Fair Game or Foul Play: Media Coverage of Women in Sports

woman in glasses pointing while lecturing
Laura Stocker

Marie Hardin

"We are in the best of times and the worst of times with respect to media representation of female athletes," stated Marie Hardin last Wednesday. Hardin, associate director of the Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State, was the second speaker in this spring's Research Unplugged conversation series, held at the Penn State Downtown Theatre.

Although participation in sports among girls and women has exploded since the implementation of Title IX in 1972, there are still many social and gender norms that are holding back female athletes these days, explained Hardin.

"In addition to communicating values such as fair play and teamwork, I believe that the primary role of sports in society is to reinforce gender roles and ideals. We are being educated about gender roles as we watch sports; what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man," Hardin said.

Watching female athletes show aggression and strength can create cognitive dissonance, she adds. "We are more comfortable watching women play certain sports than others". For example, gymnastics, figure skating and volleyball are sports that show women being active while in skirts and jewelry. Therefore, most viewers are comfortable with this image. But picturing women playing football, wrestle or box makes most sports fans uncomfortable since these images fall outside our gender norms.

"Only four out of every one hundred Sports Illustrated covers features female athletes," Hardin notes. And while magazine images of male athletes usually show them mid-action, highlighting their strength and power, photos of women athletes usually involve sexually suggestive poses or highlight the "girl next door", or "mom and wife" image, explained Hardin.

Many female athletes allow themselves to be presented to society in a "hyper-sexualized" form, noted Hardin, which does not help the overall image of women in sports. "More and more female athletes are posing in the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated, and they don't even get paid for it. It's all about branding".

When the U.S. women's soccer team won the 1999 Women's World Cup, Newsweek's cover declared "Girls Rule!" "We delineate between girls and women," suggested Hardin, " because we are more comfortable watching girls play sports than women."

Despite the setbacks, there are "bright spots" for women in sports these days, said Hardin. Social media is a powerful tool to promote women's sports, "so there is no information gatekeeper anymore," she noted. In addition, "There is much more attention on phenomenal women athletes, because of the Olympics and the rise of women's sports leagues."

Please join us on Wednesday, March 31st, for the next Research Unplugged conversation, "Mammoth Discovery: Decoding the Secrets of Ice Age DNA", led by Stephan Schuster, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

For more about Marie Hardin, read on...

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Last Updated March 30, 2010