Sportswomen or spectacles?

In the midst of the Sochi Games and the summer sport season, Journalism and Media Studies student Sarah Iuliano analyses the media portrayal of sportswomen.

Sportswomen playing lingerie football

With the world gearing up to watch the Sochi Winter Olympic Games on their screen, Australians rehearse the cheer: “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi, oi, oi!” On closer inspection of our nation’s media sports news, however, I find myself appropriating the last half of the cry to “Why, why, why?”

For you see, we are seeing – and hearing – gendered biases and unfair outcomes for women in sport by our news media. Whether it be the level of publicity or the level of professionalism in coverage sportswomen receive, the Australian media are more deserving of wooden spoon than a gold medal.

The inequalities of exposure afforded to sportswomen in the Australian media are not new. Since 1980, the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) has been analysing media every four years to ascertain how present (or, you know, not present) sportswomen are. In 1996, an ASC report found stories on female athletes comprised nearly 11 per cent of print, 2 per cent of television and a measly 1.4 per cent of radio coverage.

More than 430,000 news stories covered sport but just 38,000 of these featured female athletes.

Comparatively, Towards a Level Playing Field: sport and gender in Australian media report published by the Australian Sports Commission found across all media platforms, female sports totalled just 9 per cent of all sports stories in 2008. More than 430,000 news stories covered sport but just 38,000 of these featured female athletes. Women were only represented in 9 per cent of print sports coverage (down 1.7 per cent from 1996), but saw large improvements in television (13 per cent) and radio (12 per cent).

Okay, okay, enough statistics. The point is: even though we’ve seen an increase in the time and space given to sportswomen, things still aren’t good as the media frames sportswomen differently to sportsmen. The issue is symptomatic of wider issues of power which treat women – or just any person who isn’t born a Caucasian, heterosexual male – as a lesser being with no base whatsoever. Men get about 30 seconds more airtime in broadcast even when women’s sport is on the agenda. A win was almost always necessary for female sport to gain publicity which was not the case for men’s codes. But, you know, men also receive more professional treatment than women.

Bouchard face-palmed, then uttered that she would like to date Justin Bieber. Bouchard has Bieber Fever? That calls for a second face-palm.

For an example of sports journalism nowhere near its finest, one needs only look to the shocker that was Channel Seven’s interview of Eugenie Bouchard during the 2014 Australian Open. Bouchard made history books as the first Canadian woman to make it through to the competition’s semi-finals in 30 years after beating former world number one Ana Ivanovic. After her triumph, she was asked reluctantly by former player, Samantha Smith, who she would date if she could date anyone – let me stress that, OMG ANYONE – in the world. Bouchard face-palmed, then uttered that she would like to date Justin Bieber. Bouchard has Bieber Fever? That calls for a second face-palm.

Granted Bouchard has a small but loyal male fan base known as the ‘Genie Army’. This is undoubtedly Channel Seven’s front to coerce Smith to delve into Bouchard’s love life. As pointed out by Twitter user and Kiwi sport reporter Katarina Williams: “Was there nothing tennis-related she could’ve actually asked instead? She’s just toppled Maria Sharapova!” By indulging these men, the media outlet incensed tennis fans the world over for good reason: it’s hard to imagine the same question asked of Rafael Nadal.

While social media was kind to Eugenie Bouchard, it has been less becoming to Australia’s women in cricket. In an attempt to call out the biases afforded to sportswomen in news media, cricketer Ellyse Perry became the focus of the efficiently named Facebook page, Cricket Memes. The meme, which highlights the lack of media attention our world class female players such as Perry receive, did not attract sentiments of regret about the prominence of women’s cricket.

The Perry meme instead became a shrine of cricket-based innuendos (so much balls talk) regarding her appearance, sexuality and female domesticity. I would make a cricket pun here myself about how ridiculous it is, but everything about cricket confuses me. Perhaps most puzzling is how the game’s fans can say, when marvelling at Perry’s scores for a single game: “that would be impressive if that was a men’s game”.

Male athletes are also judged based on their appearance in every sport that has ever been played – yes, even in Sumo wrestling.

However, the male gaze – evident in the response to the Perry meme – is something which has been targeted as a means to promote sportswomen. It has been argued that without the sexualisation of consenting women it becomes hard to garner attention for new sports. This is particularly the case with female codes of what have been traditionally all-male games.

It’s been argued, by men, that male athletes are also judged based on their appearance in every sport that has ever been played – yes, even in Sumo wrestling. Their height, their weight, their muscularity is always mentioned amongst their statistics online somewhere, if not brought to light by match commentators. The issue here, however, is that unlike their female counterparts, their appearance is ultimately linked back to being a specimen of fitness as opposed to a sex object. The intent is to highlight the work they’ve put in to being good at what they do professionally (or how they’ve been slacking off), rather than catering to the sexual desires of others.

It seems not just any body type – regardless of technique – can don the shoulder pads.

Last year, it made headlines that Lingerie Football League was coming down under. The league’s controversial debut match took place on December 13 in front of 3000 spectators gawking at the ladies in their low cut bikini tops, short shorts and gridiron shoulder pads. The league argued that in order to expand internationally and showcase their players’ talents, they needed teeny tiny costumes to start out. However, it’s interesting to note that the majority of these sports have a distinct, homogenous look about their players. It seems not just any body type – regardless of technique – can don the shoulder pads.

Despite increased numbers of female athletic achievements being showcased in Australian media, sportswomen are treated more like spectacles. In the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance code of ethics for journalism it notes that gender – among other personal characteristics – should not be over emphasised in reporting. That’s all we’re seeing in the media’s treatment of sportswomen: women’s appearance, women’s sexuality, and when they don’t offer it up these women are still analysed by their looks and libido. Sportswomen are sportspeople. It’s the wooden spoon for Australia until the media recognises this.

Image: PreciousBytes