“The newest kid on the women’s sports block is finding that the old formula for attention-getting is as robust as ever. ‘Sex sells,’ says Atlanta Beat defender Nancy Augustyniak, who was astonished to learn she finished third in a Playboy.com poll of the sexiest female soccer players.” —Wendy Parker, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Last winter, champion alpine skier Lindsey Vonn won the downhill gold medal at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, the first American woman to achieve gold in this prestigious event. From 2008 to 2010, Vonn also won three consecutive World Cup championships, the first US woman and second woman ever to accomplish such a feat. For her unprecedented achievements, Vonn was named Sportswoman of the Year by the US Olympic Committee.
Even Sports Illustrated—notorious for its lack of coverage of women’s sports—couldn’t ignore this historic moment and devoted its cover to Vonn. SI’s cover, however, blatantly portrayed Vonn as a sex object and spoke volumes about the rampant sexual depictions of women athletes. Rather than emphasize her singular athletic talent, the magazine depicted Vonn in a posed photograph, smiling at the camera in her ski regalia. What was most noticeable—and controversial—about the pose was its phallic nature: Vonn’s backside was arched at a forty-five-degree angle while superimposed over a mountain peak.
Offensive as this portrayal may have been, it came as no surprise to sports-media scholars. Over the past three decades we have amassed a large body of empirical evidence demonstrating that sportswomen are significantly more likely to be portrayed in ways that emphasize their femininity and heterosexuality rather than their athletic prowess. Study after study has revealed that newspaper and TV coverage around the globe routinely and systematically focuses on the athletic exploits of male athletes while offering hypersexualized images of their female counterparts.
These findings are no trivial matter. Scholars have long argued that a major consequence of the media’s tendency to sexualize women’s athletic accomplishments is the reinforcement of their status as second-class citizens in one of the most powerful economic, social and political institutions on the planet. In doing so, media images that emphasize femininity/sexuality actually suppress interest in, not to mention respect for, women’s sports.
Many of those charged with covering and promoting women’s sports take an entirely different view. As the quote beginning this article makes clear, the “sex sells” strategy remains deeply embedded among sports journalists and marketers, who also believe that reaffirming traditional notions of femininity and heterosexuality is a critical sales strategy. This approach, or so the argument goes, reassures (especially male) fans, corporate sponsors and TV audiences that females can engage in highly competitive sports while retaining a nonthreatening femininity.
The widely held assumption that sexualizing female athletes is the most effective way to promote women’s sports creates cognitive dissonance. To begin with, marketing campaigns for leagues like the WNBA also emphasize the wholesome nature of women’s sports, highlighting the connection between fathers and daughters. The underlying message is that women’s sports embrace traditional “family values” and that their appeal cuts across generational lines. Given this message, a “sex sells” strategy is counterproductive. How many fathers would accept the notion that support for their daughters’ sports participation would be increased by having them pose nude in Playboy? And should we buy the argument that what generates fan interest is how pretty athletes are versus how well they perform when a championship is on the line?