When Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen won gold medals in the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys in London, she knocked a second off the world record, and five seconds off her personal best. But rather than applaud and admire her accomplishments, the media threw doubt and suspicion on Shiwen’s wins, leveling evidence-free accusations of drug use (New York Times, 7/31/12).
The media coverage rang with sexism and racism; how could a Chinese woman pull this off? CNN (8/1/12) was incredulous that Shiwen swam faster than a (white) man—American gold medalist Ryan Lochte.
The UK’s Daily Mail explicitly questioned Shiwen’s gender (7/30/12):
Ye Shiwen possesses that same masculine, almost wall-like figure; the same impossibly wide shoulders and huge, rounded thighs; the same armchair-leg calves. Rebecca Adlington is a strong woman, to be sure, but she still looks feminine; Ye, though barely out of adolescence, appears androgynous.
And that is the key for female athletes, isn’t it? If you’re going to win big, you’d better bring your feminine game face to the Olympics. The less a female athlete conforms to dominant standards of beauty and femininity, the more the media will scrutinize her, question her abilities, disbelieve her gender, and, in turn, fasten on her sexuality.
Sadly, in a year when women finally gained some parity at the Olympics—for the first time, every participating country brought at least one woman to compete, and every sport included a female athlete—the media continued their same old bias. Given their predilections, instead of heralding the Games as “The Year of the Woman” (Time, 7/29/12), media could have more aptly hyped them as “The Year of the White, Hot, Girlish Woman.”
Faye Wachs, a professor at Cal Poly Pomona and the author of Body Panic: Gender, Health and the Selling of Fitness, said that the media is body obsessed when it comes to reporting on female athletes.
“The implication is that men watch women’s sports because the women are attractive,” Wachs told me. “And people watch men’s sports because of the athleticism, and if they’re attractive, it’s a bonus. And that undercuts the incredible athletic feats performed by female athletes.”
When outstanding female athletes don’t conform, Wachs says the media instantly reply, “She’s not a real woman.” Look no further than the relentless gender testing of South African runner Caster Semenya because she supposedly looks masculine (FAIR Blog, 8/21/09, 9/15/09).
Barbara Osborne, a professor at the University of North Carolina, says female athletes may be succumbing to the “ponytail brigade”—trying to provide immediate visual clues that they are women so they avoid scrutiny.
“The majority of American sprinters had lots of hair, make-up, manicures, eye glitter, and maybe that’s an expression of their personality or their individuality and makes them feel good before a race,” Osborne told me. “You could also ask if that’s just a need, when they are so physically powerful, to conform to a feminine gender stereotype so that questions about their femininity aren’t raised—whether it’s a conscious choice or a subconscious reaction.”
Brilliant Olympic moment after moment was interrupted by the media com-menting on female athletes’ clothes, hair, body and attractiveness. NBC titled a web slideshow of mostly women volleyball players, “Olympic Beach Volleyball: Great Bodies and Bikinis.” A New York Times feature (6/21/12) on weightlifter Holly Mangold led with a headline about the athlete’s weight—“350 Pounds and Olympic Bound”—rather than how much weight the competitor can lift. And columnist Jere Longman (New York Times, 8/4/12) said hurdler Lolo Jones’ Olympic attention was based “on her exotic beauty” and not on her running prowess.
ESPN Magazine’s “Body Issue” (7/12), which featured photos of many nude Olympians and other athletes showing what their bodies can do, depicted strong female athletes in passive poses—like tennis player Daniela Hantuchova standing rather seductively instead of acing a serve. The blog Culturally Disoriented (7/12/12) noted that 78 percent of the photos of men show them actively playing their sport, while only 52 percent of women’s do.
A recent study (Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 6/7/12) by University of Delaware professor James Angelini, which analyzed NBC’s coverage of past Olympics, found that sports commentators talk about women vastly differently than men. One main finding: When female athletes succeed, commentators focus on luck and less on physical ability. And that’s if women receive media coverage; the same study found that just 38 percent of primetime coverage was devoted to female sports at the 2010 Olympics.
Overall, the media’s message is a bleak one: Women should shrink from their power, or at least dress it up. Says Osborne: “The media is afraid to portray this power because we don’t want women to think that about themselves in society.”