The Gender-biased Narrative in Traditional Sports Media

By Lorenzo Bigatti

In our society, the struggle for women’s recognition and representation is one of the key problems in gender equality; in sports and especially in sports media, the gap between how male and female athletes are covered is huge.

Sports have been seen throughout history as a male activity, therefore, everything that revolves around sports has been built for their image and likeness, and for this reason, it’s hard to change the stereotypes and create a narrative that is not man-focused or man-related.

In media, but also in common perception, male sports are the norm; this is exemplified by newspapers adding the word “women’s” for any sports coverage of a women’s team, to underline how this male-centric norm is cemented in our mind. Football is the real sport, and then there’s women’s football, but somehow, it’s not perceived as the same thing, the two are not equal. This perception is something that is constantly diminishing the sports activity of women, who are often not seen as professional athletes, but rather as amateurs that are not taken into consideration the same way as men. We can see a clear example of this in Italian football where women aren’t recognized with the status of pro-athlete, this is not solely a problem of recognition but also a problem for their work status, their pay and their job protection.

Moreover, there are other huge problems around the representation of women in sports, such as the exaggerated attention to athletes’ appearance, especially related to their sexual orientation and the focus on their personal lives and relationship status and the duality between being an athlete and a mother; elements rarely considered for male athletes that are less judged by their appearance or their private lives.

There is a lot to unpack in this topic, and most of the problems are not solely linked with sports but are deeply rooted in our society which is what makes them so hard to change. The problem with how the female body is perceived and considered by society is reflected in sports media as well, there, the emphasis on the physical appearance of female athletes is often highlighted instead of focusing on their sports merits, skills and achievements. Female athletes are portrayed in sexy poses, and the sporting tools and equipment are presented on set as toys or fashionable accessories. For their male counterparts, this is not really the case. The photographic language, the words used in the titles, and the clothes, are much different between a male cover and a female cover. While the man is mostly portrayed as an athlete, showing his strength, or the tension of his athletic movement and concentration, as opposed to a women’s shoot, which is more similar to that of a fashion shoot.

Strong, Sexy, Sensible. These three words on the cover of Sports Illustrated of July 2019 referred to Serena Williams, the best female player in the history of tennis, are a manifesto of what’s wrong in the media narrative about female athletes. Combined with a photo of her in a revealing outfit, wearing high heels, these elements are a perfect example of how an athlete can be diminished and sexualized, implying that her real goal is not to perform in sport but rather to be some sort of eye-candy for the men watching her play a game.

There are sadly plenty of examples like the mentioned one. The difference becomes even more clear when you compare different covers side by side and see that this is not an isolated case but a pattern that keeps repeating. This is also reflected by a narrative that focuses too much on the appearance of the athlete that condemns and reprimands anything that diverges from a very stereotypical feminine look. Once again, female athletes are expected to look attractive in any moment of their sports performance; behave like a proper lady, showing kindness, softness and sensibility and avoid any “tomboy” behaviors.

Often, if an athlete “fails” to match the societal perception of femininity standards, a shift forms from them being a sexy female to a “lesbian athlete.” As much as in male’s sports, homosexuality is an absolute taboo, never mentioned in the media and kept behind closed doors by the athletes not to “destroy” the locker room atmosphere, in a female context it is more ambivalent. It is true that it is widely more accepted but at the same time frequently stigmatized, and the narrative around it becomes even more of a cliché. The labeling of lesbian/non-cis athletes based on their masculine appearance and behavior on the pitch is sometimes followed by the illations about their performances being unfairly obtained thanks to their “masculinity.” This is sadly still present not only in media, but it is a stigma often shared among their fellow athletes.

We can look at the case of Mokgadi Caster Semenya, a runner that won the 2016 Olympics 800 meters and had to undertake a sex verification test in order to be allowed to keep her titles and awards. And in this case, as well, the first accusers alongside the media and the trainers were the other athletes. It is understandable that when it comes to high-level competition there must be strict rules and controls (to avoid athletes to have an unfair advantage over the others) but, in this case, there was discrimination toward a professional athlete, and the focus was once again moved away from their outstanding abilities and concentrated on their body.

Media has powerful tools to change the perception of society and the narrative they offer is often the dominant one. It is true that media is a mirror of society and the time we live in but at the same time, it can be an active agent of positive change. For these reasons, it is necessary to understand the crooked narrative about women in sport and try to change it to encourage young girls to follow their aspirations and passion for sports. A way to participate in this discussion and be a factor of positive change is to start from the basics; it is important that we read and inform ourselves about the problem and develop a critical sense toward what the media is communicating. What is the message behind the slogans and what’s the meaning of certain images in this narrative? After this first step, it is necessary to talk with the people that are involved in this fight and get a deeper understanding of the problem not solely from a theoretical point of view but from someone with more first-hand experience. The next step is to start being active and help the discussion to emerge from its niche and become of general interest. This requires people to speak up, from family gatherings to social media and in general social situations, from a personal to a political level.

We need to start criticizing the newspapers and magazines that reinforce stereotypes and delegitimize women in sports, that create a toxic narrative that talks about bodies, sexuality, and behavior instead of performances, achievements and records. We need to start commenting on social media and stigmatize misogynist behaviors and comments, we need to react to this situation and give the right dignity to the athletes, whatever their gender is.

We need to create a new and different narrative for talking about women in sports, a narrative that exalts the strengths and values of female athletes instead of trying to adapt the existing, male-centered one.

We need to celebrate the diversity between the two genders in a positive way, create a new language, new records, new legendary limits to be broken in order to create a healthy narrative about women in sports and finally, we need to find a way to normalize the situation. Media and society must stop talking once and for all about women in sports as they were sexual objects, failed mothers or lesbians and start telling their stories as extraordinary athletes that deserve to be judged and celebrate for their sports merits and nothing more.

Photo By Lachlan Cunningham