The Role Communication Plays in the Marginalization of Female Gender in Sports

michael-messner-quote-there-is-a-continuing-marginalization-or    Participation in sport in the United States by women — as athletes/players, fans, and as media professionals — has been problematic throughout history in a variety of ways (History of Women in sport; Moss; Pope; Jones), which demonstrate a history of female marginalization in sport. The definition of sport and sports, which are used interchangeably throughout this literature review, include descriptions of such as a contest or game …according to a specific set of rules where people compete against each other, or “a physical activity such as hunting, fishing, running, swimming, etc. that is done for enjoyment” (Merriam-Webster). Potentially discriminatory behavior against women in sport, however implemented, has a tendency to reduce opportunities for women.

Broadly considering the representation of women in sport reveals potential opportunities to mitigate and potentially eliminate this sexualization, marginalization and objectification. This broad consideration may create and increase opportunities for the significant empowerment of women. Taking a closer look at the instances and causes of sexualization, marginalization and objectification of women in sport may result in not only enhanced opportunities for them, but also for society at large.

Sport Culture and Masculinity

            The culture that surrounds sport potentially could be seen as masculine. As referenced by Moss, “When athleticism is not an option for boys, they draw on the other masculine traits associated with the Jock, such as emphasized heterosexuality or dominance to ‘make up for’ what they lack in claims on masculinity through sports (2011, pg. 166).” As a society, a lot of pressure is placed on male children to participate in sport throughout their lives (Billings, 2016). It is also important to note that the media reinforce the masculine values the permeate sport (Pope, 2010).

Research into the masculinity of sport is extensive (Moss, 2011; Pope, 2010; Crawford &Gosling, 2004). A possible reason behind this is sport providing a naturalized convergence of sex, gender, sexuality, and race. These factors combined with the addition of competition that sport provides the emergence of a hero culture (Moss, 2011).  It has been said that “males may have insecurities that (to some extent) stem from male fears concerning their own adulation of male sporting heroes” (Crawford &Gosling, 2004, pg 490). Sport is something that the majority of men can relate to (Crawford &Gosling, 2004; Moss, 2011). The involvement of females in sport could be seen as a way to undermine male hegemony. This can be seen as a thread that runs throughout American history (Billings, 2016).

Women in the United States have spent the better part of 70 years gaining just some of the same rights as men. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on August 26, 1920. Three years later, The National Women’s Party proposed the addition of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which would prevent discrimination on the basis of gender. To this day, this Amendment still has not been ratified (Brown, 1993). Some women’s rights may have been codified into law in 1920, yet today women are still experiencing discriminatory behavior (Moss; Billings; Crawford & Gosling). A pertinent summation of the modern issues women in sport face is Cynthia Pemberton’s “every day someone puts on her armor and goes into battle for equality (114).”

The implementation of Title IX has increased female participation in sport by eight hundred and forty percent. Bell stated, “It was not until the advent of the equal rights movement and Title IX that women truly found a place as participants in the world of sport and in the public arena (History of Women in sport).” Trolan points out that in the 1950s, a woman’s identity was concealed across all parts of society. Women who participated in sport were seen as a contradiction to society. Therefore, women athletes had to oversexualize themselves in order to overcome the societal apathy caused by participating in sport. An example of the continued societal apathy is highlighted by ESPN giving female sports a mere two percent of time on Sportscenter, even though twenty-five percent of their audience is female.  This disparity highlights the discrimination female athletes and female teams still face today. This dismissal of female sports can potentially lead to problems for females in other areas of the sport ecosystem (Gibson, 2016; Trolan 2013).

For example, females in other areas of the sport world don’t have Title IX in place to protect them. Media and fans have been subjected to sexualization, marginalization and objectification. The number of female sport fans increased following the implementation of Title IX. Enactment of this law ignited a nascent sports fandom among women. Duffett notes that Hills believes defining fandom can be problematic because it is ever changing (2013). “A fan is a person with a relatively deep positive emotional connection about someone or something famous…Fans find their identities wrapped up with the pleasures connected to popular culture (Hills, 2002).”


Female Identities

According to Ussher (1997,445), there are four types of female identities in relation to sport culture:

  • ‘Being girl’ – The archetypal position for most women, the position ‘taken up when a woman wants to be rather than merely do femininity…beauty, goodness and the ability to attract the admiration of men are the key attributes of being girl’ (Ussher 1997, p. 445).
  • ‘Doing girl’ – Here the woman might reflexively ‘perform the feminine masquerade’ but she knows that essentially ‘doing girl’ is about ‘playing a part’ (Ussher 1997, p. 450).
  • ‘Resisting girl’ – When adopting this position women ignore or deny the traditionally signified ‘femininity’, such as the necessity for body discipline and adoption of the mask of beauty but ‘this doesn’t necessarily mean a rejection of all that is associated with what it is to be ‘woman’ – attention to appearance, motherhood or sex with men’ (Ussher 1997, p. 455).


Regardless of where females fall on Ussher’s femininity spectrum, all of them have dealt with overcoming male biases toward them. This male chauvinism is noted female fans by Jones, Moss, Crawford & Gosling, Sveinson, and Duffett. For example, some of the women that were interviewed by Jones did not want to be seen as women. They felt this way because of the negative connotations their gender produces. For instance, the women are concerned about having their knowledge tested, sexist comments, and having their commitment to their team.  These nuanced biases could potentially contribute to the sexualization, marginalization and objectification that surrounds a female fan.

Jones (2008) found that women used three strategies when dealing with marginalization, objectification and sexualization.

• ‘Defining sexist and abusive behavior as disgusting’. This varied from outright confrontation to individual boycotts (for example, by refusing to join in with swearing), to a redefinition of ‘proper’ fan practices. This final strategy involved the use of gender identities to challenge the meaning of fandom; for them, ‘fandom and femininity are entirely compatible, whereas fandom and abusive masculinity are not’ (2008, p. 524).

  • ‘Downplaying sexist and homophobic abuse’. This included: claims that sexism was not as important as racism as there were no female players; denying that sexism occurred because abuse is directed at men and women; and claiming that sexism and homophobia were ‘funny’ and therefore harmless (2008, p. 524).
  • ‘Embracing gender stereotypes as part of the game’. This involved agreeing with hegemonic masculine definitions about which women should be regarded as ‘proper’ fans and distancing themselves from ‘emphasized femininity’, with claims that women who did not understand the laws, found players attractive and/or were dressed up in a heterosexually attractive way did not ‘do’ fandom properly. A further group suggested that sexism and homophobia were fundamental to football (2008, p. 524).

Pope addresses female fans and their identities. Some women answered questions with ‘pharmacological’ terms. Referencing their fandom as an addictive thing or just waiting for the next ‘fix’. One woman went as far as saying (277):

‘It’s an identity, and I think if you’re a football fan, your football team is part of your identity and who you are and where you’re proud of…I’m such a big football fan that it means a lot to me and it is part of my identity. It’s part of me and it’s part of how I spend my money and how I spend my weekends and how I spend my thinking geared round my week…So if people were to, like, say to me “Describe yourself” and “What are your interests?” It would be a big part of me to say this is what I like doing, this is who I am.’

Despite all of these societal changes, females are more likely to judge themselves and have others judge them when it comes to traditional gender roles, such as child- rearing (Pope, 2010 p 270)

All of a sudden, this responsibility of having children just completely… everything else goes. And it’s only now that they’ve got older and they can sort of look after themselves a bit that the football starts to creep back in a bit…When I first had children, I just sat there and I thought “Oh my God!” The responsibility of having children was just overwhelming.

Male bias toward females in sport

Crawford and Gosling found male interviewees did not believe that female supporters actually root for their side. The interviewees believed that the female rooters “show little knowledge or commitment to their team” (Crawford, Gosling 2004).  John, a male interviewee, stated, “They just have a giggle, you know what I mean (Crawford, Gosling, 2004)?” Female sports fans are often viewed as inferior to their male counterparts. They are interrogated about their knowledge, have had their motivations for watching questioned, and many other potentially sexist examples exist. Throughout the literature, it is arduous to find positive examples of women being treated equally. Sveinson had a participant named Emma say, “They just get to be a fan because they’re a guy (2016).”

For example, in research by Crawford and Gosling, when male fans of the Manchester Storm, a British Ice Hockey team, were interviewed, they frequently described the presence of female fans as disruptive to the stadium atmosphere. One man went as far as saying that “the presence of women he felt imposed an ‘outsider’ on the normal composition of this group [of fans] (Crawford, Gosling 2004, p. 485).”

A participant named Keith said:

Some of the guys bring their girlfriends like, sometimes, you know? …Like me one mate who met his girlfriend at the arena, and she sometimes comes…[but] it’s more a laugh when it’s just the boys … you know what I mean? Just us and the hockey and no women-folk to bother ya [laughs] (Crawford, Gosling 2004, p. 485)

According to Crawford and Gosling, 90 percent of the males interviewed had negative feelings toward females attending sporting events (2004). Many reference women potentially having sexual desires for players and coaching staff which the participants viewed as negative distractions (Crawford, Gosling, 2004). This gives rise to a label given to this subset of female fans. This description is the potentially derogatory moniker known as a ‘Puck Bunny’.

The term ‘Puck Bunny’ has an unknown origin but has a known definition:

A puck bunny is someone who hangs around players, always on the lookout for the chance to get that autograph/photography/quick pint [drink]/quick knee trembler round the back of the around the Arena from the player or players (or even coach) of their choice, heck let’s face it even the water carrier is in with a change here (Reverend Richard, 2001).

A further example of the marginalization of women can be seen clearly in Sveinson’s study. During the qualitative interview process, the researchers found that when the women were originally questioned about whether or not they felt that their treatment was different than men the women denied unequal treatment. However, as the process continued, many of the women described times they were treated differently (2016).

Sveinson showcases this disparate treatment with two different women who are fans of different sports and locations (2016).

Think that it is just assumed that there would be a lot of male, highly identified fans and males with a lot of knowledge, but I think it’s not assumed that there is a lot of females with that. So, you feel a sense of needing to prove that knowledge. (Lexi)

The very first time I ordered the NFL Sunday Ticket [a televised sports package that allows fans to watch non-local NFL games], I called the [cable company] and the girl I was talking to on the phone says, “oh your boyfriend or husband must really love you.” I was like “no, this is for me.” (Chloe)

Taking a look at media coverage and marketing towards female fans leaves a lot of room for improvement. For example, on ESPN, women comprise twenty five percent of its viewership. However, eight percent of the programming is geared toward women or focusing on women’s sports (Gibson, 2016).

Crawford and Gosling found that there is little evidence to back up the claims of many of the male participants that women have little knowledge of the sport. For example, one woman said that “I know more about [ice hockey] than my dad …cause I talk about it at school and you get to know stuff…from others (p. 485).”


Media bias toward females

            Media is integrated into every part of society. This gives people who work in the industry a lot of influence. Consequently, sexualization, marginalization and objectification of women can potentially be spread by the media. In 2002, a national survey found that close to one third of newspaper editors thought that female athletes were “naturally less athletic and less interested in sports than are men.” Additionally, half said that Title IX hurt men’s sports (Hardin, 2005, pg 71-72). Such research strongly indicates a need for these biases to be addressed and potentially rectified.

Media talents are caught referring to female athletes as “girl” or “young woman” and even by their first names. On the other hand, male athletes are often called “young man” or be addressed by their last names. These differences could be seen as sexualization, marginalization and objectification. Peterson said:

Where we marvel and celebrate male athletes’ bodies for their incredible function and utility—‘Wow, so fast, so strong, so big, so tall, incredible!—on the other hand, female bodies are still primarily judged on attractiveness (Gibson, 2016).”

There is a line between a female’s appeal towards men and the media coverage they receive. “If you are a female athlete and you want to get attention, the way to do that is play the sex card (Gibson, 2016 p. 220).” However, the coverage is not always about the athleticism or preforming, instead, it is about what designer made her clothes, night clubs, boyfriends, etc. (Gibson, 2016; Trolan, 2013).

However, coverage is not always good. Female athletes are often called lesbians, because this gives power over the masculinity that women athletes potentially display. An example of this is of a volleyball coach, requiring his players to have long hair and wear ribbons in their hair. This was a strategy to give the players some sense of femininity (Trolan, 2013). Springer said that “you constantly have to prove that women are worth the coverage, that there’s an audience out there. And it’s not just one time. It’s multiple time, over and over and over again (Gibson, 2016).”

An example of this overt sexualization of female athletes could be seen in the coverage of Anna Kournikova, a European tennis player. Noted as the most photographed athlete at Wimbledon in 2003, Kournikova wore revealing outfits and received the most attention even though she never won any of tennis’ four most prestigious tournaments by herself. However, she is worth more than other tennis athletes. On the other hand, Maria Sharapova, has won five Grand Slams since 2001. Despite all of her athletic accomplishments, the focus is still placed on her body.

In addition to the coverage of Kournikova and Sharapova, in 2007 the Australian National Football Team posed nude as a way to bring some media coverage for their sport in a men’s magazine (Trolan, 2013). This desperation for media attention is not only seen internationally. The United States Women’s Ice Hockey Team posed in the ESPN Body Issue in 2017. The body issue is full of both male and female athletes posing nude and is supposed to be a “celebration and exploration of the athletic form, honoring athletes of diverse shapes, sizes, color, genders and race (Stewart, 2010).”  However, many of the female athletes poses are more sexual in nature while the men are showcased as strong. The problem lies in the fact that women athletes have accepted that becoming sexualized is how their sport or themselves gets covered (Trolan, 2013). Instead of posing nude, female athletes need to be putting on their armor to combat ideas like Mangan’s:

…Beauty of face and form is one of the chief characteristics (for women), but unlimited indulgence in violent, outdoor sports, cricket and most odious of all games for women- hockey, cannot have an unwomanly effect on a young girl’s mind, no less on her appearance…let girls ride, skate, dance in moderation, but let them leave field sports to those whom they were intended for – men (Mangan, 1987 p. 158).


Conclusion and Future Study

As illustrated by the literature review, it is crucial to further explore communication strategies that can be used to potentially mitigate, and lead to the elimination of marginalization, sexualization, and objectification towards women in sports. Pope describes the lack of research in this area of female fandoms in sport (2010). These fandoms are becoming increasingly popular. In addition to studying women and sport, it’s important to note that most of the research into this area excludes women.

Trolan notes that the media’s portrayal of women, whether that be in the words that they choose or the photographs selected continues, the cycle of marginalization, sexualization, and objectification. Trolan suggests in his conclusion that change can happen in the media but it is going to take time (2013).

As Crawford and Gosling, suggest the area of being female sports fan is a very complex position to hold. A lot of psychology establishes the reasons why someone is a fan. These factors include feelings of belonging, identity, self-esteem, excitement and pleasure. A study done by Po-Ju Chen, showed that female fans liked to travel to away events to support their team. The reasons stated are: socialization, enjoyment, relaxation and learning. Female fans are more likely to show empathy when their team does poorly (International Journal of Hospitality Management, 2010). The differences between male and female fans are obvious. However, those differences should not be reasons for marginalization, sexualization, and objectification.

Further research should be done in the areas of women’s sports being cut for budgetary reasons. Examples of this can be found all over the country, including the University of North Dakota’s Women’s Hockey, Swimming and Diving teams. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), has 1,123 colleges and universities across three divisions, comprising of 19,500 teams, 54,000 student athletes that compete across 24 sports (What is the NCAA?, 2015). However, the number of teams has been slowly declining as budgets are cut. More often than not, sports teams that are cut are never recovered. This is especially true when speaking about Olympic sports, such as gymnastics, tennis and ice hockey (Belson, 2009).

However, there is an example of a women’s team being cut and after a lawsuit battle was reinstated. Quinnipiac Women’s Volleyball Team was cut in 2008 with the lawsuit being filled in 2009. The volleyball team was cut, while Competitive Cheerleading was added. The judge ruled that Competitive Cheer is not a sport and that Quinnipiac University had to support the return of women’s volleyball and increase the funding for women’s sports. During the investigative process, it was discovered that Quinnipiac was artificially inflating the opportunities that female athletes supposedly had (Quinnipiac settles title IX lawsuit that pitted volleyball against cheerleading, 2013).




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