Academic Exchange Quarterly     Fall  2006    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  10, Issue  3

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Media Literacy: (Mis) Shaping Women’s Sports


Susan G. Ziegler, Cleveland State University, OH


Ziegler, Ed.D., is Professor of Physical Education and Sport Psychology




The messages the media sends about women’s sport have had a powerful influence on how women athletes and women’s sports are accepted in this culture.  This article describes a media literacy assignment developed to provide students with a dramatic example of the need for media literacy and the dangers of accepting, as truth, many of the messages and cultural production the media has developed about women’s sports.



Women’s sport has come a long way since the pre Title IX days (Education Amendment Act of 1972).  Title IX requires no person can be excluded from participation or denied benefits on the basis of sex from any educational program receiving federal funds. When applied to sports participation, Title IX standards can be met in three ways: proportionality (ratio of women students to women athletes), a record continuous improvement in women’s sports, or meeting the needs and interest of the women students.  There have been many legal challenges to Title IX, but all have resulted in support for Title IX.


Many argue that Title IX has accomplished its goal and should be revised or eliminated.  They argue that Title IX has resulted in the elimination of men’s sports. What is not acknowledged is that men’s football and basketball have maintained their budgets resulting in cuts to budgets of other sports. It is difficult to argue that Title IX has met its goals given that less than thirty percent of universities are in compliance with Title IX and women athletes are awarded about thirty-six percent of the athletic scholarships (Women’s Sport Foundation, 2005; Eitzen, 2006).  Today, Title IX is still under attack (see Women’s Sports Foundation, 2006; Carpenter & Acosta, 2005). What possible role has media played in the evolution of support for women’s sports in the United States?


Part of the explanation for the limited progress of women’s sports has much to do with the media’s presentation of the sports’ world.  The power of the media to create and define culture appears to be unlimited.  Many advocates for women’s athletes feel that the most important competition for women’s sports is with the media.


The media literacy project that I used in my senior level course in sport sociology was developed with two primary goals:  (a) Provide an accurate historical overview of the development of women’s sports and (b) Provide students with the media literacy tools needed to uncover the power of the media in controlling the images, stories, and ultimately the growth potential for women’s sports.  We discussed the lack of success of women’s sports in gaining media recognition and economic stability.  The male argument went like this:  “Who wants to watch or even support women athletes.  They aren’t as skilled as men, they are boring to watch, and after all, most of them are lesbians.”  Many women thought the status quo was just fine.  Helping my students understand the role of the media in the construction of their beliefs was an exciting journey.


Media’s Techniques:  Portrayal of Women Athletes

I used an analysis of the media’s coverage of women’s sports as a starting point towards creating a better understanding of how the imaginary world created by the media has had a definite and devastating impact on the real world struggle of women’s sports to survive and on women athletes search for recognition.  This social construction of women’s sports has changed in the past six years.  Much of the coverage appears to trivialize, sexualize and marginalize women athletes (Kane, 2000).  Most research into media coverage estimates that the amount of print space and television time focusing on women athletes ranges from about five to eight percent (Alper, 2002).  This percentage also includes the nonsensical stories about nude bungee jumpers, bare-breasted baseball fans, and a host of other sexualized or trivialized stories.


The techniques used in creating beliefs and attitudes about women’s sport are powerful examples of the need for media literacy.  Unless changed, the growth of women’s sports will continue to be minimal.  We discussed techniques frequently used by the media and I challenged them to find examples of media techniques used to minimize the coverage of women’s sports or to trivialize, marginalize or sexualize women athletes.   Duncan and Messner (1998) discussed numerous methods used by the media that distort the view of women athletes. These included:

  • Women are portrayed as “passive reactive agents to their own success” (p. 177).
  • Women success is attributed to talent, hard work, and support versus men who succeed because of discipline, power and risk taking.
  • Failures in women are attributed to their own incompetence, but men failed because of the skill of the opponent.
  • Strength to weakness attributes are heavily skewed toward men with a ratio of 6 to 1, but for women the ratio is 2 to 1.
  • Women are depicted in more passive pictures and with postures portraying deference versus male pictures which are focused on power and dominance.
  • Women athletes often are referred to by their first names or with cute names (e.g., pixie) whereas male athletes are called by their surnames.
  • Productions of men’s sports are of better quality with more time spent creating excitement and building an audience.
  • Halftime programs for televised men’s sports are used to advertise more men’s sports; in women’s halftime programs, the focus is also on other men’s competitions.


Historical Look at Media Coverage

Media coverage of female athletes has evolved from virtually no coverage in the 1950s,   to minimal coverage thru the mid 1990s’ with much of the coverage skewed.  That is, female athletes were often portrayed in non sport settings or, when in sport settings, were pictured making mistakes or displaying emotions.  The current coverage of women athletes has improved with more stories and photographs that depict the true athleticism of women.  However, there is an increasing trend that emphasizes the non-athletic, the feminine, and most recently, the sexual aspect of women athletes. 


Decisions by elite athletes such as Brandi Chastain, Anna Kournikova, Jenny Thompson, and others have set a new standard for covering (or uncovering) female athletes.  The trend of marketing women’s sports by displays of sexuality versus athletic competence is dangerous.  It would appear that many of the elite athletes believe it is good publicity for themselves and for their sport if the media portrays them as hyper-sexualized. For many, posing nude/semi-nude is their only opportunity for making money.


The portrayal of women athletes by the media reflects at least three themes (Shugart, 2003).  In the first theme, “passive objectification,” athletes are seen in non sport activities (hot, sexy, soft-porn poses) or pictures focus on certain body parts (breast, bottom) which are “disembodied from the action” (p. 11).  The second theme, “Athleticism as sexualized performance,” portrays women as athletes, but the sub-text has sexual innuendos.  For example, when Brandi Chastain whipped off her shirt after the USA won the world cup in soccer in 1999, the coverage focused more on her black sports bra with captions such as “I’ve got your World Cups right here,” and less on the accomplishments of the team (Hummer, 1999).


The third theme “vigilant heterosexuality” evolved to counter homophobic perceptions of women athletes. The stories/pictures focus on the use of make-up, jewelry, hair styles, feminine/sexy dress, etc.  A major emphasis is on the women athletes’ relationships, including male boyfriends, fiancés, husbands and children. There are subtle messages of women athletes as “passively susceptible and receptive to …male influences in their lives” (p. 18).  


Of course, the ultimate control of women’s sports is receiving no media coverage, thus representing the symbolic annihilation of women’s sports and reinforcing the message that women’s sports are not important or interesting. The lack of social validation and representation makes it difficult for women’s sports to organize, be recognized, valued and supported (e.g. sponsorships). 


Themes and Theories

Several theories were used to guide students in their media literacy experience. Objectification Theory addresses the shift from developing self-worth based on how we feel about ourselves to developing self-worth based on how others evaluate our appearances and behaviors based on gender ideals (Fredrickson & Roberts,  1997; Sanchez & Crocker, 2005).   Cultivation Theory posits that repeated exposure to media messages affects beliefs and attitudes (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorelli, 1994).  This one-two punch has had a negative impact on the development of women’s sports.


Magazines were used for the analyses. The content and “advertising in women’s magazine’s play an influential role in formulating, maintaining, and alternating how readers understand the construction of socially acceptable gender norms” (Inness, 2004, p. 125).  Research confirms that magazine messages focus on how to correct a woman’s imperfections and inadequacies.  The authors concluded that pictures on magazine covers send clear messages on how women should look and what men should look for in a woman (Malkin, Wornian & Chrisler, 1999).  It is against this background of self- objectification that girls and adolescents learn about culture and the cultural expectations for their behavior, attitudes, and beliefs.  Not only are young girls learning to be objects for male eyes, but young boys are learning through cultural observations (magazines, video games, music, Internet, cartoons, books, television) what their roles are in relation to girls/women and the expectations they should have for female behavior. 


Media Literacy Assignment

Armed with these theories, media techniques, and their own skepticism about the role of the media in the promotion of women’s sports, the students were ready to begin their own research. Each student was responsible for selecting a total of three magazines and analyzing two issues of each of magazine (general women’s magazine, general men’s magazine, and sports and/or fitness magazine).  Students selected magazines such as:

o       Women’s magazine: Women’s Day, Cosmopolitan, Essence, Playgirl, etc.

o       Men’s magazine:  GQ, Maxim, Black Men, Playboy, etc.

o       Health, fitness, and/or sports magazine: Shape, Sports Illustrated, Fit, etc.


Three types of analyses were completed:  (1) Front covers, (2) Advertisements, and (3) Stories/features within the magazine.  Recording sheets were provided.  Once the data were collected, students identified major themes evolving from the stories, advertisements and photos and identified media techniques used to influence readers’ thinking.


Let the Shouting Begin:  Project Outcomes

I was surprised to find that almost half of the class did not understand the power of the media in creating the ‘reality’ of women and women’s sports.  Some of the men had difficulty letting go of their preconceived beliefs about women’s sports.  Most were not consciously aware of magazines’ use of soft-porn in the pictures of women athletes.  Some of the women argued that women should have the right to choose how to portray their bodies, and that if given the opportunity, they too would pose nude. 


At this point I divided the class into groups of three or four by gender.  Groups discussed why women athletes would pose nude in the media and what messages that would send.  The results were fascinating.  The women had a rather heated discussion amongst themselves.  Some women argued that women athletes worked hard for their sports and that displaying their bodies gave voice to their ‘power’ as women.  Speaking with their bodies was the modern day version of “I am woman, hear me roar!” Other women felt that the male audience was not a consumer of women’s sports but rather enjoyed ‘consuming’ the bodies of the sexy athletes.  In fact, they suggested that the sexual display by athletes reinforced Objectification Theory and did more to harm women’s sport.  These students countered that the only media inspired theme song was “I am woman, I’m a whore!”


Some men thought that the use of sexualized pictures drew the attention away from the sport.  They could find no logical link between posing in a sexual position and gaining respect for the athlete or her sport.  They thought men got ‘turned on’ by viewing the soft-porn portrayals of women athletes.  Coverage that was humorous or sexual represented sport as something not to be taken seriously or respected. Others felt that women should do anything they can to sell their sport.  The example used was that the popularity of beach volleyball might be due to the regulation that requires women players to wear bikini bathing suits which are no wider than two inches at the hips. 


The ensuing debates between the men and women were quite revealing. The women who supported the sexualization of the female athlete by the media could not believe the men were so literal in their interpretation of the media images.  Whereas, the women were seeing ‘power, strength and beauty,’ the men were seeing ‘hot, sexy, babe.’ The women who supported the media’s interpretation and presentation of women’s athletes were devastated to see that sexualization and respect did not co-exist. 


It took a great deal of effort and lively debate for the students to recognize and accept the power of the media in influencing how they think and what they value.   The purpose of the assignment was to introduce them to the concept of media literacy and its importance in the social construction of reality.  It resulted in the students learning the importance of questioning media messages and being educated on the dangers of taking media at face value.  They were able to identify numerous techniques used by the media to influence reader’s opinions.  Media literacy training is needed in all fields to help educate students about the power of the media and its potential for influencing beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviors.


Research suggests that the more a woman is trivialized, marginalized and sexualized the less likely she will be taken seriously and the less likely she is to succeed in work or sports.  The marginal representation of women sports continues to play a major role in its lack of acceptance and support.  For example, women comprise forty percent of all college athletes, but receive between five and eight percent of television coverage (Alper, 2002).  Much of the coverage still contains sexual overtones and ridicule.


The students concluded that only history will tell if the strategy to sexualize women athletes will backfire for women’s sports and play into the hands of those who wish to keep women athletes (and their sport) as second class citizens. Most students recognized the power of the media and concluded that until media literacy training exists to help counter media’s messages about women’s sport, its evolution and importance in our culture will remain undeveloped and underappreciated.  They concluded that many of the media messages perpetuate the sexualization, trivialization, and marginalization of women athlete and the lack of coverage contributes to the symbolic annihilation of women’s sports.  Of course, a few students complained that we were being too literal in interpreting media messages and we should just admit that women’s sports aren’t interesting or deserving of support. 


Another major stumbling point for the students in trying to reconcile the development of women’s sports was the issue of money.  Given that there is a limited pool of resources to support sports, any increase in women’s sport was perceived as a potential decrease in resources to men’s sport.  Some students concluded that money and power drive decisions and media practices in sport (and in society).  Those who have the power strive to maintain the status quo.  If so, women will continue to be sexualized and marginalized in the media, in sport, and in most other sectors of society. 



These learning activities provided a powerful tool to help students understand the importance of media literacy training.  Throughout the year, students continued to bring me examples of the media’s influence on women’s sport and on the role and status of women.  One student’s comment summarized the power of media literacy training:  “Well, thanks a lot for ruining sports coverage for me!”  Media literacy training has the potential for creating social change and should be part of the curriculum across all subjects from K-16.




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