Playing Unfair: The Portrayal of Female Athletes in the Media

By Carolyn VanBrocklin

At 2:20p.m. on Tuesday March 10, a panel discussion and movie screening were held in LaRose Digital Theater at Elon University to discuss the sports law Title IX. The audience was composed of several students in exercise classes and the women’s softball team, as well as other women and female athletes.

Dr. Eric Hall, Dr. Amy Stringer, Dr. Janie Brown and Dr. Mandy Gallagher discuss women athletes and their portrayal in the media.

Dr. Eric Hall, Dr. Amy Stringer, Dr. Janie Brown and Dr. Mandy Gallagher discuss women athletes and their portrayal in the media.

The event started with a screening of the movie “Playing Unfair: the Media Image of the Female Athlete.” This movie was released in 2002, and sometimes showed it datedness. However, it did have some important lessons to offer.

The movie discussed the widespread acceptance and coinciding backlash of the success and presence of women in sports. It has been 37 years since Title IX was passed. The landscape has changed and everyone has the opportunity to see strong, competent women.

“There is a cultural assumption that the birthright of being male is owning sports” Mary Jo Kane said in the movie.

Title IX changed some of those assumptions by giving women equal opportunities in sports as men. Because of this, today women are surprised when they come against barriers.

Despite the positive implications for women of Title IX, the media has backlashed against it. According to the film, women’s sports are still not prominently featured in the news and are significantly underrepresented. The media often feature lead stories about men’s sports and are dismissive of women’s sports.

In addition, the movie spoke about the likelihood that women are going to be portrayed by the media out of uniform in very feminine roles. The commentators in the film argued that this made it easier for men to accept female athletes.

According to Kane, men “keep women’s power at bay by sexualizing and trivializing them.” She gave the example of Anna Kournikova, who, when the film was made, had never won a singles tournament but had the most endorsements. Kane said this would never happen with men’s sports.

After the movie a panel discussion was held involving Dr. Janie Brown, Professor Emerita of Physical Education, Dr.  Eric Hall, Associate Professor of Exercise Science and Faculty Athletic Representative, Dr. Amy Stringer, Assistant Professor Health and Human Performance and moderator Dr. Mandy Gallagher, Assistant Professor of Communications.

Since the time the film was made, Brown thinks that there have been some advances in the portrayal of women’s sports. ESPN has additional channels and includes more coverage of collegiate sports. Stringer said that Anna Kournikova has been replaced by Natalie Gulbis, who is again always portrayed “in a sexy way.”

According to Stringer, there is still more distance to go with equalizing women’s and men’s sports.  “Those types of images are still out there and the media consumes it” she said.

“I think women have to do it,” Brown said. “We need to speak up for ourselves and the program.”

“It does have to come down to women being more vocal,” Gallagher said.

If you’re interested in learning more about the effect of Title IX on women’s sports you can visit The Women’s Sports Foundation website for more information.

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