A response to fans of the NYT “Women Who Hit Hard” piece

8 09 2010

In a past post I critiqued the NYT Magazine “Women Who Hit Hard” piece on female professional tennis players, and argued the expose was “soft core porn that had nothing to do with tennis”. While it is a strong statement, I stand by it, even when others disagree with me including Laura Pappano of Fairgamenews.com and a blogger on After Ellen. As always I welcome dialogue about this topic, and present here a critical perspective.

Some more specific reasons based on sport media scholarship to back up my claim are below which further expand why I think this piece is particularly problematic.

Image of Kim Clijsters in NYT Magazine p 30-31, August 29, 2010

1. In sport media, scholars have used the term “ambivalence” (Duncan & Hasbrook, 1988) to describe how female athletes are routinely marginalized in the media. Ambivalence is manifest when two statements, or a picture and the text, are contradictory and conflicting. One seems positive and flattering, and the other has subtle or overt negative, sexualizing or belittling tones.  The NYT piece is classic ambivalence. The article is quite positive and includes discussion of the depth of the women’s field, the increased global audience and prize money, and how much stronger and more fit female players are today. However, the accompanying slide show and particularly the video are what make the packaged piece ambivalent.

Sam Stosur

The 2 biggest pictures, both two-page  color spreads (dare I say centerfolds?), are the most sexualizing. First, the picture of Kim Clijsters (included here) in gold dust has nothing to do with tennis. You can’t tell she is even a tennis player from looking at the picture. Second, the picture of Sam Stosur (also included here) has her playing in a nude tube top, a piece of equipment she would NEVER play a match in.

In fact last night watching the US Open, Clijsters played Stosur in the fourth round in a great match.  So last night when I was watching the match, I thought to myself “Who is Stosur? I’ve never heard of her or seen her.” So I looked her up and found out she is an accomplished Aussie player. Is wasn’t until I sat down to write this blog and looked at the pics again that I put 2 and 2 together…the woman featured in this picture and the woman I watched last night were the same person! My point is, if we want to increase recognition of female athletes, this is NOT the way to do it. Emerging research indicates that sex does not sell women’s sport (I’ve written about this numerous times in the blog but to read one click here, or click on the “sexualization” blog tag)

The videos are also ambivalent. Yes they feature strong female athletes hitting the ball, which many think is really cool, but the slow motion, ballerina music, and the elongated shot time on the buttocks, crotch, and chest areas make it contradictory and sexualizing. Not to mention the make-up, hair down, and wearing of uniforms that most of the WTA players would dare not play.

2. Sport media scholars, study patterns of portrayals of female athletes, namely if the athlete is in uniform, on the court, and in action. The slides and videos do portray all three…kind of (I’ll expand on this point below).

3. Females athletes get so little coverage from sport and regular media, that when they are covered and it is in sexualized ways, it undermines their athletic achievements. In fact, in a recent report “Gender in Televised Sports” by two well-known sport media scholars, Professors Michael Messner and Cheryl Cooky, based on the data they illustrate that network sport coverage of female athletes is at an all time low–only 1.6% which was a decline from 6.3% in 2004!

Therefore, based on the data we rarely see females athletes, and when we do it often resembles soft core porn (or “muscle porn” as one person on the After Ellen blog dubbed it). Even though we disagree on this one, I agree with Laura Pappano’s statement below when she argues in her blog “ We have to find a way to consider athletic female bodies without automatically finding that because they are fit they are sex objects.”  Unfortunately because we see athletic female bodies in primarily sexualized ways, it will be hard to tease out bodies, fitness levels, and athleticism without objectifying those same bodies. The  NYT Magazine pieces only perpetuate the problem by again linking the female athleticism to sexualized bodies. What we have to get away from is the thinking pattern that female athletes and women’s sport is only interesting and marketable when their bodies are highlighted and sold. Highlight their athletic bodies in a natural setting–on the court (the real court, not a blacked out studio setting), in action (hitting real tennis balls not rolled in glitter), and in uniform (a real uniform in which certain body parts would not fly out or be exposed upon moving or hitting a real tennis ball).

To illustrate my point, imagine a similar NYT expose on ATP male professional players such as Nadal, Murray, Roddick, and Federer with their shirts off, chests oiled with gold glitter stuck to their muscles, glammed up, hair spiked, wearing super tight and short tennis shorts, lips slightly parted, hitting balls rolled in chalk or glitter to the same music. Wouldn’t that seem weird?

I invite further dialogue and counter arguments to this blog. What do you think?

Advertisements




The New York Times does soft core pornography feature of female professional tennis players

26 08 2010

Earlier I posted that today, August 26th, is Women’s Equality Day. No sooner did I post my blog and a colleague (thanks ED!) sent me something so distrubing I had to do another post today. What I will write about next is a perfect example of why Women’s Equality Day is important.

In my previous and many other posts, I argue and researchers have proven time and again, that female athletes are rarely seen in sport media and when they are, athletic competence is minimized (click here), and their bodies are sexualized as commodities to be consumed.

The most recent and blatantly sexist, disgusting and marginalizing example of sexualizing female athletes is a piece the New York Times just ran titled “Women Who Hit Hard.” The piece features professional female tennis players and I’m sure is meant to capture attention leading up to the 2010 US Open, and is replete with an article, slide show and slow motion videos of each player hitting tennis balls in sexy attire to eerie music. I’ve seen a LOT of examples of sport media that sexualizes female athletes, but this tops the list.

This is soft core pornography and has NOTHING to do with athleticism or tennis. It is pure exploitation of female athletes.





Speechless Over Serena

30 11 2009

I just got word via the BBC that “Serena Williams has been fined and given a suspended three-year ban from the US Open for her tirade at a line judge”

I really hope this is a bad joke. Three years? That seems a bit harsh doesn’t it? Would a male players be fined and suspended the same amount? I think players who have tested positive for an illegal substance, say steroids, have been banned for less time!

What does this say about the intersections of class, race and gender in the game of tennis in the 21st century? Who plays and under what conditions? Who is punished (or not) and for what transgressions? Who decides, under what conditions, using what criteria to determine “major offence of aggravated behaviour”. I’m speechless.





Social Media & Sport Apologies

14 09 2009

Discussion in the Tucker Center this morning was very lively around the topic of Serena Williams’ U.S. Open semifinal outburst, fine, and subsequent apology via her blog and Twitter account (also see picture here).

serena apology

I have a few other thoughts on Williams’ ill-timed and ill-fated outburst.
1. From a sport psychology perspective one cannot control the calls made by the umpire or referee, regardless of if a “bad” call occurs on match point or the first point of the match. Let it go. An athlete can only control his/her reaction to the call. This particular reaction showed a lack of mental toughness. In her blog Williams wrote, “We all learn from experiences both good and bad. I will learn and grow from this, and be a better person as a result.” I’m sure it will also make her an even better competitor than she already is.

2. How has social media changed the way athletes interact with fans and the media? Even though Serena lost control of her emotions on the court, she took control of her “brand” off the court by quickly posting apologies using social media tools. It left us wondering if these tools existed when John McEnroe was in the heyday of his outbursts (which were much more frequent, prolonged and arguably egregious), would he of used social media to apologize? (NOTE: In a Google search for “John McEnroe apologizes” I found one result for apologizing for bad behavior, and one story of an apology for bad play.)

3. Then it got me thinking how race and gender intersect with the outburst issue. Do we expect female athletes to apologize more frequently than we do male athletes? We certainly expect female athletes to act “ladylike”, refrain from grunting loudly, not throw tantrums or have outbursts. How much of the criticism leveled against Serena Williams has to do with the fact she is African American? Would the public react similarly if the outburst came from a White female tennis player–for example Maria Sharapova? After perusing one of my favorite blogs–After Atalanta–it seems I am not the only one who noticed or is thinking about these issues. What do you think?