Slide showsBelow are categories of how female athletes are portrayed in sport media.
Click each category for a slide show of exemplar images.
“Selling Sex in Women’s Sports Media” — The Nation Article
In July, The Nation magazine devoted a special issue—"Views from Left Field"—to the role and impact of sports in U.S. culture. In the wake of Title IX (federal legislation designed to ensure gender equity in sports) a significant part of that sport culture now includes females. As a result, one of the articles in The Nation addressed how and why sportswomen are covered in mainstream sport media. A central focus of this article was whether a “sex sells” strategy is the most effective way to increase interest in and respect for today’s female athletes. This question is better answered within a broader context of what sport media scholarship has revealed.
Over the past four decades, scholars have examined media coverage of women’s sports and discovered two patterns of representation. First, female athletes, compared to their male counterparts, are significantly underrepresented in terms of amount of coverage, where they receive only 2-4% of all sports reporting. This lack of media attention ignores the reality of women’s overall level of involvement: They represent 40% of all sport participants nationwide and approximately half of all those involved in intercollegiate athletics. The second pattern is that athletic females are routinely presented in ways that emphasize their femininity and heterosexuality versus their athletic competence and grace-under-pressure performance.
Trends related to amount and type of coverage have been remarkably resilient and universal. They can be found in print and broadcast journalism, at different levels of athletic involvement (Olympic, college, and professional sports), and regardless of time period with respect to Title IX. In sum, sport media routinely highlight the athletic exploits of males as opposed to the physical—and sexualized—appearance of females.
A major consequence of such media coverage is to maintain women’s status as second-class citizens in one of the most powerful social, political, and economic institutions on this planet. One premise of sport media scholarship is that media play a significant role in relegating sportswomen to the sidelines because they systematically underreport and trivialize women’s athletic achievements. Scholars have investigated why these particular patterns of representation dominate media coverage—not to mention marketing techniques—surrounding women’s sports. Here is what they have found. A commonly held belief among those who cover and promote women’s sports is that the most effective way to generate fan interest is to present sportswomen in ways that reaffirm conventional notions of femininity and heterosexuality. This taken-for-granted assumption explains the desire to portray sportswomen as traditionally feminine rather than as physically powerful. It also explains why, when athletic females appear in ads as product endorsers, they often do so in sexually provocative poses.
In spite of such deep-seated beliefs and practices, there is virtually no research to support the effectiveness of such a “sex sells” approach to the coverage and promotion of women’s sports. Into this void stepped a ground-breaking study by Tucker Center Director Mary Jo Kane. She and her colleague, Dr. Heather Maxwell, examined the widely-held notion that “sex sells” women’s sports. Key findings from this study, along with a broader critique of how (and why) sportswomen are represented in both image and narrative form, can be found in The Nation’s special issue.