Monday, May 22, 2006

What's her name again?

During the commercial breaks of ESPN2's coverage of the LPGA tournament yesterday were promos for the upcoming season of the WNBA. (How many acronyms can you fit in one sentence?) The promo showed the stars of course including some of the newcomers. I didn't really pay too much attention to the actual people because I was appalled by the presentation--not the visual--the verbal. The women were all in their uniforms and some actually appeared to be playing basketball though there was a lot of posing; but again, in uniform and not in any kind of overt sexual way. But alas the voiceover which was simply a list of names was problematic. Only first names were given. "Sue, Diana, Swin..." This is a noted problem in women's sports. Commentators frequently refer to women by their first names whereas men are almost always (with some notable exceptions of course) by their last. The problem of course transcends sport too. In academia there are debates over whether female professors should insist on being called Dr. _____ rather than their first names which many opt for in an attempt to break down the hierarchical structure of the academy and create a more open learning environment.
But back to the promo. It seems like a little thing, I know. But I caught it immediately. I didn't even have to think for longer than 5 seconds about whether this mode of address for these athletes was ok. Because it's not. I cannot fathom an NBA promo where male athletes are addressed by their first names only. The promo signals the fear the WNBA (and NBA by extension as the owner of the league) have over the perceptions of women's basketball. There appears to be a need to make women's basketball a little more palatable--i.e. a little less aggressive and threatening. Maybe it was Sheryl Swoopes's recent coming out or Candace Wiggins's "dunks" in the NCAA tournament this year, I don't know. But I do know that first names only lessens the athletic impact these women have. Diana and Sue and Monique can be read as just the "girls next door"--like you wouldn't even know that they are superb athletes.
[Interesting note: I was looking for a downloadable version of the promo to link to and went to google to find it. I typed in "ESPN WNBA promo" and Google replied: did you mean ESPN NBA promo"? Um, no, I did not.]


Anonymous said...

I agree that sports media overwhelmingly tends to infantilize women athletes by asymmetrical practice of calling them by their first names (like you would a child) instead of their last (like you would an adult).

It is possible, however, that in the context of this promo, the intent was postive: to equate these athletes with other cultural icons who are of such high status that are recognizable by only their first names (like Elvis, Jesus, or Oprah).

But in any event, it's hard to separate this one instance from the overwhelming tendency to call women althetes but not men by their first names and view it in the positive light it may have been intended.

-EBuz (who is, on a related note, regularly vexed by students who presume they can call me by my first name when they would not be so presumptious with other professors)

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I could never imagine a promo that calls Kobe or LeBron by just their first name. We should go back to the good old days of "Like Mike".

Anonymous said...

You're right to point out that male athletes do achieve first name basis. (Although I'm not sure what brought on the angry sarcasm...the folks who read this blog are pretty open minded and willing to engage different points of view that are respectively and constructively conveyed).

But I think what ken's is doing is using this promo to bring to light the overall tendency of sports media to use first names for women and last names for men. Indeed one study shows that "Women are more likely to be referred to by their first names about four times as often as the men, who were referred to by their last names almost twice as often as women."

Source: Alina Bernstein, Is It Time for a Victory Lap? Changes in the Media Coverage of Women in Sport, 37 Int'l Review for the Sociology of Sport 415, 421 (2002).

Anonymous said...

Errr...that respectively should read respectfully. Sorry pilight.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't going for angry, just sarcastic. When ken said he "couldn't fathom" an NBA promo like that I thought he had overstepped. We have seen some quite prominent promos like that featuring NBA players.

I recognize that female athletes are more likely to be called by their first names (or both names) than male athletes. I've been guilty of it myself. It seems to me that fans of women's sports are more likely to call the players that way also. I'm not sure whether that's a cause or an effect of the way the sports media deals with it.

Another factor may be that female athletes are more likely to change last names than male athletes, so calling them by first names could be less confusing. A casual fan may not realize that Mistie Bass is now Mistie Williams or be able to keep up with whether Wendy Palmer is using the -Daniel appendage this year or not.

There's also a racial element. All those male athletes who are commonly called by their first name are black. You won't be likely to hear Steve Nash be called just Steve, no matter how many MVPs he wins. That crosses into women's sports as well. Sue Bird is more likely to be called Bird than Swin Cash is to be called Cash.

Anyway, I'm sure the intent of the promo was positive. They were trying to get across that a typical sports fan watching ESPN should know these players well enough that only a first name is needed to identify them, much like you would with LeBron or Kobe.