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

19 11 2010

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.

Advertisements




Short Video on Sports Illustrated Photographs of Female Athletes

10 02 2010

One of our local Minneapolis  NBC affiliate KARE11 reporters, Jana Shortal, did a great piece on why the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and Lindsey Vonn SI cover might be problematic. It is short and to the point. To watch the video, click here.





Vonn Watch: Part II

9 02 2010

Ok, so if you didn’t agree with my critique (and many didn’t!) of the February 8, 2010 Sports Illustrated cover of Olympian Lindsey Vonn that can be interpreted as sexualized, the photographs of Vonn and other female athletes in the 2010 SI Swimsuit Issue being released today (shown here below) might help illustrate some of my original points.

Sports Illustrated 2010 Swimsuit Issue

I became aware of these pictures, from a news story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that ran today which stated, “Minnesota skiing sensation Lindsey Vonn is among a quartet of Olympic athletes featured in this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue that is out today in print and online.”  The online version of the SI Swimsuit Issue includes video clips of the Olympic Stars doing their photo shoots.

The critique here is the same, when we DO see female athletes (some of the best in the world at their respective sports!) which happens in only 6-8% of all sport media, they are more often than not in poses that highlight physical attractiveness, femininity, and can be interpreted as sexualized. Is it coincidental that the four female Olympians portrayed here are all blond, attractive, feminine looking, and sexy according to societal norms?Arguably, the Vonn SI cover can be interpreted (or not) as sexualized, but these images are clearly sexualizing in nature and tone.

The obvious target market for the Swimsuit Issue is men.  Therefore, the idea that “sex sells” is viable and research does support that sex sells. What I want to argue however, and some emerging research is supporting, that sex sells sex…but sex does not sell women’s sport.

The point being, by seeing Vonn on the cover of SI, these images of female Olympians, or any other female athlete… does it make the male demographic more likely to attend and pay for a ticket to an event where these women are competing, buy merchandise, or read a story about them? Researchers say it is unlikely. So yes, sex sells sex but it likely does not promote women’s sport or female athletes in a way that helps to grow women’s sport in a meaningful and sustainable way.

The last point I want to highlight is these type of images also reinforce to consumers what is most important and valued in terms of female athletes and females in general, and meaning is constructed from what is chosen to be included and not included. If you want to read more about  how the sexualization of females affects everyone, particularly young girls, go to the American Psychological Foundation’s Task Force Report on the Sexualization of Girls. The report can be downloaded for free, and in short states, “The proliferation of sexualized images of girls and young women in advertising, merchandising, and media is harming girls’ self-image and healthy development. This report explores the cognitive and emotional consequences, consequences for mental and physical health, and impact on development of a healthy sexual self-image.”

Therefore,  I hope to see many more images like the one below in the weeks to follow, as Vonn (who I really hope is healthy enough to race given her shin injury) and other female Olympians have great potential to be positive role models, not only for girls, but for us all.

To see a video segment of me talking with KARE11 reporter Jana Shortal about why sexualized images of female athletes are problematic,  click here.

Lindsey Vonn, Great Athlete..in action, in uniform, on the slope.






Vonn Watch: Sports Illustrated Cover is Predictable

2 02 2010

Sports Illustrated February 8, 2010 Cover

I’ve thought to myself and predicted out loud that leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics that we would see a LOT of Lindsey Vonn in the media.

Vonn is first a GREAT athlete, but she also represents the norm of feminine attractiveness. The combination of athleticism and attractiveness make Vonn the likely poster girl of the US Olympic Team, and the media hasn’t disappointed in constructing her as such.

Not to be left out, Sports Illustrated is featuring Vonn on their February 8,2010 cover (pictured here). For those of you who follow SI Covers, know that female athletes are RARELY featured on the cover.

2007 Sports Illustrated Covers Featuring Women

Over the last 60 years researchers have shown that about 4% of all SI covers have portrayed women.

When females are featured on the cover of SI, they are more likely than not to be in sexualized poses and not in action–and the most recent Vonn cover is no exception.

NOTE: Please read my follow up post below in the comments section, in response to blog readers differing opinions about this post.

Follow up response:

I’ve been getting a lot of comments in this particular blog. It seems I’ve touched a nerve and many disagree with my interpretation of Vonn on the cover of SI. And many of the comments provide alternative perspectives, which is good for discussion. First, let me say I am a fan of Vonn. I have nothing against her and am proud she is a Minnesotan. I am also not saying that Vonn thrives on the attention of the sport media, or seeks it out. I believe she is being covered so frequently because of the combination of the skill, accomplishment, AND her appearance. I have to disagree that this pose is “in action”. In sport media research, we would code this Vonn cover as a passive shot. She is not actually ON the slope skiing, with her helmet on. She IS in a posed tuck position in an attempt to simulate what actually skiing would look like. Yes she is “in uniform” but not her complete uniform and she appears to be on the slope. Picture this as a way to frame what I’m trying to get at: Picture a male ski racer in a similar pose on the cover of SI, smiling at the camera. Would we see that? How would you react to that picture, verses the picture of Vonn? As one blog commenter seemed to hint at, this pose is “ok” because she is hot and sexy, so she is nice to look at. How would “we” feel if the female skier did not meet normative standards of feminine attractiveness (i.e., she was “ugly”) and was in the same pose? I appreciate everyone’s willingness to share their opinions.

Some have brought up a good point that male athletes have been photographed in similar poses, and I do not deny this fact. However, the argument is that because female athletes only receive 6-8% of all sport media coverage regardless of the medium, that when we DO see them it is MORE LIKELY in poses that highlight traditional gender norms, femininity and framed in a way that can be interpreted as sexualized. So yes, Ohno or Kitt have been on the cover in similar ways but we will more likely see male athletes in action, on the court/ice/mat, and in their uniform that we will female athletes, this is a proven fact over the last 25 years of sport media research. -nml

Follow up Part 2 (2/6/10): Thank you to everyone who has submitted a comment. I have approved a sampling of the hundreds of comments that are representative of the varying opinions about this cover and issue. As you can read in the “About This Blog” tab, my goal with this blog is “help readers see the issues I write about with a different perspective (not necessarily one that you agree with)”. It is clear not everyone agreed with the critique of the Vonn SI cover and that is the point, to stimulate dialogue about an issue.  If you are interested in one explanation as to why this post generated so much discussion and attacks on me personally , click here.

Follow up Part 3 (2/8/10): This blog got so much exposure due to the fact it was picked up by USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and more recently CoCo Perez, among other media outlets.