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Framing Women’s Sports Rethinking How We View Our Female Athletes

In a 2020 BBC survey conducted in India, 42% of respondents felt that women’s sports were not as ‘entertaining’ as men’s. This notion, which has been around since the advent of female participation in sports, has often come to be perceived as an indisputable truth. Perceptions of this nature rely heavily on normative beliefs regarding femininity and gender stereotypes, helped along in no small part by stakeholders such as the media and sports regulatory authorities.

The most pressing issue with the media’s treatment of female athletes is insubstantial and differential coverage, which has impeded their visibility and potential popularity. In the US, the coverage of women’s sports did not manage to supersede coverage of dogs and horses until 1992. The argument typically put forth to explain the gap in coverage is circular - the media showcases women’s sports rarely and infrequently compared to their male equivalents, which leads to them having fewer viewers and generating lesser interest, and this lack of popular interest is then touted as the reason for their lack of coverage.

Even when female athletes do receive media attention, their portrayal in the news is often significantly different from that of their male counterparts. Their athleticism, instead of being the sole focus, is frequently framed as tangential. Instead, their image, physical appearance, sexuality and private lives are given considerably more attention. In an interview with tennis star Sania Mirza, journalist Rajdeep Sardesai asked her about her plans for motherhood and ‘settling down’. When Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu broke a world record and won a gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, the NBC broadcast coverage panned to her husband and coach, and a commentator said, “And there’s the man responsible”. In a report on the media coverage of women’s sports, Dr Murray Phillips notes that “Women were often photographed in inactive shots, in relationship caricatures or as models; men were more often shown in active poses, less in relationships and never as models. Similarly, the writing that described women’s and men’s sports reinforced a gender dichotomy. Women were stereotyped by their physical traits, their clothes, their emotions and their relationships; men by courage, aggression and toughness…”

Women were stereotyped by their physical traits, their clothes, their emotions and their relationships; men by courage, aggression and toughness…

Media portrayals of female athletes are regularly linked to their alignment with conventional standards of beauty and the performance of femininity. Their outfits and body shapes are subject to undue scrutiny, often at the expense of reporting on their athletic accomplishments. The objectification of these athletes by reducing them to their desirability denigrates them both as women and as athletes.

This issue is exacerbated by the dress codes enforced for various sports by their respective overseeing administrative bodies. The regulations that female outfits are subject to have drawn considerable scrutiny in recent years for their active and conscious contribution to the sexualisation of these athletes. Dress codes in sports have historically been dictated by commercial interests and devised almost entirely by men, many of whom seem to subscribe to the adage that “sex sells” when it comes to the promotion of women’s sports. While regulated form-fitting or lightweight outfits serve technological and functional purposes in sports such as gymnastics or swimming, the same cannot be said for others such as women’s beach volleyball and handball. Beach handball requires women to wear bikini bottoms when they compete, while men are permitted to wear shorts. The International Handball Federation rules even include specifications on the nature and style of this apparel, stating that the bottoms must be “a close fit”, be “cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg” and have a side width of no more than 10 centimetres. Despite claims that these stipulations “increase athlete performance”, there is scarce evidence to prove it. The regulations go on to state that these rules are necessary for coherence with the “sportive and attractive image of the sport”. In 2021, the Norwegian women’s beach handball team was fined 150 euros for switching out their bikini bottoms for shorts. The Federation drew global criticism for its unfair dress code and soon amended its rules to allow women to wear shorts. However, parity between the sexes has not yet been achieved in beach handball - women’s shorts are required to be of a “close fit” while men’s shorts simply are not allowed to be “too baggy”.

Television angles of female athletes lean into the existent focus on aesthetics over athleticism. Female athletes are subject to objectifying camera angles ten times more often than their male counterparts. For example, camera angles tend to linger on the backsides of female athletes during coverage of beach volleyball, ostensibly to capture the strategic hand signals they pass to each other. During the 2012 London Olympics, tabloids ran photo spreads covering the women’s beach volleyball event that had scarcely a set or spike in sight. Then-mayor of London and later Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, described these players to have been glistening “like wet otters.”

Unsurprisingly, most of the reasons as to why this belief is so easily internalised can be traced back to good old-fashioned sexism (as it almost always can be).

Simply put, women athletes are made to be viewed as women first and athletes second. People feel as though women’s sports are intrinsically not entertaining as they are never seen simply as sports - the prefix of ‘women’s’ is inseparable from their judgement of them, which is subsequently clouded by the same. Unsurprisingly, most of the reasons as to why this belief is so easily internalised can be traced back to good old-fashioned sexism (as it almost always can be). The significance of the role of the media and regulatory authorities when it comes to moulding public perception of these sports cannot be overstated and deserves far greater critique and critical attention than it currently receives.


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