Recent studies involving the role of the mass media and gender, particularly within the realm of women’s sports has brought light upon one of the most disturbing issues in society today: the under-representation and misrepresentation of women in mass media. It can be concluded that female athletes, framed by the media as objects of sexuality, or “sports cuties,” are consistently emphasized for their sexuality instead of their athleticism.
Not only does this diminish their achievements in the sports arena, but it also systematically reinforces the idea that sports are a “males-only” realm.
The mass media, using magazine covers, celebrity programs and news articles, focus more on female athletes as symbolic models for female sexuality than as athletes. Constantly, female athletes are portrayed in coy scenarios involving accentuated legs and breasts, or with pouting lips and scantily clad outfits.
This paper will highlight some examples of research into symbolic representation of female athletes as passive, emotionally demonstrative and vulnerable objects of the sports world, whereby athletic merit is given second seat to skin and sex.
Furthermore, this paper will base itself on the greater theoretical standpoint of hegemony, citing such theorists as Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci.
The analysis will also base itself on the work of Laura Mulvey, who presents the idea of the “Male Gaze,” whereby women are shown as sexual objects for the visual purpose of men’s enjoyment. Through this analysis of women in sports and the medias response to female athletes, it is postulated that women have been systematically moved from active participants as subjects, to a more passive role as objects. This fact reinforces a particular hegemonic, patriarchal power structure, and furthermore, reinforces the power roles of those who are responsible for such representations.
To lay the foundation for the analysis, it is helpful to first consider the theoretical basis of Althusser and Gramsci. The theory of ideology and hegemony is particularly relevant for the later exposition on the portrayal of women within the cultural eye of the media. Althusser states that false truths are used to maintain power. The group with the power (in this case one could take such an example as Time Warner, the owner or Sports Illustrated for Women) defines the rules of the game.
This means that the group in power creates media frames and representations of reality that further construct a worldview that is conducive for the maintenance of the present day structure. Power is given to subordinate classes (the viewers of mass media) by the ruling power (Time Warner), in a way that makes it appear that they are given concessions (“We give the audience what they are asking for. ”) And yet, as Gramsci outlines, these concessions are still a means of maintaining power.
The genius behind such a set up lies in the fact that the ideology is created in such a way that the both the ruling class and all other classes believe that such hierarchy of power is inherent or natural. In the case of sports, the watching public believe that women are naturally meant to be depicted as sexual objects, focusing on married life and vacation preferences, instead of the active subject such as a male athlete, where a more clearly demarcated “sports focus” is enacted. Herein lies a clear real-world metaphor for the theoretical models of Althusser and Gramsci.