A record number of British women participated in the 2012 Olympics and for the first time in history American female athletes outnumbered the men. Yet participation does not equate to representation. There remained under-reporting and negative reporting of women athletes, which served to undermine their events. It’s a cyclical dynamic: while female athletes were sexualised and objectified by the media, so their sporting abilities were trivialised or ignored. Journalist Annie-Rose Strasser observed that sexism was “as common as sweat at this year’s Olympics”. During the press conference after winning her silver medal, cyclist Lizzie Armistead described the “overwhelming and frustrating” sexism that she has encountered in her career, including unequal pay and disproportionate media coverage”.
Almost 75 percent of reportage of women athletes in the 2008 Games was of the body-baring, non-contact, “swimsuit sports”: gymnastics, swimming, diving and beach volleyball. Ah, yes, beach volleyball… I can hardly type those words without groaning at the memory of every British newspaper that I opened over the course of the Olympics, to be greeted by an image of a disembodied female beach volleyball player’s wedgie.
Beach volleyball was first recognised as an Olympic sport at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, but it seems that 16 years isn’t long enough for the British press to overcome its titillation. Team GB player Shauna Mullin expressed optimism that it would “have a little more respect for us when they have witnessed that the sport is more than jumping around in bikinis in the sun.” Unfortunately Mullin’s plea fell on deaf ears. She was speaking to The Mirror‘s readership and in an article entitled “Beach Babes”. Eight days later, the tabloid published a “Battle of the Bots” photo gallery because, you know, you can never have enough female sexual objectification.
Despite the skill involved, obvious to anyone who’s actually watched the sport, beach volleyball is more famous for its swimwear than its athleticism. This year the International Volleyball Federation lifted its mandate on female competitors wearing bikinis, enabling them to wear shorts and sleeved tops instead. The New York Times called it a “worry” that countries might choose to adopt more modest attire. Calm down, NYT, your fears were unfounded. The audible sighs of relief from salivating heterosexual male fans across the globe and the heterosexist British tabloid press only proved – if proof were necessary – the degree to which the sport is hyper-sexualised. As one blog put it, the new regulations “threaten[ed] to deprive millions of male viewers of one of the sport’s main draws: buff, scantily clad female bodies glistening in the sun […] But God bless the USA – the women on the American beach volleyball team have no intention of abandoning their skimpy swimsuits.” “Threat”? We aren’t talking terrorism here, people, just the option to wear clothes. Interestingly the blog later contradicted itself by outlining the “athletic” and practical reasons why American beach volleyball players were clinging to their bikinis. Hmmm…
Similarly, The Sun expressed outrage when it was suggested that the players would cover up if British summer temperatures fell below 16C. Like a petulant child, the disappointed headline read: Beach Bummer. Estelle Shirbon points out that “such attitudes place women athletes in a lose-lose situation. They have to be sexy to get noticed but they are not taken seriously as sportswomen because they are sexy.” Chief Executive of the International League for Women’s Rights, Annie Sugier, gave a similar diagnosis of objectification, “a clear case of sexism”.
Why do the women wear bikinis? And for whom? Apparently shorts cause “sand issues” , although a bikini wedged up an arse crack doesn’t seem to bother them. Nor do shorts bother the men, whose uniform is, of course, more restrained. Everyone knows that bikinis are worn to make the sport sexy, but why does everyone seem to think it’s acceptable, including the female players themselves? The men aren’t required to strut around in Speedos and nor do they want to. Todd Rogers, a 2008 medalist, argued for the double-standard. Apparently, for men, “it just doesn’t look good. To see a guy’s package is just not the same”.
But it’s the whole package, though, isn’t it? It’s not just the bikinis; it’s the Benny Hill music in every break of play; the female competitors embracing each other at every available opportunity, to the eager papping and snapping of photographers; the blaring pop music; and “the seemingly random interpolation of cheerleaders who emerge periodically for sudden bouts of dirty dancing and conga-line-forming, only to go away again”. All in all, the sport isn’t presented in a way that screams: take me seriously. Nor, apparently, do British public figures whom we’re supposed to take seriously.
Writing a ridiculously titled article for The Telegraph – “Here’s 20 Jolly Good Reasons To Feel Cheerful About the Games” – London Mayor Boris Johnson didn’t hold back with number 19: “there are semi-naked women playing beach volleyball in the middle of the Horse Guards Parade [...] They are glistening like wet otters [...] The whole thing is magnificent and bonkers.” I couldn’t help but smirk that number 13 celebrated the zip-wire in Victoria Park, on which Johnson was subsequently stuck. Ha Ha!
If the sexual objectification involved in media coverage of women’s beach volleyball isn’t blatant enough, check this out. The US Metro published comparative images of men’s Olympic sports, if photographed in the same way as women’s. It’s revealing in more ways than one.
In glaring contrast to men, female athletes are routinely objectified by the media. A special August edition of Eurostar’s New London magazine featured a pornographic image of women synchronised swimmers, legs wide apart and vaginas exposed, alongside the excitable caption (translated from the French): “London in the big pool!” The exploitative image was ripped from its context and plastered on a mainstream front cover, with a provocative message. The image of women with their legs splayed is commonly used in pornography to present women as men’s disposable sexual commodities. As feminist Jennifer Drew points out, the malestream media constantly and purposefully subjects women to images of sexually dehumanised females. We internalise such images as the cultural norm for women’s appearance and behaviour and thereby patriarchal propaganda self-perpetuates by desensitising us to the reality of malestream misogyny. In New London‘s case, for fans, the objectifying image ruins the sport. For women, it trivialises their abilities. For society, it reinforces the misogynistic myth that women are men’s sexual objects, whose principal value resides in their sexual availability and attractiveness to men.
The malestream media sexualises and/or feminises female athletes to ensure that they conform to the cultural role of Woman. Feminist activist and writer Finn Mackay observes that “advertisers and sponsors are keen to ‘prove’ that their sponsored female athlete is actually feminine, even though she is a sportswoman – as if traditional heterosexual femininity and athleticism cannot go together”. So we see British synchronised swimmer Jenna Randall in a bizarre advert for Braun epilators, pulling the electric razor out of the water as if it were a vibrator. The Metro proudly announced that Randall would be “the face and legs” of Braun’s 2012 campaign. Not the human being competing in The Olympics. Nope, just a face and a pair of legs. Likewise, in the run-up to the Games, Victoria Pendleton posed naked and in sexually provocative pictures for, amongst many, many others, Esquire and GQ men’s magazines. It’s therefore woefully unsurprising that Pendleton has now been nominated for – no, not Athlete of the Year, but the feminist’s favourite, “Hottie of the Year Award” by – it gets better – the BBC Radio 1 Teen Awards. Teen Awards! Why is this sexist crap being promoted to teenagers?!
Even the allegedly feminist-friendly Stylist is guilty of reinstating the beauty myth. The magazine launched a “Women in Sport” campaign this year to promote female athletes. Yet, as a free publication, like female athletes, it is reliant on advertising and where women are concerned that means promoting cosmetics. In an interview with Jessica Ennis, the heptathlete was given the opportunity to discuss her beauty regime. Ennis responded: “I always wear a bit of make-up to compete – foundation, Olay Essentials SPF30 […], eyeliner, mascara and a lip moisturiser. If I feel I look nice it’ll help my performance”. In case the product placement weren’t clear, Ennis is the “face” of Olay’s Essentials range. Apparently “Olay is definitely a part of [her] team.” The message is that in order to feel good about yourself, even for a world-class athlete, it’s essential to apply make-up. Hardly useful, progressive advice for girls and women, is it? After the Olympics, Ennis was “treated” to a makeover at a beauty salon, the Daily Mail was eager to report, as if to reassure the nation that our gold medal-winning athlete were a woman, after all. Phew!
Similarly, Victoria Pendleton fronted Pantene’s Pro-V Smooth 7 Sleek campaign, while open-water swimmer Keri-anne Payne won gold with her endorsement of Max Factor’s False Lash Effect gold edition mascara”. (Haven’t you heard? Olympic swimmers wearing nail varnish and waterproof mascara is, like, SO hot right now.)
But who can blame these women for cashing in? Lucrative sponsorship deals ensure increased exposure and revenue for female athletes that are otherwise overlooked and underpaid. As LA Times sportswriter Bill Plaschke explains: “athletes have one chance every four years to rake in the real gold, the endorsement and appearance money that helps compensate them for years of training. Most agree they would be fools to turn down that chance to capitalize on their success and enhance the quality of their often budget-strained lives” . When you consider that women’s sport receives an average of just 0.5% of all UK sports sponsorship, it’s understandable that female athletes would snap up the opportunity to earn a lump sum on the side; for career longevity it’s almost a necessity. The problem is that when the advertising sharks target women, corporate sponsorship inevitably involves bullshit beauty products that reinforce the patriarchal notion that women are sexual objects.
So what about the women athletes who are seen to deviate from their feminine role? Andrew M Brown wrote a comment piece for The Telegraph entitled “Women’s Judo: it’s disturbing to watch these girls beat each other up”. Er, the clue’s in the name, Andy – women, not girls. Brown overlooked the fact that Gemma Gibbons won Britain’s first judo medal in 12 years in favour of pondering more pressing matters: “is women fighting each other violently a perfectly wholesome spectator sport?” He then described witnessing a display of “pure, naked, fierce, animalistic aggression of a sort that one doesn’t naturally associate with women – or girls for that matter.” As one commenter queried: “Are you on vacation in the 21st century or something?” The issue isn’t whether or not judo is an appropriate sport for women; it’s that our culture is too hung up on rigid definitions of sex and gender. Mackay notes that sport is about “physicality, strength, muscularity, endurance, power, competition, winning, determination – all features which our culture does not normally attach to femininity.” There lies the rub.
It explains the anxious attempts for some female boxers to wear skirts to differentiate them from the men, even though it is no longer an AIBA requirement. At October’s 2011 world championships, Poland Boxing made skirts compulsory. Poland coach Leszek Piotrowski instructed: “Wearing shorts is not a good way for women boxers to dress.” U.S. Olympic flyweight Tyrieshia Douglas this year agreed: “We’re women and women should be wearing a woman’s uniform […] We need to look more feminine.”‘ Why? Apparently there’s doubt over their biological sex, as with the Belarusian shot putter Nadzeya Ostapchuk, who was brutally criticised for her “male characteristics”. One outraged Tweet read: “I refuse to believe that the Olympian shot put women are actually women.” Blogger John Millington proposes that athletes like Ostapchuk “present a challenge to men, of non conformity, both in body and by what they do for a sport – showcasing a level of strength not possessed by the average man. We should be celebrating these women.” Hear, hear. Similarly, British weightlifter Zoe Smith was attacked by misogynists for her “masculine” appearance, but reacted with the glorious retort: “[We] don’t lift weights in order to look hot [...] What makes them think that we even WANT them to find us attractive? […] and what makes you think we actually give a toss”?
Sixteen-year-old gymnast Gabrielle Douglas, the first black American to win a gold medal in the individual all-around competition and the first American gymnast to win gold medals in the individual and team competitions in the same Olympics, was chastised for her hairdo. They judged her hair, that is, whether she fulfilled her cultural role of a “feminine woman”, rather than her astonishing performance as an athlete. (Incidentally, we’re discussing a sport in which women must be bathed from head to toe in glitter, but the men aren’t.) In a statement, Douglas responded with consternation: “I just made history and people are focused on my hair?” Quite. Not only does such superficial obsession overlook an athlete’s achievement, but, as Douglas’ mother pointed out, lowering their self-esteem before a major event is bound to affect their performance. Blogger The Stiletto expands the point: “At the highest level of competition, mental toughness can be the deciding factor between winning and losing.” A neat bit of strategic sexism, then.
Rebecca Adlington told reporters that she would avoid reading Twitter comments during the 2012 Olympics because so many Tweets hurled insults at her appearance.” As well as the personal distress caused, such offensive, sexist remarks reinstate the patriarchal preoccupation with women’s appearance and offer a crippling message to the next generation of female athletes. Research by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation discovered that “negative body image was consistently cited as a barrier for girls participating in exercise as popular culture gave out the message it was more important to be thin than fit.” Thin, feminine and made-up to the Max. American weightlifter Holley Mangold, Australian swimmer Liesel Jones, Jessica Ennis and the Brazilian women’s soccer team are, like Zoe Smith, part of “a growing number of women athletes speaking out at their frustration with the public scrutiny of their body size and image rather than their fitness and skills.”
When the primary criterion for attention remains women’s sexual attractiveness, how can we hope for women’s sport to be taken on equal terms with men? The Stiletto sums up the “common dilemma plaguing women in public life”: “They are judged by their looks, not their accomplishments – and if their looks are found wanting, as they too often are, then their accomplishments don’t matter. And if their accomplishments don’t matter, they don’t matter.“ Depressingly, the under-representation of women during the Olympics is nothing compared to outside the Games, when only 5% of media coverage is dedicated to women’s sport – and that’s not for lack of demand. But it’s not enough for female athletes to appear in the media, if that reportage sees their buttocks disconnected from their bodies or their faces forcibly caked in make-up. Women athletes must be valued for their abilities and not their conformity to arbitrary cultural constructions of sexuality and gender.
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