Sporting women in the media
Sporting women in the media

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Sporting women in the media

1 ‘You run like a girl!’

You will begin by examining the commonly used insult: ‘You run like a girl!’ Why is that a derogatory comment when we see highly competent female athletes such as British record holder Dina Asher-Smith (Figure 1) competing on the track? Do you think that derogatory comments like this discriminate against women? What impact do you think comments like this have on young girls?

Described image
Figure 1 Dina Asher-Smith

To get a flavour of why gender is a contemporary issue in sport, and why it is important to study it, complete Activity 1.

Activity 1 Why study gender in sport?

Allow 20 minutes

Listen to the audio below in which Helen Owton speaks to Katie Barak. As you listen, reflect on why gender is a contemporary issue and why it is of relevance to you.

Please note that any reference to ‘course’ in this audio refer to the Open University course E314, rather than this OpenLearn course.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: e314_2016j_aug032_edited.mp3
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Hello, I’m Helen Owton, and I’m joined here by Katie Barak, from Denver in Colorado, who’s agreed to discuss a bit about her research on gender in sport today.
Thanks for joining me today, Katie.
Oh yes. Thank you for asking me. I’m really excited to talk about this.
I just wanted to start by asking your view about gender?
Gender plays in the- I mean pretty much every aspect of everyone’s everyday life. It affects how we engage with each other. It affects with how we engage with the world and, importantly, how the world engages with us in return. So, for me, I see gender as a social construction. Yes, we’re born with the bits- all the physical attributes and pieces that dictate our sex, but all that other stuff about how men and women should act, how they should dress, how they should speak, how much space they’re entitled to take up on a train, how they should move in the world, how tough they are, how strong they are, how competitive they’re allowed to be – all of that is dictated by society, it’s not natural and it differs by culture. So for me, really looking into the nuances that gender implicates in the world of sport, I mean I feel like you can’t do one without the other. I feel like we’ve gotta talk about gender in every situation, especially because sport is still considered a masculine domain. I mean yes, it’s 2015. We all know what year it is, what’s happening. Yes, women have been participating in sport for decades, probably longer than that, but it’s only been sanctioned in our recent past and it’s certainly not universal. And yes, it’s like a golden era for female athletes right now, but a woman who transgresses into the world of sport is still going out of bounds, in terms of her gender, and you can see that and how it plays out in interviews, the kinds of questions female athletes are asked, the kinds of photo spreads you see of athletes, the money they are paid, the venues that they get to play in, all of this you can really sort of break down via gender. So for me, I am super-passionate about and I mean we can’t just sit back and watch. We need to be talking about how gender creeps in in different ways and affects things, especially in such a great example like sport.
Yeah, thanks Katie. That’s really good. I wondered what sort of advice you could give in terms of how to make sense of this.
Right. That’s a great question. Sport is not in a vacuum. It’s not isolated. It is something that ebbs and flows with the broader culture. So if you’re seeing trends elsewhere and maybe they’re a bit reflecting in sport – talk about it. You need to talk about it. Don’t be afraid to bring in aspects of your experience, your identity, in order to add richness to the topic.
You can’t be what you can’t see. So if we don’t see female athlete role models how are- or just female athletes just doing their thing, how are we like showing that this is important, that this is something we care about? We don’t, obviously, or we would see it.
Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams- and it’s, you know, again let’s take it to [INAUDIBLE] you have this like lithe blonde woman who doesn’t win as much and isn’t maybe as strong a player, but she outperforms Serena in terms of money, in terms of sponsorships, in terms of endorsements. I mean it’s- it is apples and oranges. It’s a totally different ball game so you have to wonder like is it because Serena Williams is black? Is it because Serena Williams doesn’t have a- the typical – I’m putting quotes around that – feminine body that’s very thin. You know she’s muscular. She’s powerful. Again I’m just taking you back to role models but are we just seeing that this is the role model: white, thin, very heteronormatively cisgender feminine. Is that the role model then, and what does that do when we think about, you know, people of colour in the media? People of different body types in the media? It limits it to- I mean again I’m gonna go back to you can’t be what you can’t see. What kind of expectations are we setting then, as the role models, because endorsements- again if we’re talking about- I mean you and I were talking about literal coverage. Who won what? What were the scores? Who performed where? If that’s not being covered then all we have are commercials and magazine ads to look at. And the numbers change again. I mean it’s not- it’s frustrating and I think we just keep getting handed the same, well, sex sells – to who? Not to little girls. That’s not going to necessarily sell tickets to a women’s sporting event. It misses the audience. It misses the point. I find it very frustrating, but I do think there’s been so much focus on women in the media, period, whether it’s women in comedy, women doing you know more action-oriented roles, more complex roles, women writers. There’s been a lot of that at least here in the media talking about like where are the women? Where are they when [UNCLEAR] you’re representing them? We need to be using them as directors of things not just objectified bodies in front of the camera.
For the benefit of the students, could you tell me a bit about your research?
Yeah absolutely. I have been researching exclusively gender and media, just media representations generally speaking. And I was approached by Doctor Vicky Crane who was wanting to do a different kind of experiment with sport, with women in sport, and she wanted me to bring that media lens that I’d already been working with into the bigger research project. Vicky wanted to create a new experiment essentially where we let female athletes depict themselves. We let them represent themselves. So her idea was to approach female college athletes and see if they would agree to do a photo shoot with us and if they did agree when they came to the photo shoot they’d pick the location. They’d pick what they wore. They’d pick how they posed. All of that was left to them. So they were literally- they were allowed to identify themselves. How do you want to look? How do you want to appear to an outside audience? So rather than just having them posed, they had to choose everything about how they were represented. We had no idea but the results were fascinating. I mean just women in their practice clothes, women in uniforms, women in action shots. I mean there are certainly aspects where femininity kind of creeps in in different ways. Not that that’s a bad thing. They’re allowed to represent themselves however they want. What we didn’t get, what we were already seeing in the media. And when we interviewed them about what they were trying to say they said they wanted to look like authentic, competent, skilful athletes rather than how typically female athletes are represented, as none of those things, not competent, not skilful- so that- that was stage one of this project and I’m still a part of it even though I’ve moved on and we have different phases of the research.
So after we took these photos with college-aged female athletes we took their favourites to young female athletes. And we had almost the same conversation with these girls between like eight and 12 years old where they were so happy to see authentic images. Some of them were so excited to see that, for instance, a soft ball player was in her batting stance and this young girl was pointing out all the points that she was accurate and she was a strong batter and you could tell she knew what she was doing. And ultimately when you look at these interviews from both college-aged female athletes and young girl athletes, both of them want more authentic images of real athletes performing their sport, looking skilful and competent. So then when you go back to the media and you look at what the images that actually exist- whereas you know semi-nude or completely unathletic, they’re athletes but they may as well be models, you realise that it’s a failure on two counts. You’re- you’re failing the actual athletes. You’re failing young fans and future athletes. Everyone always says sex sells but I’m still struggling with sells to who?
And what would you say to- because we have quite a high percentage of male students on our course so-
Oh god! OK-
So yeah I’m gonna ask you-
They’re gonna love me!
What would you say to the male students on the course, about gender in sport?
Gender does not mean woman and gender does not mean feminine. Gender is a wide range of expressions and I think that men have it just as tough as women in a different way, in a way that we’re not ready to talk about yet. I don’t think it’s quite as obvious but I think it is so hard to be hard all the time. I think masculinity is policed even harder than femininity in a lot of ways especially in the person to person, not just media representations. Or, you know there’s a less clear guideline. But I think- I can only- I mean I cannot walk in your shoes I can only imagine. I feel like that there are a lot of freedoms granted to me as a woman in terms of my gender fluidity that would never be granted to a man lest he be called you know gay [UNCLEAR] or something terrible. You know there’s- there’s a lot of policing especially in the world of sport, especially in the world of sport where you’re supposed to be hard and tough and- I feel like any sign of veering away from that and I’m not saying veering towards femininity, just not embodying that hyper-masculine brawny- you know ‘all about the win’ attitude, I think if you veer in any direction but that you immediately get lumped into a different category and it’s used as either like a point of comedy [UNCLEAR] you know, or it’s just you don’t belong. You’re not- you’re not meant to be an athlete. So I think, again you- you have to question the presumptions that are made in what’s being said about your gender and you have to question how you are performing your gender. I focus on women in sport. There’s more to work with there right now. How do media representations of male athletes- how do they essentially show masculinity? It’s- it’s men playing their sport. It’s men in suits. You don’t see them dressed up in like fire fighter outfits or like some other hyper-masculine occupation. There’s not a lot of- masculinity is almost harder to talk about because I don’t think it’s as on the nose as femininity is and I think there’s a place to sort of look into this. And I mean, when you look at the number of male athletes who are queer and out, you have to wonder- I mean it’s hardly a safe place to do that. It’s- again it’s really policed who’s allowed to express what about their identity and we’re back at intersectionality again. Be an advocate. Stand up. If you see something funky say something. Nobody likes being called on their garbage. There’s like shame involved and you just wanna get away from that but maybe step back and look like are you being sexist maybe by accident? And again it’s a learned behaviour. We- our culture – I’m gonna say ‘our’ collectively here – our Western culture is. But it doesn’t mean it should be and just because you’re doing the status quo it doesn’t mean you’re on the right side of history. Just doesn’t. I mean there are gejillions of examples of how that’s not true. So if you don’t wanna look at masculinity and you don’t wanna question your gender, it shouldn’t stop you then from helping out – no, I take it back. You should question. Question everything.
Yes, you should. I agree. Thank you Katie. It’s been a fantastic discussion and I’m sure the students will get a lot out of that.
It has been my pleasure. I love talking about this stuff and I am so excited to see the kind of research that your students are now coming up with. It’s a wide, wide world. I can’t wait to hear it.
Me too. Thank you.
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Gender is an issue for women and men to consider, study and become passionate about in sport. Katie discusses the importance of intersectionality, which is the idea that everyone is composed of multiple intersecting identities. Race, gender, class, sexuality, nationality, ethnicity and ability are all part of someone’s identity and they are not experienced exclusively.


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