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On athletes and attractiveness

I was mulling over what to write about this month. Should I preview the European Championships in football, or the cricket Ashes, or look at the current athletics scene?

wsff logoAnd then I went to the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation summer party, intended to be a celebration of women’s sporting achievements over the past year, with a particular nod to the London 2012 Olympics.

Barbara Slater, director of BBC Sport, was rightly proud of her department’s achievements in screening the Games.

But to claim that the event and the coverage was “gender-neutral” was going just a little bit too far.

Let’s leave aside that the men still have more events to compete in than women. Slater said that no Team GB gold-medal-winning woman got less coverage than her male counterpart.

Perhaps. But what kind of coverage did she get?

Maybe she got Gary Lineker enthusing about how beautiful her smile is (which is what happened to boxer Nicola Adams).

StoreyMaybe she had the majority of her coverage focusing on her personal life – mostly her looks and her fiance (which is what happened to cyclist Victoria Pendleton and heptathlete Jessica Ennis).

Maybe she found that her sporting achievements were sidelined in favour of men’s magazine “approval” (which is what happened to Hannah Cockroft, deemed Team GB’s “sexiest Paralympian” by FHM, who no doubt thought they were being ever so radical and right-on by objectifying Paralympic athletes as well as Olympians).

That’s not to say that the BBC didn’t do a great job – they did. But it would be foolhardy to think that they or any other media organisation are “gender-neutral”. In fact, they proved that on Wimbledon ladies’ finals day, with John Inverdale musing on the new champion thus: “Do you think Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little ‘you’re never going to be a looker?'”

This discussion of appearance and conventional attractiveness is something which just does not happen in men’s sport. As Sarah Ditum tweeted shortly after this happened:

So yes, by all means, well done. Pat yourself on the back for screening all of England’s games in the upcoming Euro 2013. Look back fondly on last year and smile happily about giving the little ladies plenty of air-time.

But perhaps you should start thinking about what sports and athletes you’re covering – and why you’re covering them – and how you’re covering them.

And when your presenters and reporters are offensively sexist about a top-class champion, don’t just force them to apologise – think about the attitude they’re embodying, and think about why they thought it was acceptable to express those thoughts.

And then perhaps you could think again about whether or not you, your coverage and your institution are really “gender-neutral”.

About Carrie

Journalist. Sports fan. Doting auntie. Musical theatre lover. Warcraft geek. World's foremost expert on all things Steven Howard. What would CM Punk do?

7 comments on “On athletes and attractiveness

  1. Sarah
    July 6, 2013

    Makes me so mad. Nobody ever asked whether Andy Murrays parents thought his sports prowess made up for his lack of conventional good looks. Why does it always have to be about how women look?

  2. diane
    July 6, 2013

    Great post, Carrie! Two things that boiled my blood this Wimbledon: a commentator, I think Simon Reed? was talking about Radwanska having heat pads on her thighs, then said “I was going to say something sexist then…” and stopped himself. OH, WELL DONE. And when whatsisname beat Federer, whichever bloke was commentating said, “I bet his girlfriend never thought she’d end up being the girlfriend of the man who put out Federer in the first week of Wimbledon…” Because that’s the highlight of her life, clearly.
    And don’t even start me on the women’s final being commentated on by two men and one woman except to say the worst case scenario is that female commentators aren’t been sought actively enough.

  3. Roy
    July 6, 2013

    It’s a stupid thing to say about Bartoli, and frankly I think she is attractive.

    I don’t agree that looks are not commented on regarding the men – they are always boring on about how aesthetically pleasing Federer is and how Murray has filled out as a man.

    • Carrie
      July 6, 2013

      Can you imagine John Inverdale saying the same thing about a male tennis player, then, in that case?

      Bartoli’s attractiveness is irrelevant, really. The fact is that people think it’s acceptable to discuss a champion athlete in those terms.

      • Roy
        July 6, 2013

        I’m saying I agree with you that he shouldn’t have mentioned it, it’s absurd that he did so, but women talk about male tennis players all the time. They don’t do what John Inverdale does on air because he is an idiot.
        With regard to people talking about their looks I’m afraid it is inevitable, and considering they all sell their image rights – often accentuating their looks (particularly the likes of Sharapova) – it would be hypocritical of them to complain.

    • diane
      July 6, 2013

      The difference, though, is that the obsession with women’s looks occurs in every profession, at every level, and in the context of a culture in which we’re repeatedly given the message that our sexuality is the most important thing about us.

      The editor of this site, Keris, wrote a great piece about the frequency which women experience harassment, and how threatening it feels, as just one example: http://dellasays.wordpress.com/2013/07/05/feminism-friday-street-harassment/ I don’t think I know one woman who hasn’t had multiple experiences of this.

      • Roy
        July 6, 2013

        I have to say I think you are just whining, women comment on fat and ugly men without batting an eyelid – I happen to be bald and women comment on it quite openly too.

        Many women are constantly boring on about how attractive or ‘dreamy’ David Beckham is, I think you are looking for ‘victim-hood’.

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This entry was posted on July 6, 2013 by in Bea Sporty.
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