Study: Coverage of Williams outburst reinforced stereotypes

October 28, 2009

Accounts and commentary focused on Serena Williams' now-infamous outburst during a semifinal match at the U.S. Open in August subtly reinforced gender stereotypes for female athletes, according to a new study by the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State.

A content analysis of coverage from major newspapers, network newscasts and the most popular sports blogs indicated that Williams was cast negatively against other male and female athletes, but was more likely to be criticized when she was compared to other female athletes.

She also was more likely to be criticized in articles that mentioned that her opponent in the match, Kim Clijsters, is a mother.

“The emphasis in much of the commentary was in contrasting Clijsters with Williams, who had clearly violated our expectations for women in sports,” said Marie Hardin, associate director of the Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State and an author of the study. “In many ways, Clijsters fits the stereotypical feminine ideal for female athletes: mother. Williams behaved in a way that violated the ideal, and the contrast was one that writers used to reinforce traditional gender norms.”

Williams did not escape criticism when compared to male athletes, and she also was criticized in stories for corrupting the norms for civility in tennis, in sports and in the wider culture.

“Her behavior was seen as possibly having monumental implications,” Hardin added. “It’s difficult to imagine an outburst of a male athlete being considered in these terms.”

Generally, sports blogs stayed away from speculating about the cultural implications of Williams’ outburst, and a few writers questioned whether scrutiny of Williams was based on her gender.

“There are pockets of progressive coverage,” Hardin said. “The key is to increase awareness and help journalists, bloggers and commentators understand how they can avoid limiting stereotypes.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2017