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.


  • 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.


  • 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.

Realistic Portrayals of Athletic Bodies

If you know the history of sport media coverage of athletes, you know that it is problematic and has limitations. I saw this tweet come through on Sociological Images (@SocImages) The Perfect Body, as Illustrated by Olympic Athletes and wanted to share it.

Serena Williams ESPN Magazine Oct 2009

I love this photography project by Howard Schartz and Beverly Ornstein, as it represents all types of athletic bodies not just the bodies that represent society norms of what it means to be attractive and athletic, different sports, men and women, and doesn’t sexualize or marginalize female athletes.I chose this picture of the eight photos in the project because it includes Olympic weightlifter Cheryl Haworth, whom you NEVER see in covered in the sport media.

While you could critique the photos for not being “in action, on the court, or in uniform” these pictures are a much different representation of athletic bodies than The Body Issue of ESPN The Magazine.

2011 is off and running: Sexism, Comparisons & Nudity

We’re off and running in 2011 and it doesn’t take long for some interesting items to pop up related to sports and gender.

1. A great example that sexism is alive and well lies in the firing of ESPN announcer Ron Franklin after he made a derogatory remark (i.e., “sweet baby”) to sideline reporter Jeannine Edwards in a meeting before the Fiesta Bowl. YEAH ESPN for doing the right thing.

2. The “apples to oranges” comparison between male and females athletes is also alive and well and is being perpetuated by both men and women. This was recently evident in the non-stop comparisons between the UConn vs. UCLA basketball streaks (note: many of my predictions about the coverage of UConn streak were fulfilled), and was taken to a new level by this sports blogger who is also misinformed about the target audience and purpose of espnW (note to said sports blogger: espnW does not just cover women’s sports, it is targeted toward the female sport fan). The problem with comparisons is that women’s sport and female athletes will always come out as “lesser than.” Can’t female athletes be appreciated and not constantly compared to their male colleagues?

Screen shot of New Balance homepage Jan 10, 2011

3. It appears that the trend of featuring naked/nude female athletes in the sport media or to sell a product is all the rage. Examples of this trend can be found in ESPN The Magazine: Body Issue, Sports Illustrated, and the most recent example a colleague sent me (see picture). This is a screen shot of the New Balance homepage. How is this picture related to selling shoes? Does New Balance want to be lumped into the “sex sells” and exploiting females athletes to sell products category? Nude female athletes is a new twist on an old pattern of female athletes being portrayed “out of uniform”...literally. And for those who are going to call me a prude and outdated feminist, go right ahead. It won’t stop me from continuing to point out that portraying female athletes in this manner does NOT honor their athleticism or promote women’s sport, but marginalizes female athletes and possibly perpetuates sexism and the constant comparison I mentioned above. Can you really take a female athlete seriously as an ATHLETE when she is portrayed naked? I would argue this NB ad sells sex, not sport shoes. Disagree as you will, but I challenge you to prove me wrong that proportionately female athletes are not portrayed “out of their uniforms” more often than male athletes.

Happy 2011!

Oh ESPN The Magazine…You Never Cease to Amaze Me.

I’ve written previously about portrayals of female athletes  in sport media (here & here) and particularly on the pattern of female athletes on the covers of ESPN The Magazine. and Sports Illustrated.

Yesterday a colleague forwarded me the new cover of ESPN The Magazine “the movie issue” as she thought I’d like to see it. On the cover appeared to be a Sharon Stone look alike from the famous interview scene in Basic Instinct. I thought it strange ESPN would have a movie issue, and didn’t really realize it was Olympic medalist Lindsey Vonn until today! At the risk of asking for more criticism and being hung out to dry by those who will disagree when I write about Lindsey Vonn, I have to address (again) why this cover is just plain problematic. To see video of Vonn’s shoot and why she decided to do the piece, click here.

Reason 1: Females athletes are under represented in the media. Less than 5% of all sport media is dedicated to female athletes. A new report states that number is generous as coverage of females athletes on major networks has declined to an all time low of 1.6%!!!

Reason 2: When female athletes are given media coverage it is usually in ways that highlight their sexuality, rather than athletic competence. (latest ESPN cover as Exhibit A, B, C, D,…..). ESPN The Magazine is the worst culprit of this pattern. In five years (2004- March 2009) females athletes have appeared on 5 of 168 ESPN covers (3.6%…less than the average) and when they do….well see for yourself.

I joke in class with my students that whenever female athletes are on the cover of ESPN they are in white (except for Danica Patrick because she is usually always in black for some reason as part of the media’s construction of her as a badass, sexy vixen…even when she’s “refueling” and promoting Got Milk?). White in U.S. culture connotes purity, chastity, cleanliness, and innocence but when coupled with sexy images of female athletes it has a much different meaning I’m still trying to figure out. This pattern is not coincidental and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Reason 3: When female athletes are consistently portrayed like sexy vixens it become increasingly difficult for most everyone to take them seriously AS ATHLETES. This does little to promote women’s sports.

Reason 4: It sends the wrong message to girls and young women, and heck any female!, that it is more important what your body looks like and how it can be used and gazed upon as a sexual object, than what your body can do athletically. An entire body of literature provides many reasons why the continual sexualization of females is harmful to girls.

This ESPN cover and the countless other images are not proof of female enlightenment, it is as Susan J. Douglas argues in her book it is unfortunately an example of how far we have to go until females are free of sexist practices packaged as post feminist empowerment that undermines female achievement and serves to keep women a sexualized objects, rather than promote them as equal members of society.