Sexualization of professional women athletes
Sports are an enormous part of pop culture in America and the most popular sport in the country is football — dominated by men, as players and viewers. So, why do TV networks put attractive women on the sidelines? Are the women there to truly report? Or to satisfy the male gaze? And how do attractive female athletes stack up in TV viewers’ eyes? Are they perceived as better athletes — or less talented athletes — when they are particularly pretty? These two issues are presented in this paper as research into the feminine side of society’s sporting experiences, a side of sports that perhaps has not been investigated fully.
Millions of men sit on couches at home watching an early season National Football League (NFL) game on a warm September afternoon in New England. They are glued to the set, watching the Patriots march down the field. Suddenly a player is injured, there is a time out, and the broadcast announcers switch to the sidelines where reporter Erin Andrews is standing with a microphone. Andrews is wearing easy-on-the-eyes form-fitting clothes that give emphasis to her stunningly gorgeous figure. Her long flowing blond hair is immaculate and her striking face is right off the cover of Vogue Magazine. Using her most melodious voice she explains the football injury in a 45-second sound bite and smiles as she sends it back up to the all-male booth. So why do networks hire lovely women to give sideline reports? In a New York Times column (Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner) the bloggers suggest several possible reasons including: networks don’t want to appear sexist by having all men; female reporters are there to appeal to a mainly male audience; or women are better at explaining players’ emotions and personalities.
The bloggers solicited responses from readers, and responses reflected diverse attitudes about why female sideline reporters are there. “Mark” said they are simply “eye candy.” “Adam” believed they are there to add “some semblance of balance to the gender equation.” “Linda” suggested it is “a blonde’s way to payback for male ob/gynecologists?” “Mike” asked, “Is there anything sexier than a woman talking about sports?” And “Brian C” believes that women sideline reporters “â€¦Have an interesting appeal that seems to resonate with serious football viewers, that is, if one reads vertically.” Meanwhile the networks have critics cornered; if a reviewer says attractive women are on the sidelines to stimulate libidos in male viewers, those critics are sexist. Although it is obvious in a brutally violent game, an attractive, well-spoken female brightens up the broadcast aesthetically, it is also sexist to assume beautiful women don’t understand football. As Andrew writes, “I love it when my wife talks about zone defense.”
Meanwhile a research article (“College students’ attitudes toward the sexualization of professional women”) reported two experiments that examined “how tawdry media sexualizations ofâ€¦ women athletes influence the perceived gender-role orientation of athletes” (Harrison, et al., 2010). The findings revealed that when female basketball players were presented to 85 students (64 women, 24 men) in “tawdry sexualization” scenes, the perception was that they were “feminine” (read that heterosexual). However, female athletes that are beautiful and sexy “violate traditional expectations that athletes have masculine characteristics, such as strength and determination” and hence the research showed the non-sexualized women were perceived as being better athletes, and participants would be more apt to pay to see the non-sexualized women play than the attractive sexualized players (Harrison, p. 11).
Conclusion: The media will do whatever it takes to increase ratings. That is not rocket science. And when it comes to the pornification of pop culture — for example, ESPN featuring quasi-risque images of Erin Andrews on their website — and the male gaze (sideline reporters), the television industry’s profits rise. In a capitalistic democratic system, making money is the nirvana. If women are exploited, well, if that helps TV’s bottom line, it is going to be the strategy, notwithstanding the protests of feminists and the lack of good taste.
Harrison, Lisa a, and Secarea, Ashley M. (2010). College Students’ attitudes toward the sexualization of professional women athletes. Journal of Sport Behavior, 33(4), 403-427.
Levitt, Steven D., and Dubner, Stephen J. (2010). Why Are Most of Football’s Sideline
Reporters Women? Freakonomics. The New York Times. Retrieved Dec. 17, 2010, from http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com.
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