Opposing Views of Media Portrayals of Female Athletes

With the 2011 issue of ESPN The Body Issue magazine coming to shelves Friday, and images being released online today, I thought it a good time to summarize common ways media portrayals of females athletes are framed and discussed. Today I got to hear colleague, Kent Kaiser, Ph.D., discuss his work around media framing of Title IX in print journalism. (to read his recently published article on this topic, Gender Dynamics in Producing News on Equality in Sports: A Dual Longitudinal Study of Title IX Reporting by Journalist Gender click here).

He used conflict framing as his theoretical framework to look at this issue, and coupled with my recent trip to the espnW Summit to sit an a panel to discuss if sex sell women’s sport, and colleague Mary Jo Kane’s column this summer in The Nation magazine on this topic… it got me thinking. Kaiser identified some themes in his work, that I modified, that might be a good way to promote discussion about media portrayals of female athletes. I’ll elaborate on each below.

Advocacy Frames are those that advocate that sexy, hyper-feminine, or in some cases semi-nude or nude images of females athletes are good for women’s sport and female athletes. Opposition Frames are those arguments which see such images as trivializing, problematic and doing nothing to promote respect and sustainability of women’s sport, or any particular individual female athlete.

ADVOCACY FRAMES

  • Equality-both male and female athletes are seen semi-nude or nude (i.e., the ESPN The Body Issue), so it isn’t that ONLY female athletes are portrayed this way.
  • Personal Opportunity-inclusion and portrayal of sexy, beautiful female athletic bodies provides opportunity for exposure (literally and figuratively!), sponsorship, and branding.
  • Autonomy-female athletes have a choice whether or not to pose in magazines or be photographed. No one makes them pose in those ways, they want to.
  • Market-sex sells! and people want to see sexy images of female athletes, it is what the market wants…no one is interested in seeing real female athletes that aren’t attractive, sexy or feminine.
  • Zero-Sum-there is only a limited amount of coverage for all sports, so the more women’s sport is covered or female athletes are featured, men’s sport suffers.

OPPOSITION FRAMES & COUNTER ARGUMENTS

  • Equality-yes of course male athletes are portrayed nude and semi-nude (i.e, ESPN The Body Issue), however female athletes only get 2-4% of all sport media coverage and when they do, it is most often in ways that minimize athletic competence and highlight sexy, feminine characteristics. Also, men’s sport and male athletes already enjoy respect and credibility so when male athletes are portrayed nude it means something very different culturally.
  • Personal Opportunity-Yes, posing semi/nude provides short term exposure, but no data exist that demonstrates such images lead to additional sponsorships, contract extensions, increased pay, or respect and credibility for female athletes. In nearly every professional context, when women take off their clothes it does not lead to respect and perceived credibility and competence. Additionally no data exist that demonstrates such images increase TV ratings, fan attendance, or season ticket sales….therefore opportunity for the greater good and league sustainability might actually be undermined when individual female athletes are portrayed this way.
  • Autonomy-Yes, no one is holding a gun to any female athlete’s head and they do choose to participate. Female athletes are smart…they see the women getting the most exposure and media coverage are the ones who conform to the sexy, feminine mold and they want to capitalize on their physical assets as well. However, if this way of being portrayed is the dominant model in the absence of a virtual black out of coverage that features athletic COMPETENCE, of course female athletes will choose to be included, rather than excluded. Choices are made within the context of sport, which is male-centered and male identified.
  • Market-Yes, of course sex sells! and sex sells magazines, but no data exist that demonstrates sex sells women’s sport. In fact emerging data suggest otherwise…that images of athletic competence is what sells women’s sport and help to generate respect and credibility. In addition, for years and years leagues and organizations have been selling sex, but at the same they lament the low interest in and attendance of women’ sport. Maybe it is time to try a new way to market female athletes….put athletic competence first and see what happens!
  • Zero-Sum-Female athletes are so rarely portrayed in sport media. Roughly 40% of all high school and college athletes are female, yet they are rarely portrayed in sport media. What would it look like if female athletes received close to 40% of all sport media coverage? How would that affect interest in, and respect of women’s sport? Interest in men’s sport will likely not wane or lose its cultural primacy, so why not try it?

That is enough for now…I’m off to watch some highly competent female athletes take the court in the WNBA Finals! Go LYNX!!! And I’m betting the arena will be full of fans who have come to see amazing basketball, and I will not see ONE image of a semi/nude female athlete.

One Reply to “Opposing Views of Media Portrayals of Female Athletes”

  1. Sex sells, and unfortunately a lot of female athletes think that’s the only way they can “sell” their athletic prowess. Few female athletes are in the position to turn down a photo op with ESPN or Sports Illustrated. They will do what the magazine asks so they don’t lose their spot.

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