The Evolution of Gender and Sexuality in Sports Media

Understanding gender and sexuality through the lens of sports representation, either within the sports themselves or through the sports media, reveals a faint evolution of discriminatory practices that “others” an entire class of people. Gatekeepers (people with statute who can invite people into a group or leave people out) serve to draw attention to these problems and can help focus the media on the problems that need to be fixed or can help distract the media from these said problems. The media is often played by the gatekeepers. Both gatekeepers and sports media, working through each other, serve to either perpetuate or challenge the status quo.

Gatekeepers such as Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Billie Jean King are some of the key actors that determine what the media portrays, be it online, on air, or in print. They recognize the importance of image and identity when it comes to sports media representation. They provide visibility (whether intentionally or unintentionally) and challenge norms (again, intentionally or unintentionally). Billie Jean King went out of her way to draw attention to the women’s tennis circuit in terms of equality and the lack of. She is most known for the “Battle of the Sexes” match against Bobby Riggs with a $100,000 winner-take-all prize where more than 48 million people tuned in to watch. It wasn’t just a tennis match though. It was a struggle for sports equality and an indicator if second wave feminism could actually foster equality between the sexes. When King beat Riggs, it became clear that not only was the world of sports changing, but so was American society in general. Before that game, the struggle was to get equal pay for the women players, but the thought at the time was that women players couldn’t draw in a crowd, that people wouldn’t want to watch them. Billie Jean King and women’s tennis proved that with professional backing and the right kind of advertisement and imaging, women’s sports could be as mainstreamed and headlined as men’s sports.

Battle of the Sexes Movie Trailer

While Billie Jean King intentionally challenged the sports rhetoric and the substance of gender-segregated sports, Babe Didrikson Zaharias unintentionally did that same. She was an individual and focused solely on self-gain. At one point, as a one-women track team, she got first place against 200 women on teams with as many as 20 women and beat the second-place team by 8 points. Exemplar to her cockiness, prior to this meet, she announced to all the competitors that she was going to “lick [them] single-handed”. While she had no intention of becoming a cultural icon, Didrikson changed the game of golf, as well as paved the way for other ground breakers in other sports.

Central to sports is the idea of sportsmanship, “a commitment to play according to the written rules and the spirit of the rules, and acting responsibly, fair, and respectfully towards opponents” (Mawson, 19; Sport, Rhetoric and Gender, edited by Linda Fuller). Concerning children, the world of sports acts as a fundamental socialization activity, whereby sports and the good sportsman must exhibit the proper values and actions, such as aggressiveness and competitiveness (Mawson, 20; Sport, Rhetoric and Gender, edited by Linda Fuller). This kind of behavior was not socially acceptable for women, indicated by the change in rules for women’s games (Mawson, 21; Sport, Rhetoric and Gender, edited by Linda Fuller). For example, there are 3 sets in women’s tennis versus 5 sets in men’s, as well as the legality of checking in men’s (legal) and women’s (illegal) hockey. These thoughts stemmed from the idea that sports produced the right kinds of personalities and characteristics in men but if women started playing they would become manlier and thus become the wrong type of people. This kind of segregation is indicative of why Babe Didrikson Zaharias felt the need to move from more “manly” sports to a more “feminine” sport, golf, where she could “metamorphos[ize] from third-sex status [of being an “it” instead of a “she”] into unquestionable femininity” (Cayleff, 115).

Babe Didrikson Zaharias

As a way to keep female athletes feminine, sports media perpetuates trivialization and inferiorization of feminine sports and women’s sports teams through gendered marking. First and foremost, with gender marking, the male is an unmarked category while the female is marked; for example, the NBA is a male-only league called the National Basketball Association with no note of the gender. It is both assumed and taken for granted (Segrave, McDowell and King III, 32; Sport, Rhetoric and Gender, edited by Linda Fuller). The WNBA is a female-only league called the Women’s National Basketball Association. Gender is called out and thus segregated. While the male version is taken for granted, the female version is “othered”. These authors also identify naming conventions used in sports; instead of the use of the players last name like as happens with men’s sports, women players are infantilized with characterizations such as “dolls”, “girls”, “sweetie”, and “princess”, thereby denigrating them to a lower status that says they aren’t as serious and thus shouldn’t be taken as seriously as their male counterparts (Segrave, McDowell and King III, 33; Sport, Rhetoric and Gender, edited by Linda Fuller). Men on the other hand were not called “boys”, “young fellas”, or “young men”; they were simply called “men” (Bissell, 173; Sport, Rhetoric and Gender, edited by Linda Fuller). This dismissal of taking women seriously when they enter a male-dominated field indicates a serious reflection of wider social values regarding the same “intrusion” (Segrave, McDowell and King III, 35; Sport, Rhetoric and Gender, edited by Linda Fuller).

Female sports and women’s sports teams are sexualized, continuing the denigration and disrespect of them and their sport when compared to their male counterparts. Coverage of women tennis matches reveal that appearance and sexuality is more important than the events themselves; “discussions of age, descriptions of physical characteristics, descriptions of hair and attire, descriptions of demeanor with the press”, as well the previously mentioned language indicates the placement of women’s sports behind men’s in terms of importance of the actual game (Bissell, 182; Sport, Rhetoric and Gender, edited by Linda Fuller). Depictions of women in sports movies comes from their being sidelined as the vamp (who causes the heroes’ downfall and therefore should be hated), the homebody (who suffers with the athlete and wants him to quit, therefore not pushing him to his potential of fame), and the upstarts (who dares to enter the game herself and is thus ridiculed) (Fuller, 185; Sport, Rhetoric and Gender, edited by Linda Fuller).

These depictions come from throughout the 1900’s; some are based on true stories, such as in “A League of Its Own”, where women play in their own baseball league but have to wear skirts and make sure their make-up and hair are done perfectly, as well as go to charm school and follow strict codes of feminine conduct (Fuller, 192). They cannot appear to be too manly and have to “prove” their femininity in these ways. Depictions of women in sports have been for the male gaze and male satisfaction, not for their own even though that was their intention.

Portrayals of Caster Semenya

Perceived gender also remains a problem in sports and sports media. Looking decades ago at Babe Didrikson Zaharias, this seems all too important. No one was fully sure she was a female athlete. Interviews included asking if she wore girdles and bras. Descriptions of her featured her masculine features, such as a prominent Adam’s apple, short cut hair, as well as her masculine character traits, such as being cocky and brash. It didn’t help that rumors floated around in the 1930’s that it was actually men and not women who were contributing outstanding performances to female competitions. To prove one’s femininity, one had to date someone, typically very masculine. Many believed Didrikson was a male or a hermaphrodite who took estrogen to qualify as female. Not much has changed. In 2009, Caster Semenya won the women’s 800 meter; immediately after, by looking at her body, people questioned whether she was really a woman (Stephanie Young, 331). Competitors came out saying that Semenya had an unfair advantage and that she wasn’t really a woman but a man. She has genetics that make her both male and female, but would have to go through sex testing to determine whether or not she belonged, without taking into consideration how she identified herself. Like Didrikson, Semenya responded with a visualization of femininity through a magazine cover where she dressed herself up in a more feminine manner and made readers acknowledge her status as a real woman. When dealing with “othering” where a person does not fit into prescribed ideals, they are further othered. While gender equality in general may have made some progress, perceived gender of the individual has not and in fact these characterizations work to perpetuate these identifiers.

For gender equality to come to full fruition, it is crucial for women to lead the charge. It is clear through the work conducted by Billie Jean King and the characterization of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, as well as her response that the dominant male perspective may miss, sometimes intentionally, key aspects of gender equality that can only be revealed through experience. In the case of Danica Patrick, her own self-promotion is what led to her success. She did a photoshoot for Sports Illustrated that simultaneously highlighted her entry into a heavily male-dominated field, while also unapologetically accentuating her femininity. Her entrance into racecar driving received comments from racing greats like Richard Petty who believes Danica will never win not because she is a bad driver but because racing isn’t “a sport for women”. Without her entrance, this issue of female race drivers wouldn’t have been brought up, and seems reminiscent of the still active stereotype that women are bad drivers. Without people like Caster Semenya, the question of qualification wouldn’t even be brought up. Billie Jean King recommends that sports be desegregated by gender, or at least see an equivalency in rules (example: in hockey, either both men and women check or neither men and women check). If winners and team selections were based on talent and not gender, only the very best of the best would play and competition would be heightened to make all athletes better, thereby producing better sportsmanship.

Danica Patrick Self-Promotion Showing Her as “One of the Guys” for Superbowl Ad

An unfair burden to bare, Billie Jean King was not only a feminist icon but also became a gay rights icon. In the 1980’s, she was outed by an ex-lover who was publicly suing her. The tides were changing in terms of social acceptance and this trend continued into the sports world. When women in sports were originally mocked for failing to catch men and subsequently assumed to be lesbians, this news should have been more shattering. Instead, the game rose above speculation and the importance of sexuality was sidelined by the skills and technique of the player.

In 1978, Glenn Burke $75,000 to get married, the unspoken stipulation being that it would be to a woman; the team wanted to shield his homosexuality. According to team players, managers and sports reporters, everyone on the baseball scene knew he was gay and he eventually got traded because of it. In 1995, Burke came out as gay but it never made the waves he hoped it would make; in this new era of gay rights and marriage equality, however, the sports scene may be becoming more welcoming. Jason Collins became the “first active male athlete to announce his homosexuality” and gained support from other sports superstars. On the other hand, sexuality may still have a long uphill battle. WNBA star Candice Wiggins said that she retired from her career because lesbian culture broke her spirit, where in the WNBA was 98% lesbians and didn’t like her openness of being heterosexual. This stems back to Didrikson’s days of any perceived masculinity immediately equating feared lesbianism, though likely indicated that it is not true. Still damaging, it plays into the lesbian myth of female athletes and serves to other them, discouraging women from typically masculine paths.

The portrayal of homosexual people in sports is absolutely crucial to gaining equal rights as well as equal representation. Those in the mainstream culture cannot fathom the feeling of being minority and being targeted for that minority identity. Identity being something not easily, if at all, controlled. This is seen through the case of Candice Wiggins; if she did feel this alienation, it is not fair of her to accuse an entire class of people in her defense. It is also seen in the events of players coming out. It is especially important for active players to come out; they are most accessible to the people, have a greater platform, and show how acceptability among the community will not result in the worst-case scenario.

In terms of the greater evolution of gender and sexuality in sports and sports media, it would appear that gender has made greater progress. The advent of Title IX in education and equal pay indicate a move in general consensus of society towards normalized identities. While still infantilized with things like “girls” and “dolls” instead of respectful reference to names, the general population of women in sports are not seen as threatening to prevalent gender norms as they used to be and they are not considered non-human “its” as they used to be. Sexuality, on the other hand, in sports representation is still hidden. Male athletes do come out, but usually only after they retire, which is what makes Jason Collins’ announcement so important. The WNBA still deals with the characterization of these masculine females as lesbians. This difference stems from the identities themselves. Many see gender as a born-with characteristic. Sexuality is more seen as a choice, or at least a fluid, experimental choice. Therefore, social movements are easily to ascribe to if they are seen as common sense, with no real choice.

Information and quotes on Billie Jean King and the Battle of the Sexes came from Susan Ware’s book Game, Set, Match.

Information and quotes on Babe Didrikson Zaharias came from Susan Cayleff’s book, Babe: The Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias.

Information on Caster Semenya came from Stephanie Young’s article “Running like a Man, Sitting Like a Girl”.

Information on Glenn Burke came from Sarah Kaplan’s article “The trial’s of baseball’s first openly gay player, Glenn Burke, 4 decades ago”.



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