Saturday, November 10, 2012

How do female athletes want to be portrayed?

More than 350 scholars gathered from all over the world for the annual meeting of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS) in New Orleans, which concluded on Saturday. The conference offered valuable research for those concerned about the relationship between sports media and society. Steve Bien-Aime, my colleague from the The John Curley Center for Sports Journalism, extensively documented some of these discussions on this blog (see earlier posts here). One main area of interest at NASSS is gender in mediated sport. While much research has been done on representationof female athletes, scholars have recognized the need to examine perceptions of female athletes about the ways in which they are portrayed in the media. Researchers from the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport took upon the task to explore how female athletes would prefer to be shown in the media. In the study titled "Exploring Elite Female Athletes' Interpretations of Sport Media Photographs: A Window into the Construction of Social Identity and 'Selling Sex' in Women's Sports,” Dr. Mary Jo Kane, Dr. Nicole LaVoi and Dr. Janet Fink (University of Massachusetts-Amherst) identified four ways in which female athletes typically appear in the media and asked female athletes to pick which representation they would prefer. The four representations were: (1) A woman in an action shot, participating in her sport (competency frame), (2) A woman with some symbol of her sport (such as holding a ball in her hand), but outside of playing field (mixed message frame) (3) A woman completely outside of her playing field with no indication of athletic participation (“sexy/classy lady” frame), (4) A soft pornographic image of a nearly or completely naked woman The researchers found through focus groups with Division I female athletes that most of them would prefer to be portrayed as the woman in the (1) frame – playing their sport. Some of them wanted to pick two representations as they identified with both the (1) frame and the (2) frame. However, when the female athletes were asked which photo would bring most attention to their sport, one-third of them said that it would be the soft pornographic image. They picked this based upon the belief that hypersexualized images were more marketable to a male audience. Consistently with the Tucker Center’s previous research, Dr. Kane and her colleagues contested the “sex sells women’s sports” assumption, arguing that these hypersexualized, soft pornographic images are counter-productive as they do not foster respect for female athletes and women’s sports. According to the study presented at NASSS, female athletes prefer to see themselves portrayed in an athletically competent pose. Ultimately, Dr. Kane and her colleagues argued, only these types of portrayals will lead to change in cultural perceptions about women’s sports. For a summary of the “sex sells sex, not women’s sports” argument, see our earlier blog post. To see twitter updates from the conference, go to #NASSS12 @CurleyCenter.