Representations of successful female athletes are contradictory: their athletic achievements are frequently praised while their prowess is consistently undermined through questioning their performance, level of competition, and the value of their sport, and by focusing on their roles as women outside of their careers.
Dr Katherine (Kate) Dashper, Reader in the School of Events, Tourism and Hospitality Management at Leeds Beckett, examined the representation of three well-known female athletes achieving high visibility in the British print press during the 2016 Olympic Games: Nicola Adams (boxing), Charlotte Dujardin (dressage) and Jessica Ennis-Hill (heptathlon).
Kate explained: “Female athleticism continues to be framed as less important, exciting and worthy than men’s – for example, by consistently using the prefix ‘women’s’. Reporting is often lacklustre, downplaying technical skill and foregrounding factors such as hard work, luck and the role of others in a woman’s successes. It is only during major events like the Olympic Games that women get much media attention at all.
“While there was some discussion of appearance, particularly smiley-ness, and occasional references to Ennis-Hill’s body in objectifying ways, blatant sexualisation appears to be much less frequent than found in earlier studies. However, female athletes are only acceptable if they conform to mainstream ideals: in this case, of being smiley, friendly and non-threatening.”
The study, published in the current edition of Sport in Society journal, also found attitudes towards women competing in more traditionally masculine sports are changing.
Kate said: “Previous studies have shown female athletes competing in feminine-appropriate sports, such as tennis and gymnastics, garner much wider media coverage than those in sports considered masculine-appropriate. This new study suggests such attitudes may be changing, particularly in relation to Olympic sport. Adams, a flyweight boxer, received the most positive media coverage of the three athletes, despite her participation in a violent sport that was not considered appropriate for women until very recently.”
Dr Dashper analysed the top ten British newspapers based on circulation figures - including online users – for the period 29 July to 28 August 2016. The three athletes all received considerable media coverage during the study.
Adams was dubbed ‘the babyface assassin’ by media in 2012. Her historic success was celebrated across the newspapers. Frequently her achievement was not gender-marked - her historic back-to-back victories make her more successful than any other British boxer – male or female – since 1924. She is described as ‘powerful’, ‘supremely accomplished’ and ‘an icon’, and as fighting with ‘intelligence, patience and style’.
Kate explained: “There is unambiguous reverence for her skill and abilities in many reports. But representations of her are still contradictory. There is widespread focus on her ‘megawatt smile’ (from which her nickname is derived), ‘cheery enthusiasm’ and frequent mentions of her mum and her dog. This detracts from her powerful performances and makes her ‘safe’ for media.”
In the early stages of the competition, Adams received a first-round bye which led some journalists to undermine her achievement by questioning the level of competition within women’s boxing.
Dujardin is the most successful British dressage rider of all time. In 2012, she won individual and team gold, marking the first time a British rider had ever won an Olympic medal in dressage since the sport first appeared on the Olympic programme in 1912. In 2016 she retained the individual title, secured team silver, and set a new Olympic record.
Kate said: “Dujardin’s remarkable achievements at the Rio Games are undermined by media mockery of the sport of dressage. The lack of knowledge of dressage by sports journalists was evident in the frequent factual errors in stories about Dujardin and her horse, Valegro, and in the mocking tone of some stories.”
During Dujardin’s gold medal-winning performance, her fiancé held up a sign in the crowd reading, ‘Can we get married now?’ Some journalists suggested her fiancé’s actions were mistimed, but most presented the proposal as romantic and her fiancé as ‘long-suffering’.
2012 Olympic heptathlon champion, Ennis-Hill, won silver at Rio. Journalists questioned her age and her ability to continue in her sport. The subject of her retirement was discussed in most stories as a result of her ‘failure’ to win gold.
Kate said: “Most stories about Ennis-Hill placed her as a mum over and above being an athlete. She was sometimes simply referred to as ‘mum-of-one’ or ‘super-mum’ and many articles speculated on how hard it must be for her to leave her son and husband behind in the UK – and on how pregnancy may have affected her body.”
Dr Dashper found that, although media coverage of the women was rarely overly sexual, it was framed by narrow ideals of what is acceptable for a woman in sport.
She added: “My study highlights the limited frames used to represent female athletes, and further indicates the lack of progress towards more diverse, equitable and empowering representations of female athletes in the British print press.”