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Female athletes and stereotypes: looks vs. ability


Guest post by Tom Robinson.

It’s a well-established stereotype that more attractive female athletes get the lion’s share of media attention, regardless of sporting success. But does the very fact that we can have this conversation show how far women’s sports have come?

Pretty female athletes get all the fame, wealth, and accolades; no matter how successful or talented an athlete is, she usually doesn’t get her share unless she has the looks to match.

As women’s sports gain more attention in today’s media, this is the stereotype all female athletes must confront in some way. The “hot” athletes have to do more to justify the attention; others have to come to terms with not getting their share of it.

Maybe you’ve heard about Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones. Maybe you’ve heard about her too much. She’s been all over the media this summer, and will stay in the public eye with all the endorsements she has lined up.

Maybe you’ve heard of Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells. They ran in the same event at the Olympics, and even beat Lolo to win silver and bronze, respectively. They’ve heard about Lolo too much, and have made it clear that they resent the attention and earning power her looks have given her.

If you’ve ever come across women’s golf, you’ve heard about Natalie Gulbis. You haven’t heard of Yani Tseng unless you follow women’s golf. Gulbis has won three tournaments in her career; Tseng has won as many this year, is three wins away from making the hall of fame, and is ranked No. 1 in the world by the Ladies Professional Golf Association. Gulbis is on that same list, on page 4, ranked at 77.

If you’ve heard of Gulbis, it’s probably from The Natalie Gulbis Show on the Golf Channel, or from her column in FHM. Then there’s the time she modeled in nothing but body paint, and the rumors of her dating other pro athletes. Again, when it comes to earning potential, looks trump ability.

It’s important to look at how sports have changed in our culture. The lines between sport and Hollywood are blurring. In the 1920s, if a woman played golf, it was because she enjoyed the game. There was no other motive, no visions of endorsements or magazine covers.

Now, those things are expected, and are even seen as additional motivation to stay out on the links and practice.  We’d all agree it’s naive to think that the drive of a modern athlete stems only from a samurai-like love of craft and perfection.

Likewise, sports coverage has changed over the years. Sports media used to exist to tell people what had already happened. Not everyone could watch the Yankees play on cable, so reporters wrote what happened, with details and imagery, making Babe Ruth a little more palatable, and less like a hothead who punched umpires in the ear.

Once cable and satellites came along, the angle become one of speculation about the next Yankees game. Now we have sports award shows, sports reality shows, and a whole lot of who’s dated whom, and who Brett Favre texted what. Professional sports has become Hollywood.

I think the issue here is that there’s a large part of the population that doesn’t want sports to be that way. A lot of us know that the pursuit of fame for its own sake is a hollow one. A lot of us don’t value women solely on their looks. A lot of us also recognize sports as an excellent way to develop character, offering tangible rewards for persistence, discipline, and teamwork. We want to be able to point to Paul Bunyan and Babe Didrikson when we talk about sports, but instead, people see Terrell Owens, and Anna Kournikova in a bikini.

Women’s sports have come a long way. Women didn’t used to run marathons. Not because they didn’t want to, but because some men thought women couldn’t handle it. They thought that the strain of running a marathon would cause a woman, any woman, to die — because her uterus would fall out. This was in 1967. For real.

Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to run the Boston marathon in 1967. She had to enter on the sly and was almost tackled by a race official, but she finished, uterus in place. The marathon still wasn’t an Olympic event for women until 1984.

Equally, the idea of millionaire women athletes, equal athletic scholarships for women’s sports, a women’s national basketball league, and a woman hosting a golf show would have been laughable only a few decades ago. Now there’s a generation who can’t fathom a world without those things.

Our main concern is no longer if women can succeed in sports, but how they do it. The good part of the style vs. substance debate is that at least we are having it. We no longer have to prove that women can achieve great sporting success, and are free to focus on making women’s sports better.

Maybe we should look past the sports world’s glamorous sheen. Perhaps the answer lies in the wisdom of old Hollywood and sports sayings: there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and if you want to know who’s winning, look at the scoreboard.

Tom Robinson is a staff writer for NerdWallet, a personal finance website dedicated to helping consumers find the best information on credit cards, education, travel deals and more.

  1. vicki wharton says:

    Love the new site outfit! The old adage, there’s no such thing as bad publicity didn’t work for Gerald Ratner, and I don’t think it works for women – if you have to take your clothes off or look the way men find attractive so that they want you to take your clothes off, we still haven’t elevated ourselves above breeding machine level in the eyes of most. Added to that, if we play the game by their rules to get to the top, we sell women down the river that don’t have those advantages, and by playing and dressing the whore to get to the top, every woman below is tarred with the same brush which then makes gender violence and rape prosecutions almost impossible to win since the woman is walking into court with an invisible sign around her neck that says ‘whore’ in the eyes of councel and jury alike because that’s what they’ve learnt about females in the media and the media arm of the sex industry, porn. Not sure what the way forward is, but simply valuing a woman for her looks is like only valuing a man for the size of wage he can earn. It dehumanises both.

  2. You’re definitely right, Vicki. I mean, even during the Olympics, supposedly a time when women’s and men’s sports are valued equally, there were some who couldn’t see female athletes for anything other than their bodies. Have a look at this for proof, as if you needed it:

    But I guess at least there’s no one out there seriously suggesting that women are incapable of competing at a high level. At least when we call this stuff out, there are a lot of people on our side. So I guess that’s progress? I think?

    • I certainly agree that the “any publicity is good publicity” angle is optimistic (ie, naive), and simply doesn’t work. It is, in fact, the exact argument used by the people promoting the travesty that is “lingerie football”, where women run around playing football in, you guessed it, underwear, and somehow the (male) organizers claim it is empowering to these young athletes. I am not saying it is impossible for someone to feel empowered doing that, but on a cultural level, this kind of thing is despicable and causes so much harm. The point about the Olympics was very apt as well. Even in mainstream sports at the highest level imaginable, there is this concentrated push to sexualize and objectify female athletes that is just shameful. And all those whining about how “men are objectified too!” need to shut the hell up. Yes, male sports stars are sexualized, but they are not objectified in the same way. We don’t have hundreds of photos of guys’ crotches, or photos that overwhelmingly neglect to even capture their faces. For female athletes, that is exactly what happens. It also goes without saying that there is no boxer-football league filling stadiums with leering women. Even female wrestling, or women randomly fighting (ie, the whole “cat fight” thing) is sexualized in a way that the male equivalent is not. This just has to stop, period. Women’s physical presence exists in the media as an extension of male desire. That is why it is seen as acceptable to focus on and sexualize or ridicule a woman’s appearance, no matter her profession or success. When was the last time a male politician was called a whore for wearing a nice-looking outfit? When do we see male athletes being told they shouldn’t compete because it is making them look unattractive or unmanly? The media is such an extension of the misogynistic, patriarchal system that it is terrifying. Any real effort to promote equality has to start with the way women are portrayed this way constantly within our society.

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