Women In Sports: Sex Objects, Mothers, Or Too "Manly" To Count

Illustration for article titled Women In Sports: Sex Objects, Mothers, Or Too "Manly" To Count

Two very different articles from this weekend have lead us to wonder: Will female athletes ever be able to drop the female and be seen as just athletes?


Last week, Caster Semenya's gender identity made big news as people began to question whether a woman, who "looks like a man," as everyone kept reminding us, could really be such a good athlete. It seems that female athletes are either A. too manly, B. sexualized to the point where their athletic prowess no longer matters, or C. portrayed as suffering from the ultimate female problem: how to juggle work and family. In the past year, much of news about women in sports focused on the significance of sex appeal for tennis players, the size of Serena William's butt, Candace Parker's maternity leave, Olympic moms, and of course, Semenya's "manly" body. Of course, there are some sports writers who focus on their achievements, but it is still notable how many profiles of female athletes highlight their uniquely "feminine" struggles.

Compare lines from two articles about women in sports:

First, a quote from this Sunday's New York Times, which begins,

Sybille Bammer always wished to be a mother, but first she wanted to be a tennis star. History and conventional wisdom told her she couldn't be both at the same time.

And an article from the Daily Beast on female surfers, which opens with the subhead:

The women's surf tour has never been more glamorous and the new generation is getting recognition beyond their sport. So why are sponsors bailing? (Plus: A gallery of teen stars.)


And continues with:

"You have to wear brown eyeliner, because the black smears really bad," Sage Erickson explained. And waterproof mascara."

It was a hot, July afternoon in Huntington Beach, California-a.k.a. Surf City, U.S.A.-and Erickson, an 18-year-old pro surfer who was competing in the Hurley U.S. Open of Surfing, had a few things to say before hitting the water. Standing beside her surf board, which she'd personalized with paint pens-a cartoonish Barbie on a cell phone with a dialogue bubble that read: "Blah blah blah."


Each article goes on to portray the strong women interviewed as characters as two-dimensionally cartoonish as the Barbie doodled on Erickson's board. The New York Times is much kinder, yet the focus here is primarily on how she was able to give birth and play tennis. It seems that the answer to this riddle is her supportive boyfriend, who gave up work to support Brammer, and play "Mr. Mom." "So many people made jokes," said Bammer's boyfriend, "I think this was a big deal to them because they think it is not that normal that the man stays home and watches the kid and the woman goes for work." Bammer, ranked No. 29 in the world, is seen as remarkable not just because of her skill, but because she manages to have it all, a child, a boyfriend, and a career.

The Daily Beast draws attention to a different way of selling the female athlete, which we can probably all recognize. The surfer girls in this piece are unmistakably girly—they are young, pretty, "glamorous," and friendly. However, women's surfing is still in trouble. But the new "crop" of women may be able to solve their funding problems with good looks and charm. Hurley International marketer Pat O'Connell sums it up:

"These girls are legitimately amazing surfers," he said. "For me, there's marketability and visibility-I think this new crop has both. They're good-looking girls, they're very likeable, and their ability levels are so high that they're catching everyone's attention."


Throughout her story, writer Nicole LaPorte never lets us forget about this fact, the "effortless sexiness that comes with having a killer bod." For these women to sell, and to be interesting to the general public, they have to be sexy. At least until they give birth, and then we can start puzzling out the difficulties of that equation.

And Pam Spaulding over at Pandagon points out yet another example of female athletes being viewed as somehow dangerously masculine. She quotes the Concerned Women for America website, which features a blurb about the new book God's Girls in Sports:

With the advent of Title Nine, girls have more opportunities than ever to participate in sports. While the social, physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits of sports are frequently discussed, Coach and mom Holly Page says there are also pitfalls that are too often overlooked. In her book God's Girls in Sports, Holly discusses hard issues like demanding training schedules that compete with family and church time, male-oriented coaching styles that force more masculine behaviors on girls without meeting girls' needs for relationships, the quest for scholarships, and lesbianism in college-level sports. She also talks about when it may be time to quit. Holly discusses these issues with CWA Policy Analyst Martha Kleder, as well as other ways parents can help their daughters maintain a life balance and get the most out of sports, without sports getting the best of them. (Emphasis Spaulding's)


Women who play sports, and do not conform to either the relate-able modern woman mold of the working mother or fall into the curvy sex pot role, must be either lesbians or secretly male.

Female athletes seem to serve as a never-ending well of material for those obsessed with both the female body and the importance of femininity. There seems to be a real difficulty marketing athletic women to the general public without resorting to these tricks, which continually reiterate that this is about a woman in sports, a female athlete, someone with two X chromosomes. In a way it makes sense that a physical career would lead to coverage that is so heavily centered on the body, but the emphasis on womanly-ness and athleticism undercuts the fact that many women are naturally athletic, that it is not impossible to be both.


Sybille Bammer's Tennis Career Is A Family Affair [New York Times]
Surf Girls: The Next Wave [The Daily Beast]
Concerned Women For America's Oldie Stereotype [Pandagon]



This is such a tough subject. I agree that just being sexy (as opposed to successful) should not equate to endorsements for an athlete. Anna Kournikova is the most relevant example, but many of her endorsement contracts started when she was sweeping the floor with opponents on the junior circuit, poised, it appeared to dominate on the senior circuit. Then she didn't succeed on the tennis court, but she did on the marketing front. In the end, good for her and not, in my opinion, bad for tennis.

But, the same happens in men's sports. Matt Leinert was/is talented, but he's not a top NFL QB, but he has endorsement deals tied to his looks, not his success on the field thus far.

In marginal sports — that don't have big audiences (like surfing) — athletes often have to take every possible advantage. The tough part is that more men than women watch more sports. It's a fact. What it has been historically driven by is generally irrelevant to the marketers. They want the male audience. The other thing is that pretty things — good looking women — draws a female audience as well. While maybe not as much as we used to, women buy glossy magazines with pretty people and pretty clothes inside because we (collectively and stereotypically) like pretty things. Why not pretty athletes?

Personally, I'd rather watch Tom Brady in spandex than any member of the Pats offensive line, because he's sexier. Why does Brady get a pass (heh) for trading on his looks but Danica Patrick does not? Or these surfer girls? I don't think it should be the only thing that sells female athletes to the world, but it certainly is one of the things.