Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Heterosexy Female Athlete

Sports scholar Jo Ann Buysse continues, in the issue of The Scholar and Feminist Online that I have been discussing here to employ the metaphor Catherine Stimpson created in her address that prompted this journal to devote the issue to The Cultural Value of Sport: Title IX and Beyond. I have, as I mentioned previously, enjoyed the way Stimpson’s respondents have taken her creation of the Atalanta Syndrome and expanded the mythological metaphor in productive and meaningful ways. Buysse is no exception. The Atalantan distraction, i.e. the golden apple that entices the contemporary female athlete, Buysee argues is the highly gendered—or femininized—“heterosexy” images of female athletes. Athletes see them but are, of course, also their subject. Buysse does not interrogate this latter aspect, the female athletes who pose for these images, which disappointed me some. I realize the term “choice” become a little blurry when we discuss whether female athletes, who have far less earning power through sports than their male counterparts, should or should not be participating in ad campaigns that attempt to de-athleticize them. But I think there was opportunity for Buysse to discuss the economic and cultural pressure on female athletes to present themselves in this way. Though she cites and briefly discusses other studies of media representations of female athletes, her own research is on their portrayal in college media guides. In this context, the concept of choice or control over one’s own image is even more limited. I have never heard of any athlete vocalizing her dissent over media images. In the realm of intercollegiate athletics it would seem that you either do it their way or you don’t play. I can imagine anyone who might present some sort of concern being told that she was lucky women’s sports get media guides at all. Equitable publicity actually falls under Title IX, though Buysse does not mention this in her essay. But it cannot legislate what that publicity looks like—or even reads like in the case of text-based publicity such as press releases and even player biographies. (It sure would be interesting if it could, though!) There is good news, though. Buysse reports that in her longitudinal research on media guides she found, in her most recent examination (2004) that there was no statistically significant difference in the representation of male and female athletes in their respective media guides. In other words, where in previous studies she found a disproportionate percentage of media guides presenting female athletes in posed, made-up, coiffed and other non-threatening, non-athletic images, in 2004 she found that this trend was no worse in media guides for women’s sports as compared to men’s media guides. The bad news: though colleges and universities have finally begun to portray their athletes equitably, this trend has had no discernible effect on non-educational media outlets such as popular and sport-specific magazines and television. But Buysse believes that the continued success of female athletes, especially at the Olympics where female athletes seem most visible, and the continued work of sports scholars on issues of representation were both responsible for the changes institutions made in media guides. And it is possible that both these factors could continue to produce a ripple effect.

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