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Language and sexism in sport

There is an undeniable difference between genders, their physiognomy is different, biologically men are more muscular than women as they start to develop muscles during puberty . However, the world of sport is responsible for enhancing further disparity between the sexes. These differences have separated the two genders for decades and is now used to entertain, demean or marginalize them. From these disparities, expectations and oppressions have grown and started to affect today’s youth uncontrollably. As a result of society’s coercion towards genders, the values of sports and its benefits such as improving mental and physical health have been diminished. Unfortunately, media and advertising encourage this movement by building up a negative image of sport through specific language and images.

I chose this topic because I have a keen interest in sports, and I’m aware of the benefits it has on society and its individuals. However, I’m also conscious of the problems and controversy present in sports and the media. One of the issues I wanted to focus on is sexism. Being a teenager, I am in contact with technology every day, and social media in particular, which is consequently the main source of propagation of information that this generation receives. I frequently see pictures or phrases that make me question personally and doubt my abilities and options in the sport department as a teenager girl.

B. Methodology

As the language used is often condescending, such as “ladies” to describe a female athletic event at the Olympics or the phrase “strong is beautiful”, even though the purpose isn’t necessarily intended that way, the message conveyed behind the words and images subconsciously affect us. Therefore, when I repetitively saw headlines of female athletes being marginalized or demeaned because of their words or actions, I felt personally targeted. I started looking online for more scandals, sexist remarks and advertisements which reflect a sexist attitude towards women. I then reflected on how that would impact young women on how they perceive themselves or the limitations they self-impose in response to what they see on the media. With that in mind, I was able to conclude my research by watching documentaries like “Straight/Curve: Redefining Body Image” , or TEDTalks videos such as “You Throw like a Girl! Telling Stories about Women in Sport” and reading books about the topic. This was done to understand how the content, images or language, of sport advertisements can be perceived as sexist or discriminatory, and how the representation of women in those adverts makes teenage girls feel.

C. Observations

The media provides considerable knowledge about sports, and the ways in which it chooses to characterize or emphasize certain aspects contributes to the mindset of individuals in society. These include interpreting concepts such as the athletic body, femininity and masculinity . Sports in general are very advertised and viewed on different platforms, mostly on social media which appears to be the main source of propagation and by all means, the reason why it affects so many young people. One way in which the media can target the most people of different demographic is through advertising.

1. Gender rules and stereotypes

Advertising often spreads traditional views of genders, whether it be clichés of what masculine and feminine is, or prejudices on their roles and place in society. These views are frequently distorted, unrealistic and marginalizing towards both genders, but particularly women, who find themselves dictated on everything they can or can’t do. As a consequence, we unconsciously follow society’s rules and get caught in a vicious cycle of mental brainwashing of how we must dress, act or sound. Each gender has their own stereotype, for example girls have to be classy, always well dressed, shopaholics and emotional, while boys are better at sport, aggressive, messy and dominant.

We can find these concepts regularly in sports advertisements, such as this ad for the 12th annual women’s golf classic in 2012 [see appendix image 29] which portrays the stereotype of women as addicted to shopping and obsessed about how they look. We can see a stiletto, which is used to represent a golf ball on its tee, moreover, the shoe refers to how women have to be classy and feminine, however golf is not played in heels, therefore this reinforces the stereotype. The key word here is “priceless”, which suggests the idea of women being compulsory buyers and shopaholics, the familiarity of this word and its association to women would attract the female eye. Likewise, the fact that MasterCard is sponsoring the event also refers to this addiction to shopping that is assumed every woman to have. As we have seen, the attractive language as well as the portrayal of the stiletto are irrelevant to the sport and the ad, they are only used to enhance the stereotype attributed to women.

As previously mentioned, the brand Always released an ad [see appendix image 27] that captured how people of different ages and from both sexes interpret the phrase “like a girl”. In the video they asked the participants of 14 and older to demonstrate what it was for them to: “run like a girl”, “throw like a girl” and “fight like a girl”. Then, they asked younger children from ages 6 to 10 the same thing, but the responses were completely different. We can observe that the teenagers showed the stereotypical way of these actions to do “like a girl”, while the younger ones just did them as they would normally do, as themselves. This is because the younger generation is much less affected by society, whereas the teenagers are in direct contact with society’s standards whether it’s through social media, television or movies. Thus, the cause of the teenagers’ actions was social media and society displaying a certain image of women as weak and incompetent in the sports domain, this degrading perception results in low self-confidence and lack of participation from young girls as we will later see in this essay.

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Along with stereotypes, one of the most famous and fast-growing sport brands in the world, NIKE, who, besides its sportswear, is known for addressing issues such as race and gender equality. Unfortunately, in this ad [see appendix 28] from the 2009 NIKE campaign, the views are different. The ad features a fairly good looking and fit man, representing society’s standards, with the caption “One more thing for men to rule – Join the men Vs women challenge”. There are different components in this ad, the first part of the slogan says “one more thing” which goes back to gender stereotypes where men are dominant and control everything, whether it’s in the workplace or at home, they always come before women. The second part states “for men to rule”, which accentuates this idea of men having complete power and being in charge of everything. Furthermore, the words “VS” and ‘challenge” point out that for men everything is a competition, being the best, having this feeling of superiority and pride in winning. Although this ad’s focus is on men”,

On the contrary we have the example of cheerleading, which was originally an all-man activity when it first began in the 1870s, before women were allowed, in 1923 . In the late 1920s, many school manuals and newspapers still referred to cheerleading as masculine which changed at the start of world war II when young boys were being called to war and women took over the sport. Over the years it gradually became more and more sexualized, as we can see in this poster [see appendix image 26] which explains cheer rules in terms of appearance. The recurring words are “don’t” and “do” which connects to the theme of society imposing strict rules on women, how they dress, do their make-up, act or speak. We can notice in this poster the gender biased vocabulary used such as “glow”, “flattering”, “girl lipstick”, “athletic physique”. These words not only impose a perfect, ideal image of women with “false eyelashes” or “natural tan”, but they go against the philosophy of sport as being fun and made for everyone. We can then conclude that, in the context of a sports game, it’s a figurative activity, where young teen girls wear as little clothing as possible and act “feminine” while cheering their team on. They’re not on the field playing but on the side for the audience to enjoy, but fortunately it is now seen as a sport, even though the same rules apply.

Similarly, this also frequently occurs in tennis, for example the Women’s Tennis Association launched a campaign entitled “Strong is Beautiful” in 2011, featuring professional tennis players such as Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova. The purpose of this campaign was to give women the confidence to feel pretty in every situation, that they can be successful and beautiful. The message conveyed is contradictory to what Germaine Greer said in The Female Eunuch which is: “Every woman knows that, regardless of her other achievements, she is a failure if she is not beautiful.” . Although the idea behind this ad is empowering, it displays a different view when associated with the image. As we can see the woman in this ad is the professional tennis player Maria Sharapova [see appendix image 30]. She is seen playing tennis with the phrase in capital letters “STRONG IS BEAUTIFUL” written across. Specifically, she is wearing a dress and makeup, which is unusual for playing tennis, let alone any sport. In addition, the ads are done in a studio, with special lighting and effects to embellish the photos, they are not taken at a tennis game, where the statement sentence would have much greater impact as it would show the raw and natural side of athletes. The caption is in the form of a statement, with the verb “IS”, implying it’s an affirmation, that being strong can only mean you are beautiful, which enhances the immateriality between the context of the ad, and the tennis player.

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Additionally, another ad for the WTA “STRONG IS BEAUTIFUL” campaign [see appendix image 31] features a man and a woman. The man has his hand on his chest with the word “STRONG” written on his forearm, as if implying that he is strong. On his left hand is written the word “IS” pointing at the woman. She is holding up a board with the word “BEAUTIFUL” on it, implying that she is beautiful. One disparity on the image is that the man has the word written on his arm meaning that he is strong, while the woman is holding up a sign with the word on it, there is no direct connection between the word beautiful and the woman, both her and the sign are here for figuration. He is presenting her as one would present a car. The man in the picture is a professional golfer, whilst this is an ad for women’s tennis association featuring professional tennis players. Therefore, there is very little relevance between the man and the ad, nevertheless he is the one presenting and saying the quote, he has the spotlight in this ad. Additionally, the women is wearing all black clothes and she is in the dark shaded part of the ad on the right-hand side, enhancing the exclusion of women from having an important and primary role in society.

2. Sexualization

Furthermore, these stereotypes make the sight of a woman wearing non-sexualized sports clothes on the cover of a magazine unusual for some people, but a half-naked woman won’t come as a shock and would be considered “normal”. As we can see in this ad for a Dutch cycling tour , [see appendix image 25], there is a naked woman lying down on the field, taking up most of the poster with cyclists drawn riding on her body. This is an example of sexualizing women, as the usage of her naked body is irrelevant to cycling and is simply there for sexual purposes.

Likewise, in this ad for the crisp brand Hunky Dorys [see appendix image 32], who’s the sponsor for the Irish Rugby Football Union, shows women playing rugby in bikini with the phrase “TACKLE THESE”, demonstrating once again the sexualization of women. The word “THESE” establishes an objectification of women, they are given no meaning or relevance, and along with the imperative verb “TACKLE” which is meant to address men, shows the inability for women to act freely which further accentuates the status of women as mannequins. This idea of women being watched by men is similar to film theorist Laura Mulvey’s idea of The Male Gaze, stating that women in music videos, films or television programmed are objectified and appear vulnerable or sexualized on screen for the male dominant audience to feel empowered. Even though this is an ad for chips as sponsors of a rugby team, there is very little relevant elements coinciding, besides the rugby ball. The ad’s main focus is on the women, as the bag of chips is small in size and in the bottom right corner, they are not put forward as the advertised product. The women are seen “playing” rugby with most of their bodies uncovered, even though it’s meant for the Irish Rugby Football Union, which is a men’s team. Furthermore, as a sponsor, it gives a bad image as its job is to promote a brand or an event in order to attract consumers, therefore resulting in a wide audience. If the ideas communicated are as such, more people will be impacted by the discriminatory image of women conveyed.

3. Impact on girls

Consequently, this gives rise to the generation of sexist remarks, from men especially and the fact that men nowadays still use this reference shows how we expect women to be okay with such attitudes, because it has always been like that in the past and we don’t contribute enough to change it. Similarly, the negative effect these words have on young girls can also be depicted in advertisements, such as this 1995 NIKE campaign [see appendix image 24] which features young girls taking part in regular activities while lecturing the powerful message of “If you let me play sport.” The video showed them in a playground, we can hear them say “I will be 60 percent less likely to get breast cancer … will suffer less depression … will be more likely to leave a man who beats me … less likely to get pregnant … I will learn what it means to be strong. If you let me play … play sports. If you let me play sports.” The repetition of the phrase “If you let me play sports” puts an emphasis on the restrictions brought up on young girls and their young age represents their innocence, how they’re not responsible of their actions and easily influenced by their surroundings. The phrase “let me” underlines the idea of women not being in control and being subject to others, the girls are asking for permission to be free and make their own decisions. The use of the future tense “I will” emphasizes the foreshadowing of what comes in a woman’s life, but is paradoxical to the use of “if” which implies a hypothesis. Here NIKE is picturing the oppression by bringing the attention to the fact that society has not removed the concept of “girl activities” and “boy sports” which are inflicted from a young age. The message conveyed is powerful as it implies that whatever there is to come in the near or far future of these young girls’ lives can be changed if they are allowed to play sports. To support this, as previously mentioned the brand ALWAYS has started the campaign “epic battle Like a girl” and collected data on girls’ feelings around the subject of society’s oppression. They have observed that at puberty, “50% of girls feel paralyzed by the fear of failure, with 80% of girls feeling that the fear of failure comes from society’s pressure, based on a 2017 study among US girls aged 16-24”. This is more specifically a result of gender stereotypes which girls try to live up to, they are bound to believe that they must be ladylike and fashionable, that sports is reserved for boys. Consequently, they will be less prone to take part in sport in the risk of not fitting in.

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Furthermore, the “ideal” image of women generated by social media circulates amongst teenagers as a portrayal of what they should look like in order to fit in, thus illustrating and supporting ALWAYS’s statistics results. Similarly, we could argue that on the subject of body image, we as a society are obsessed with size, “People come and always want to know what size something is”,” said Emma McClendon, who organized the exhibition The Body: Fashion and Physique about the history of the idealized body type in fashion, at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Size is associated with how much something will satisfy our needs, for clothes, furniture, and so on, this obsession fuels society’s pressure to look a certain way, have this body type, especially with young women. When seeing these advertisements and pictures of models with the caption “beautiful” as we’ve seen with the WTA “STRONG IS BEAUTIFUL” campaign, young girls can’t help but compare themselves to it, question their worth. This creates insecurities amongst children, they lose their confidence, feel like they’re not good enough and need to change the way they look because every picture of models in magazines told her so.

D. Conclusion

Even though nowadays there is a rise of feminism in the world, with trending hashtags, female social media influencers, feminist groups such as Time’s Up and simply bringing up issues as we saw with the movement Me Too, sexism is still part of our everyday life. Whether it’s at the workplace, in a sports team or at school, men and women are affected every day by the place they are given in society. The language used in advertisements is often discriminatory against women, targeting their power and place in society as a minority, and the images portray how they could only be useful, which is as sexual objects for male desire. Moreover, as observed, sports advertisements use prejudiced language and images of women which are irrelevant to the ad and exclusively used in the context of stereotypes. Likewise, society influences women to concentrate their attention solely on their appearance, as Germaine Greer said, undermining that physical features and meeting the standards of beauty is the only way for women to be recognized and successful. With that in mind, women make up the vast majority of victims of sexism, as John Berger said “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” . Coinciding with the Male Gaze seen by Laura Mulvey, implying that women see themselves through the eyes of others, they’re a background and entertainment to men’s lives. It’s this mindset that still drives certain people to say such comments and contribute to the chain of discrimination in our society. Consequently, because of the popularity and spreading of this concept, young girls are driven to act accordingly, possibly leading them towards methods of self-harm and malnutrition. Therefore, we need to teach young people to make decisions because they want to, not because they want to fit in as well as to see beyond the body image and limitations defined by society.

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