girls in pink & of course given 'suitable' names. His & hers toys & attitudes are bought & trained. Dirty, sweaty & bruised boys are praised while a girl in a similar condition is at best a 'tomboy'. This binary stereo typing leaves little room for the spectrum that is gender.

Female athletes face many hurdles on their way to the top that few male athletes are even aware of. It is seldom if ever enough to be excellent or even the best; you have to look good doing it too, in a stereotypical feminine way of course (certainly can't have them coming across as 'dykes'). Even then there is little chance of earning the same reward or even achieving the same fame as their male counterparts. It's difficult to achieve stardom when the media barely covers women's sports events & when they do it's often biased & sexualised.

Hyper-Sexualisation / Feminisation of Female Athletes

Admittedly it's not often that you'll hear me complaining about nudity. We Homo sapiens, have sex not only for reproduction but also for pleasure & a large portion of the attraction is visual. Since sex is one of the major driving forces of all life (some might argue the sole purpose of life is the transfer / survival of genes), it's not surprising that sex sells. Physical prowess as well as form are attractive to us so it is only natural that we sexualise athletes to some degree or another. As always it's the inequity that is a problem (& of course the binary stereotyping).

While you'd probably expect sponsors, who ultimately sell products, to want athletes that are attractive you'd also expect them to want the best. Why is it then that Anna Kournikova became the most sponsored & famous player of her era when she never won a single major? Why are top female athletes having cosmetic surgery to help get sponsorships?

If it was a spread in Maxxim, FHM or Playboy you'd expect the coy looks & insert here poses with very little visual reference to the sport, but in sports magazines? Should you really have to read the captions to find out what sport she competes in? On average only 10% of the photos in Sports Illustrated for example were of female athletes. Of  those only 34% showed the athletes engaged in sport while 5% were classified as sexually suggestive or pornographic by researchers. By contrast 66% of the photos of male athletes showed them engaged in sport & only 0.2% where sexualised.

Should coaches, managers, promoters & even sporting federations insist that female athletes 'sex it up' in order to promote the sport? Even if they are teens? How many male sports have maximum clothing coverage rules like women's beach volleyball? What about lingerie football? It seems the only way female professional gridiron can get any television coverage is by playing in bras, thongs & stockings while their male counterparts wear some of the most advanced protective gear in the world.

Lack of Coverage

Female sporting events receive far less coverage than their male counterparts at less than 10% of total sport coverage, with much of that from events like the Olympics. Yet around 45% of women watch sport compared to 67% of men. Very often female sporting events of international importance are ignored in favour of local male events. The media claims that when they do show female events they do not get the viewer-ship. Could this be because they are badly produced? When covering female events sporting network's coverage tends to be very poor: lacking multiple camera angles, slow motion replays, on screen graphics & statistics & the commentary tends to be biased & condescending.

Biased Coverage

The bias in coverage goes far beyond the lack of coverage mentioned above. There are many ways in which commentary on the events shows / enforces societies gender bias confirmed by enumerable studies.

Skill vs. Luck: When female athletes succeed the trend is for commentators to focus on luck rather than physical ability, while when male athletes succeed the focus is on their skill & commitment. When female athletes fail it is due to their lack of ability & commitment while males are beaten by superior opponents. So essentially women never really win & men never really lose. A great way to re-enforce the male physical superiority fantasy.

Sexualisation: Even when commentators comments are not blatantly sexual, which is very common, the visuals often include close ups of the athletes bodies (often only parts, breasts & bums being the most common). How many reports about male athletes or teams have you seen that speak only of their physical appeal & completely ignore their accomplishments?

Condescention: Female athletes are commonly referred to as girls while their male counterparts are never called boys. Infantalisation of this nature is also more common when the sport is traditionally viewed as feminine like tennis.

Tagging: Refers to the use of a gender tag to denote the version of a sport. This wouldn't be a bad thing if both versions were tagged however this is seldom the case (usually only if both events occur on the same day & location). Men's events are the default while women's events are demoted to the 'other' event: soccer vs. women's soccer.

Vigilant Heterosexuality: Background pieces on female athletes & the live commentary very often place the female athlete's femininity & family life in the foreground. We are forced to focus on their heterosexuality even if it's manufactured.

Gender Policing

Many sporting bodies appear to be completely obsessed with binary gender policing. It was only in the late 60s that the Olympic 'naked parade', where only the female athletes had to parade in front of the Olympic officials completely naked to prove that they in fact were really women,  was discontinued & replaced with genetic testing. Genetic testing was discontinued in the late 90s after much resistance to the invasion of privacy. Unfortunately the Casto Semena controversy raised hopes of defining gender by hormonal levels. Now female athletes who have high levels of naturally occurring testosterone are forced to undergo surgery & / or hormone therapy to feminise  them before they are allowed to compete. Male athletes, by the way, are allowed up to 4x (6x in combat sports) the normal levels before questions are asked. Intense training raises testosterone production in women, so in effect those who train hard may therefore be penalised. There are movements to de-genderise sport & hold competition based on competency rather than arbitrary notions of gender.

Further Reading

 

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