A response to fans of the NYT “Women Who Hit Hard” piece

In a past post I critiqued the NYT Magazine “Women Who Hit Hard” piece on female professional tennis players, and argued the expose was “soft core porn that had nothing to do with tennis”. While it is a strong statement, I stand by it, even when others disagree with me including Laura Pappano of Fairgamenews.com and a blogger on After Ellen. As always I welcome dialogue about this topic, and present here a critical perspective.

Some more specific reasons based on sport media scholarship to back up my claim are below which further expand why I think this piece is particularly problematic.

Image of Kim Clijsters in NYT Magazine p 30-31, August 29, 2010

1. In sport media, scholars have used the term “ambivalence” (Duncan & Hasbrook, 1988) to describe how female athletes are routinely marginalized in the media. Ambivalence is manifest when two statements, or a picture and the text, are contradictory and conflicting. One seems positive and flattering, and the other has subtle or overt negative, sexualizing or belittling tones.  The NYT piece is classic ambivalence. The article is quite positive and includes discussion of the depth of the women’s field, the increased global audience and prize money, and how much stronger and more fit female players are today. However, the accompanying slide show and particularly the video are what make the packaged piece ambivalent.

Sam Stosur

The 2 biggest pictures, both two-page  color spreads (dare I say centerfolds?), are the most sexualizing. First, the picture of Kim Clijsters (included here) in gold dust has nothing to do with tennis. You can’t tell she is even a tennis player from looking at the picture. Second, the picture of Sam Stosur (also included here) has her playing in a nude tube top, a piece of equipment she would NEVER play a match in.

In fact last night watching the US Open, Clijsters played Stosur in the fourth round in a great match.  So last night when I was watching the match, I thought to myself “Who is Stosur? I’ve never heard of her or seen her.” So I looked her up and found out she is an accomplished Aussie player. Is wasn’t until I sat down to write this blog and looked at the pics again that I put 2 and 2 together…the woman featured in this picture and the woman I watched last night were the same person! My point is, if we want to increase recognition of female athletes, this is NOT the way to do it. Emerging research indicates that sex does not sell women’s sport (I’ve written about this numerous times in the blog but to read one click here, or click on the “sexualization” blog tag)

The videos are also ambivalent. Yes they feature strong female athletes hitting the ball, which many think is really cool, but the slow motion, ballerina music, and the elongated shot time on the buttocks, crotch, and chest areas make it contradictory and sexualizing. Not to mention the make-up, hair down, and wearing of uniforms that most of the WTA players would dare not play.

2. Sport media scholars, study patterns of portrayals of female athletes, namely if the athlete is in uniform, on the court, and in action. The slides and videos do portray all three…kind of (I’ll expand on this point below).

3. Females athletes get so little coverage from sport and regular media, that when they are covered and it is in sexualized ways, it undermines their athletic achievements. In fact, in a recent report “Gender in Televised Sports” by two well-known sport media scholars, Professors Michael Messner and Cheryl Cooky, based on the data they illustrate that network sport coverage of female athletes is at an all time low–only 1.6% which was a decline from 6.3% in 2004!

Therefore, based on the data we rarely see females athletes, and when we do it often resembles soft core porn (or “muscle porn” as one person on the After Ellen blog dubbed it). Even though we disagree on this one, I agree with Laura Pappano’s statement below when she argues in her blog “ We have to find a way to consider athletic female bodies without automatically finding that because they are fit they are sex objects.”  Unfortunately because we see athletic female bodies in primarily sexualized ways, it will be hard to tease out bodies, fitness levels, and athleticism without objectifying those same bodies. The  NYT Magazine pieces only perpetuate the problem by again linking the female athleticism to sexualized bodies. What we have to get away from is the thinking pattern that female athletes and women’s sport is only interesting and marketable when their bodies are highlighted and sold. Highlight their athletic bodies in a natural setting–on the court (the real court, not a blacked out studio setting), in action (hitting real tennis balls not rolled in glitter), and in uniform (a real uniform in which certain body parts would not fly out or be exposed upon moving or hitting a real tennis ball).

To illustrate my point, imagine a similar NYT expose on ATP male professional players such as Nadal, Murray, Roddick, and Federer with their shirts off, chests oiled with gold glitter stuck to their muscles, glammed up, hair spiked, wearing super tight and short tennis shorts, lips slightly parted, hitting balls rolled in chalk or glitter to the same music. Wouldn’t that seem weird?

I invite further dialogue and counter arguments to this blog. What do you think?

7 Replies to “A response to fans of the NYT “Women Who Hit Hard” piece”

  1. Nicole,

    As always, I appreciate your views even though I find myself opposed to them often. Briefly, in this, I’ll say that once again my problem is with you calling the NYT videos and coverage “sofcore pornography” that is “pure exploitation of female athletes.”

    To, there is a difference between something being “sexual” and being “sexualized” — specifically in this case I’d argue that athletes ARE sexual but calling attention to that fact doesn’t necessarily mean that they are being sexualized, especially in a negative connotation.

    It is similar in some ways to the difference between something which is “racial” and “racist”. There is a distinction which makes all the difference.

    I’d love to debate some of your other points, but I’ll leave with this for now — your hypothetical question about male tennis athletes being presented in the same way.

    I would agree that if the male tennis players were presented in the exact same way that it would seem weird. However, the reason it would seem weird would be because of the gender differences in the artistic presentation.

    What I mean is that the female tennis players were presented in a specifically feminine way, and to present the male tennis players in a feminine way as well would certainly ring odd to most viewers.

    However, if they were presented with the same regard in a specifically masculine way (which, honestly might not be ALL that different, depending on the artist) then no, I don’t think that it would necessarily be weird.

    It also wouldn’t necessarily promote the sport, but would be interesting and likely well-viewed.


  2. They took it down now, but there was a time that IndyCar.com had a unisex photo spread of drivers like Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti that echoed the cheesecake photos of Danica Patrick. So in that regard, 1) it’s not unprecedented that men got the same treatment (I defer to the critics as to whether it was “weird”) and 2) perhaps it was indeed a response to criticism about Danica Patrick getting the pin-up gal treatment while the guys got to be “serious” drivers and thus marginalizing Patrick all the more. I will note that Danica Patrick does sign up for photo shoots, recognizing the added revenue stream and can be rightly judged on the merits of her driving, which up to her eventual first IndyCar win wasn’t very spectacular. (Similar to Peyton Manning before finally winning the Big One – lots of endorsements, no ring.)


  3. Maybe the problem doesn’t just lie with women – aren’t we conditioned to associate sporting-fitness with sexuality? And for many female athletes taking the decision to pose in this way can be beneficial to their careers, definitely to their incomes. Some have posed for far more risque shots, at least here it is clear they are athletes. Do you remember the Vanity Fair cover for the men’s world cup? Plus over here we have constant advertising imagery with the likes of Beckam (soccer) and local rugby stars – usually focused as much as on their attraction to women as their talents.
    I’m not saying it’s right just because it exists, but if we say women athletes shouldn’t get involved, are we cutting an income/promotion chance for them?


  4. I think you’re right that these sorts of depictions detract from the pure sport of tennis, but so do tennis associations, rankings, and everything else associated with selling the sport as entertainment. You could argue that having spectators detracts from the game as well. There are millions of male and female athletes who get little or no recognition either because the sports they enjoy are obscure, unprofitable, or they simply choose not to commercially exploit their talents.

    Frippery comes with anything that generates a lot of money. Women’s tennis is great entertainment without it. I think it’s better to watch then men’s tennis, because of the generally longer rallys. I just wish they would play five sets. I never understood that. It’s not like they are physically incapable of doing so-just the opposite. I don’t particularly care how hot the players are while the match is going on. I also enjoy looking at these pictures and videos, which to me don’t detract from the womens’ athletic accomplishments. They are just window dressing and part of the marketing of a very lucrative business and if they actually do help to broaden the appeal of the game are probably a good thing. Nobody has to do the ads, or play on the tour, for that matter, if they are focused on the purity of the game.

    I think it’s a matter of how prominent or exclusive these kinds of depictions are in the overall promotion of the sport. If tennis tournaments became more like Victoria’s Secret spectacles, then the proper focus on athletic accomplishment will have been truly lost. As long as there is no pressure for any player to dress or act a certain way in order to succeed on the tour, then it’s really up to the individual to decide how to participate in the marketing of themselves on the entertainment end.


  5. Nicole, thanks for the stimulating discussion.

    As the lead cre­ative exec­u­tive in a brand­ing agency who has on many occa­sions used beau­ti­ful women (and men) in print ads and film to sell every­thing from bricks to bag­gage con­veyor sys­tems, I’d like to weigh in on the debate.

    Shake­speare said. “All world is a stage. And all the men and women merely play­ers” I’ll extend this tru­ism to brand mar­ket­ing and adver­tis­ing: “All the mar­ket­place is a stage. And all the brands merely play­ers.” Just as actors don cos­tumes and makeup to assume their char­ac­ters, so do brands apply their own flat­ter­ing appur­te­nances in order to deliver their best performances.

    The “Strong is Beautiful” campaign is nothing more than *that*.

    In a blog post that responds more deeply to your perspective, I even connect a line between this campaign and “burger porn”.



  6. The World-view message you seem to be sending is that it’s bad for me as a guy to be sexually interested in female athletes and Women’s Sports. It’s sad that we’re coming to a point in society where some are attacking men for being straight. But I will stand up and assert that I not only have the right to find strong women hot, I will say so. If it’s OK for women to travel to baseball spring training to check out the players, it’s OK for me as a man to watch women’s sports to check out those players. Thank you for the blog post.


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