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Women and the Olympic Gaze

2012 July 31
by Julie Clawson

As posted at the Sojourner’s God’s Politics blog -

I have a love/hate relationship with the Olympics. I love the pageantry and global drama of it all. And even as one who hardly ever watches sports (I make exceptions for Roller Derby and Quidditch), I nevertheless find myself glued to the screen whenever the Olympics roll around. At the same time I am uneasy with the neo-colonial aspects of the Games and the fact that one’s ability to win a medal increasingly depends upon how much money one’s country has (making the Games a vivid illustration of global economic injustice). Yet even as I have watched (and enjoyed) the London Games with conflicted emotions, I find myself more and more uncomfortable with the ways the presentation of the Olympics serves to reinforce harmful assumptions about women in our culture.

It started before the Games. As the world geared up for the Olympics, it was hard to avoid hearing some guy or another (from TV hosts to bloggers) saying that what they were most looking forward to watching was women’s beach volleyball. It was this strange inside joke insinuating that the real purpose of the Games was to give them an opportunity to see women diving around in bikinis. I even heard complaints about the new Olympic rule allowing women to compete fully covered (a concession offered to allow Muslim women to compete in the Games). It was uncomfortable to hear how nonchalantly women continue to be reduced to mere sexual objects, but I brushed it aside as typical of our culture.

Then the health and fashion magazines put out their summer issues. On their pages I saw a sprinkling of female Olympians looking more like made-over models at a cover shoot than hard-working dedicated athletes. And I noticed another trend as well. I wasn’t seeing any shot-put champions or rowers on those pages. Instead they were gymnasts, swimmers, soccer players, and (of course) beach volleyball players. Instead of reading stories of amazing athletes committed to their sports, I was left with the impression of how one could look pretty (alright, sexy) while playing an acceptably feminine sport. I know that’s just what these sorts of magazines do, but I found myself asking, why can’t these women just be admired for being good athletes?

At first I thought my discomfort was peculiar to me, but then I read more about the ways these stereotypes typify the televised presentation of the Olympics. It’s not just my impression that women athletes are objectified for their looks, two recently published studies prove it to be the case. One study found that in the Vancouver Olympics, men received some 23 hours of prime-time footage while women received under 13 – most of that from figure skating. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, while women made up 48 percent of the U.S. team and earned 48 percent of the nation’s medals, male athletes received more television coverage, especially in individual events. Significantly, “nearly three-quarters of the women’s coverage was devoted to gymnastics, swimming, diving and beach volleyball” – all sports in which women wear bathing suits (or the equivalent). Another 13 percent of the coverage was devoted to track and field where women are also scantily clad. Only 2 percent of the coverage depicted women competing in hard-body contact or power events (judo, weight-lifting) that are not typically deemed “socially acceptable” sports for women.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not belittling the efforts or achievements of women gymnasts, divers, or even beach volleyball players. They are amazing at what they do and I wish I had the dedication they have to train at their sport. But I am uneasy in how they are presented to the viewing public. I wonder whether it is just the assumption of the network that people are not interested in watching female athletes unless those athletes are sexually appealing in some way, or if that is in fact the reality of the U.S. audience?

There was much derision from western countries when, after the IOC forced a few traditionally Muslim countries to allow female athlete to compete (or else not be permitted to compete at all), an Arabic hashtag which translated to “prostitutes of the Olympics” trended on Twitter in reference to the female athletes from Saudi Arabia. The opinion that a woman’s virtue is compromised if she participates in competitive sports led to this backlash against these women and had many in the U.S. declaring how sexist those countries are. Yet, the facts show that it is in the U.S. where women are not fully accepted as athletes unless they can be “sold” as sex objects in order to boost ratings.

As I watch these Games with my seven year old daughter, I find myself wising for a better world. She keeps asking me when she can see the women weight-lifters, archers, and shot-putters and I have to explain to her that it is unlikely that those events will make it on TV. I want her to feel confident in her body and take joy in its strength, but cringe when even the Olympics, the supposed pinnacle of pure sport, instead send her the message that her body’s primary purpose is to be admired for its alluring qualities. She deserves more than that. These athletes deserve more than that.

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13 Responses leave one →
  1. Zach permalink
    July 31, 2012

    Great points. Though we have actually seen lots of coverage of women’s judo, shooting, weightlifting, water polo, etc. NBC has numerous station covering sports live and in full (on Bravo, MSNBC, NBC Sports Channel, etc.). The coverage is so much better than the manufactured, reality TV contrived, nightly NBC network coverage…and much less jingoistic.

    • July 31, 2012

      I have also enjoyed watching the live feeds online, where you can find pretty much anything that’s happening. I’ve found the coverage to be much more global and the commentators seem to be higher quality. Plus, no spoilers :)

  2. Sharon permalink
    July 31, 2012

    I totally agree with you about the leering at sparsely dressed female athletes. But, hey, that’s their choice – I wouldn’t dress like that, but if women do, I fear most men will ogle. A little note for your daughter – show her this video of Holly Mangold, the girl weight lifter – her brother is an NFL player, I believe, and she’s amazing and funny and, I think, a very good model for girls! http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/30/female-weightlifter-holley-mangold_n_887285.html

    Kind of along those same lines, check out Timbrel magazine (if you haven’t) at http://www.mennonitewomenusa.org/timbrel. A whole issue or two about how AWFUL it was to have to dress like a Mennonite as a child, and tales of woe and anguish because they were “different.” And then pictures of present day “Mennonite” women with cleavage exposed and spaghetti straps and so on. The way even my younger relatives dress embarrasses me . . . I just don’t get it. Maybe I got lucky – my Mom was a very talented seamstress (and a somewhat sassy, independent, years-ahead-of-her-time woman) who made all our cute little dresses. Her only “rule” was “Be sure you look in the mirror before you go out the door.” Served me well my entire life . . . and apparently saved me from long-term, serious psychological “dress” suffering!!! Enjoy your blog.

    • Tyler D. permalink
      August 3, 2012

      Sharon – Why is Holly Mangold a good role model over other women athletes? Is it because she does not fit the societal vision of ‘attractiveness’? Isn’t that just inverting the problem? I am not accusing you of this either, just asking the question. Maybe Mangold uses performance enhancing drugs or lies, or whatever else you want to posit (BTW I am not accusing her of using PED in any way). Why not Kerri Walsh, Missy Franklin, Shawn Johnson, or Hope Solo?

  3. August 3, 2012

    You might want to check out coverage of the Olympic Games on NPR, they are covering everything no matter how good looking the athletes are…

  4. August 3, 2012

    I don’t have a tv so I haven’t been able to watch the Olympics- but I’ve heard a lot of criticism on the internet, about how women athletes are being portrayed. Your post does a good job of summarizing the problems.

  5. Tyler D. permalink
    August 3, 2012

    I appreciate what you have written but will have to disagree. I think much of your summary here is way too simplistic–of course that is one of the dangers of a ‘summary’. Let me outline some points:

    1. “At the same time I am uneasy with the neo-colonial aspects of the Games and the fact that one’s ability to win a medal increasingly depends upon how much money one’s country has (making the Games a vivid illustration of global economic injustice).”

    I believe I understand what your point is here (of course with any of my comment please correct me where I am mistaken or unclear), however I must ask what countries/athletes you are referring to. China’s Olympic success comes, I would imagine, mainly from the fact that a. the country puts so much weight on Olympic competition and China has a deep history of pushing their athletes harder than anyone else, and b. they have a population of 1.4 billion. Then there are the track events where many of the winners come from relatively poor, sometimes poverty stricken, Africa countries. I think “neo-colonial” is too strong of a word. You are right of course that the more money a country has the more likely they are to produce Olympic caliber athletes; since they are more able to provide greater resources to the athletes, and also have more athletes whose families have the ability to pay for training. Yet saying the games are a “vivid illustration of global economic injustice,” is, in my opinion, quite hyperbolic.

    But on to the main thrust of the article:

    2. “It was hard to avoid hearing some guy or another (from TV hosts to bloggers) saying that what they were most looking forward to watching was women’s beach volleyball. It was this strange inside joke insinuating that the real purpose of the Games was to give them an opportunity to see women diving around in bikinis.”

    What proof do you have of this? The mere fact that you reduce men’s opinions and desires to watch women’s beach volleyball to this, a sexual desire to see women “diving around in bikinis”, not only adds to the objectification which you are trying to decrease, but it also disrespects the sport. Of course I imagine there are plenty of men who fall into the category you are proposing, I have no doubts about that, yet your resulting understanding is that “women [are continuing] to be reduced to mere sexual objects. The word “mere” implies ‘only’, which is certainly too strong an adjective. Even though one person’s opinion is not indicative of a trend, I, as a male, watch Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Misty May-Treanor compete, not because they are wearing bikinis but because they are the best beach volleyball pair in history.

    3. “[Paragraph 3]“.

    You say you don’t see any shot-put champions or rowers on the pages or covers of magazines but where are the male shot-put champions or rowers? They are also left off (for the most part). And in this case the common denominator is the sport, not the gender of the athlete. Could it not just be that the sport itself is unpopular?

    “Instead of reading stories of amazing athletes committed to their sports, I was left with the impression of how one could look pretty (alright, sexy) while playing an acceptably feminine sport.”

    In the middle of this sentence you have switched your objective. Were the stories you read about them being great athletes? Your impression is important but may not be completely backed up by the article itself. Also the fact that you seem to recognize some sports as “acceptably feminine” seems to undermine your point. I do understand that you could be calling them such as to illustrate your point… but is soccer a feminine sport? Who makes these calls? If you say it is because they are primetime sports watched by millions then you are just using circular logic.

    4. ” In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, while women made up 48 percent of the U.S. team and earned 48 percent of the nation’s medals, male athletes received more television coverage, especially in individual events.”

    Since you do not provide the exact television hour discrepancy I can only make a provisional statement here: but, the story of the Beijing games was Michael Phelps, so they of course were going to televise all his races, meaning there would most likely be a discrepancy of some sort. So the Beijing games may not be a fair indicator of your point.

    5. “Significantly, “nearly three-quarters of the women’s coverage was devoted to gymnastics, swimming, diving and beach volleyball” – all sports in which women wear bathing suits (or the equivalent). Another 13 percent of the coverage was devoted to track and field where women are also scantily clad.”

    You are being way too simplistic here. There are sport-specific reasons for wearing the suits that they do. Gymnastic, swimming, and diving all wear one-piece suits. In terms of swimming attire it does not get much more ‘modest’ than that. What would want these women to wear, sweatpants and jackets? If your contention is that those are popular sports because of their attire then I would also say that is being way too simplistic. Much of gymnastics appeal is because of the rich history of American gymnastics. Bela Karolyi and Nadia were on the forefront of gymnastics and Bela moved into the US. Also Mary Lou Retton, the Magnificent 7, Carly Patterson, Nastia and Shawn, not to mention Gabby Douglas and Jordyn Wieber. Also the many gymnasts in the past who have paved the way for the sport. Also the sport is, I would imagine, watched by many because it is so incredible, the things these girls/women do are amazing. By insinuating that the reason these sports are popular is because of their attire and sex appeal you are undermining you point and undermining the athletes themselves. Also if your contention is that gymnastics is popular because of the skimpy attire these 16-17 year old girls are wearing then that brings up a whole ‘nother mess of problems.

    Swimming and track (running events) are popular in my opinion not because of the skimpy outfits but because they are easy for the general public to follow. They don’t need to know anything about the sport, about the way it is scored, or need to wait as other competitors compete. No, these are sports where whoever crosses the line first, who ever touches the wall first, wins, and there is something exciting about that, no matter the attire.

    “Only 2 percent of the coverage depicted women competing in hard-body contact or power events (judo, weight-lifting) that are not typically deemed “socially acceptable” sports for women.”

    These are not male primetime sports either. There are many reasons, besides attire, that these sports are not as popular. With the rise of UFC, MMA, boxing, etcetera, sports like Judo, Taekwondo, are not as popular, in my opinion, because the sport is stopped at first fall, or first touch, and I for one find this relatively boring. At its core it shows not who is the “best” at taekwondo, or Judo, but rather who can ‘touch’ the other person first, now don’t get me wrong this takes a great amount of skill and I would not want for a second to undermine these athletes accomplishment, but it could account for some of its unpopularity. As far as weightlifting goes, I for one just think its boring, strikes not as a sport but as a skill, a Guinness book of world records type thing.

    “I wonder whether it is just the assumption of the network that people are not interested in watching female athletes unless those athletes are sexually appealing in some way, or if that is in fact the reality of the U.S. audience?”

    Again too simplistic, you are setting up a false dichotomy. You also are making the assumption that people are finding these athletes, when in competition, sexually appealing. You are speaking of magazine covers, photoshoots, and interviews. Which are different stories. Maybe men should wear shirts in the pool?

    6. “There was much derision from western countries when, after the IOC forced a few traditionally Muslim countries to allow female athlete to compete (or else not be permitted to compete at all), an Arabic hashtag which translated to “prostitutes of the Olympics” trended on Twitter in reference to the female athletes from Saudi Arabia.”

    Everyone who competes should be competing in similar, if not basically the same, attire, in my opinion. Of course this point opens up a not entirely different discussion of race, religion, and exceptions during competition. This is, in my opinion, not primarily a sexual issue but a cultural one.

    7. “Yet, the facts show that it is in the U.S. where women are not fully accepted as athletes unless they can be “sold” as sex objects in order to boost ratings.”

    This is such a bold conclusion that you have shown weak evidence for. These “facts” you are alluding to are not conclusive at all, and the sociological aspects you have yet to discuss. You pointed to two studies and that is not enough evidence to lead to your conclusions (who put out the studies, what was the sample size, how was it executed?). Where have you shown that these women athletes are “not fully accepted as athletes unless they can be ‘sold’ as sex objects?”

    8. “She keeps asking me when she can see the women weight-lifters, archers, and shot-putters and I have to explain to her that it is unlikely that those events will make it on TV.”

    I watched the women archers and they were phenomenal, but, archery is just not a primetime sport. Why? Maybe for the same reason that darts is not a primetime sport. People just don’t generally care about archery. Not to mention the USA is not even competitive in women’s archery. Sure NBC could put it on but the ratings would drop. Of it seems like much of your post is proposing ‘why’ the ratings would drop. The US athletes are competitive in gymnastics, women’s soccer, swimming, and certain track events, that could account for their primetime status. Of course the US athletes win medals in other events but in my opinion NBC does a good job televising what the US athletes are favorites in, also they do show the other events just not in primetime.

    9. “But cringe when even the Olympics, the supposed pinnacle of pure sport, instead send her the message that her body’s primary purpose is to be admired for its alluring qualities. She deserves more than that. These athletes deserve more than that.”

    And they deserve for you to confront these issues with more facts, more subtly, and more understanding of the complexities that the issues you raise contain. Even if the Olympics is somewhat sexualized, which it probably is, it does not send the message that the athletes bodies “primary purpose” is to be admired for its sexualized and alluring qualities. You are being way too hyperbolic.

    10. In the end I understand your point and you ask some good questions. But your conclusions are way too harsh and show a lack of attention to the subtly of these issues. And as a closing thought: why should these women not be celebrated for their bodies? It is not a direct correlation but a strong correlation that fitness, health, and body go together positively. These women work hard for the bodies and they have put countless hours in the gym and in practice and one of the payoffs is the physical appeal of their bodies. And men, in general, are attracted to these types of bodies. It’s just a fact that cannot be avoided. Of course you could insist that the athletes wear something different but it just, in a lot of cases, inhibits the actual competition, and shows that we are more worried about the sexual ramifications than the actual Olympic competition. I’m fine with seeing an Olympic track athlete in a “skimpy” outfit on the cover of “Fitness” magazine. If you covered her up in a snow jacket and pants then I feel you’ve made a mistake.

  6. August 3, 2012

    I ran across this post today and thought about this article. More funny than philosophical, but still thought-provoking.

    http://www.metro.us/newyork/sports/article/1148979–what-if-every-olympic-sport-was-photographed-like-beach-volleyball

  7. Kathy permalink
    August 7, 2012

    Been interesting to see a number of the US female runners (eg Jeter) wearing long pants and long sleeves. Is it to keep warm or to get away from the ‘skimpy’ look? Personally I find it good to see!

  8. SHARON W. permalink
    August 8, 2012

    I AM SADDENED BY THE VOLLEY BALL PLAYERS SKIMPY OUTFITS.. I THINK THESE YOUNG WOMEN WANT TO BE LOOKED ON AS SEX OBJECTS.. I WANT THIS TO STOP SO I AM COMPLAINING TO YOU AND ALL THAT WILL LISTEN.. WE NEED TO STOP THIS FORM OF DRESS TO SET GOOD EXAMPLES TO OUT CHILDREN…THE MEN ARE MORE COVERED THAN THE WOMEN…JUST DONT ALLOW IT THATS FINAL..GET BACK TO WHLESOME GAMES…..LET THE SPORTS BE THE FOCUS NOT THEIR BUTTS..THE WORLD IS WATCHING….THANK YOU

  9. Christina permalink
    September 9, 2012

    Please. There were gaggles of women watching the men’s swimming and gymnastics so that they could, yes, ogle at men’s bodies in apparel that leaves little to the imagination.
    Some people are just prurient like that.
    If all you think of is injustice for women, then that is what you will see.
    Now trying to scrub image of Ryan Lochte in a speedo from my brain.

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