Women may be participating in
record numbers and succeeding spectacularly in sports, but
"these women are routinely shown off court, out of
uniform and in highly sexualized poses," said Mary Jo
Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls
& Women in Sport, at the University of Minnesota.
She was the lead-off speaker
at a Minneapolis panel discussion on "Images of Women,
Sexuality and Nationalism," using the recent Olympics
as a backdrop.
Kane made a slide
presentation covering two decades of increasingly disturbing
images. She started off with college media guides, the
booklets that present athletes and program information to
reporters and editors. Two decades ago, the image of women
athletes was often a "sorority shot" of a women's
team dressed formally in long dresses and posed as a group.
Now, the dress is more
casual, she said, but seldom do media kit photos show women
athletes in action. Over the years, Kane said, the
depictions of women athletes in print and broadcast devalue
their athletic achievements. Greatly under-represented in
mass media, she said, are sportswomen shown as men are--in
action as outstanding athletes.
The International Olympic
Committee said 42 percent of competing athletes in the 2000
Summer Games were women. Of the 39 world records set at the
Sydney Olympics, 23 were by women. The American delegation
to the games was 43 percent female, and women won 40 percent
of the medals awarded to Americans--39 of 97.
One of the gold medals was
won by Stacy Dragila, who won the pole vault, a new event
this year. After her victory, Dragila apologized for posing
in a calendar clearly aimed at men. She said she realized
she was a role model for girls and regretted her actions and
the implication that women athletes can advance their
careers by taking off most or all of their clothes.
Powerful Women Portrayed in
Kane identified categories of
images that undermine women athletes. Some are
"ambiguous," showing women athletes out of their
sports context, such as golfer Donna Andrews in evening
dress and carrying an umbrella. Or Olympic figure skaters on
a People magazine cover with the Headline, "Ice
Beauties!"--but no picture of them skating.
In another category,
"wives and mothers," premier athletes are shown as
wives and mothers, looking dolled-up or holding a baby. The
message, Kane said, is that they are connected with men and
are not lesbians, the "L-word" that stirs anxiety
Kane, saying that sports
photography sometimes seems like soft porn, said U.S. soccer
defense player Brandi Chastain was pictured in Gear
magazine, with no visible clothing and holding two soccer
balls in front of her. Olympic champion swimmer Jenny
Thompson was shown in Sports Illustrated wearing red boots,
boxer swim pants and holding her hands across bare breasts.
"dehumanizes and fragments" women athletes,
stripping them of identity by cutting off all or part of the
face, an arm, a leg or a bit of the torso, making her a
non-person, Kane said.
Other panelists were Susan
Brownell, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri at
St. Louis; Pat Griffin of the social justice education
program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; and
Lisa Disch, a political scientist at the University of
Minnesota and director of the Center for Advanced Feminist
Subtext: Rigid Sex Roles
Griffin said the male sports
culture has generated a rigid cultural message of binary
gender rolls. The message is that sports is a male hierarchy
and that women are trespassers. According to this view,
women must be subordinated and cannot be shown as men's
equals, she said. And they must fit into the false frame
that denies there are lesbian athletes.
images of women athletes," Griffin said, "function
to normalize women athletes for men in the sports
culture." Over the past four or five years, there have
been major changes in the success of women in sports,
therefore in the male sports culture.
"When it once was enough
to feminize women athletes, now it is necessary to sexualize
them for men," putting them in their place and making
them non-threatening, Griffin said. "Instead of
hearing, 'I am woman, hear me roar,' we are hearing, 'I am
hetero-sexy, watch me strip.'"
Brownell, a former student
athlete and an expert on China, added that, in contrast to
how the U.S. sexualizes and trivializes its women athletes,
China deliberately portrays them as national role models of
talent developed by hard work.
In New York, meanwhile, the
Women's Sports Foundation on Monday held a press conference
attended by current and former Olympic champions to cheer on
tennis legend Martina Navratilova, the Wilma Rudolph Courage
Award winner, tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams and
swimmer Jenny Thompson, all of whom were named Sportswomen
of the Year.
All high visibility athletes,
their mainstream images occasionally defy but more often
reinforce the reassuring male ideal of non-threatening, sexy
women who play at sports.
"It's okay that we're
not totally Twiggy," Dragila said in an interview
afterward. "You can be fit, you can look good and still
be strong. I can have muscles and be proud."
Corralie Simmons, 2000
Olympic silver medal water polo winner, said she was very
aware of gender issues because during the opening ceremony,
the U.S. women wore "long skirts and blazers, pumps and
nylons." Meanwhile, she said, "We had blisters on
our feet from practice."
Simmons finds it interesting
that "those kinds of things (stereotypical images of
women) still are in demand." At the same time, Simmons
said she felt that women in sports had increased the
positive images of women. "I think it's become better
because you can represent yourself any way that you want at
this point." Even if that means you portray images
outside of the sports realm.
"You see athletes like
Mia Hamm in People. It doesn't have to be a sport magazine.
So girls can see that if you're not into being a supermodel,
you can be a soccer player. It's being able to know that
there are other options out there."
Glenda Crank Holste is a
Twin Cities journalist who has covered economic and social
issues for the past 10 years. Mashadi Matabani reported on
the Women's Sports Foundation event in New York.