Today’s post is from Prof. Lindsay Ross-Stewart, whose research focuses on sport and exercise psychology. In this blog post, she considers the widespread nature of gender bias in sports spectatorship, arguing that this is not a direct response to any diminished accomplishment on the part of the athletes, but rather a collective anxiety about the ways that gender plays out vis a vis sports. Be sure to follow the links she’s provided here. The images she’s provided may have you pulling on your own hair in frustration….
I was watching the Canada versus USA Gold Medal Hockey game last week when one of the women I was watching with asked “Why don’t they just pull each other’s hair?” Around 15 minutes later someone else entered the room and after a few minutes he said “I am surprised they don’t pull each other’s hair.” I have watched a lot of sports, many involving men’s teams, and no one has ever asked “why don’t they just kick each other in the junk?” as a serious sport question. So I began to wonder why is this question asked so often that I didn’t even flinch at the question, instead I just gave my standard answer, it is about playing within the written, and unwritten rules. I mean really think about it, if they did pull each other’s hair what would that accomplish? A penalty and perhaps an ejection – so why would an athlete do that? So why were people watching the hockey game so interested in the fact that the players had pony tails? I really don’t know, but here is what I think….
Imagine this you are watching a hockey game and the game is physical, I mean really physical. Numerous penalties have been handed out, a couple players are even a little bloody by the end. What image is in your mind? Do you see players in their hockey gear, helmets, face masks, padding? If you do, then you can’t see gender, because the padding covers shape, and the helmet and face mask cover the faces of the players. You can’t see if the hockey players are male or female. In fact the only thing that would give away whether the game was a men’s game or a women’s game would be how many pony tails you see hanging out the helmets. I have a feeling no one reading this will have imagined pony tails since pony tails are not part of our natural understanding of what a hockey player looks like. They are however, part of our schema for what a woman looks like – and therein lies the reason why people focused on the pony tails. The pony tails were the only sign of “woman” that people watching the 2014 Olympic Women’s Gold Medal Hockey game saw. Without the pony tails the average fan walking into the room mid game, really wouldn’t have been able to tell what gender the players were – and how uncomfortable is that! We are uncomfortable not knowing gender. I mean really ask yourself have you ever seen someone and not instantly known if they were a male or a female? I bet you focused on them, trying to sneak peeks when they weren’t looking so you could decide. Even if you were never going to speak to the person, you just needed to know. Well, the hockey players were the same, in their gear you can’t tell gender, except for the pony tails. Some people watching began to unconsciously focus on the pony tails as evidence that yes these unbelievable skilled and hard hitting hockey players are in fact women.
We know that the media does this consistently, when they bother to cover women’s sport that is. Four percent of the media coverage of sports goes to covering women in sport. And when they do cover women they tend to be seen as either the perfect wife and mother, or the female athlete who has managed to stay sexy EVEN though she is an athlete. So it isn’t surprising then that a person watching a high level hockey game would also look for the signs of feminine in the players, and ask why the athletes don’t just resort to a ridiculous stereotype of what young women do when they are mad at each other. Because we all know as women we have all gotten angry and emotional and pulled each other’s hair. Oh wait – no we haven’t unless we have been in a porn movie based on men’s fantasies of what happens when teenage girls fight.
So my question is – how do we get people to watch sport and see athlete first? How do we get to a point where people are not sincerely asking why the athletes are not just pulling each other’s hair? Women have been competing in high level sports for years, in fact 47% of athletes are women, so at what point can we stop seeing sport as anti-feminine, and therefore anti-woman? Many people heralded ESPN recently for starting ESPNW a web page that focuses exclusively on women’s sports. But the problem is by reporting on women in sport on a separate space, as the REAL sports, it once again makes it clear that women in sport are not equal athletes. It says on the one hand that they deserve coverage, and on the other that it better not take away from the coverage of men’s sports, otherwise known as sport. In fact the difference in how sport is covered on ESPNW and ESPN is a prime example of the differences in how we see men’s and women’s sports. I would say it astonished me that a move made with the goal of progressing women’s sport, has simultaneously upheld the stereotypes about female athletes – but sadly it is par for the course. It is that type of coverage, mixed with how we understand what it means to be a woman and what it means to be an athlete (two issues, too big to cover in full here) that have led to the question “Why don’t they just pull each other’s hair”
Things need to change – Because the next person who asks me this question is going to make me mad and emotional, and I am a woman so chances are I may have no choice but to pull their hair.
For more information on Women in Sport here are few great resources
ESPN Nine for IX documentary series
Documentary Media Coverage and Female athletes