Women shaking up sports culture

This year marks a shift in media portrayal of women in sports

Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, said in 1896 that “no matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks.” Tell that to the 1.35 million people who attended this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup. We now know that there is, in fact, no scientific physical obstacle, as suggested by Coubertin, to the practice of professional sports by women. However, there is a cultural barrier for women in sports that remains hard to break down. But 2015 may be a turning point – this year, women have been in the sports spotlight, earning more media coverage than in previous years. At the same time, this coverage has demonstrated how much still needs to change.

The refusal to accept Rousey’s muscular body demonstrates that traditional beauty standards and gender roles still often overpower women’s sports achievements.

Women are marginalized around the globe. Over the past century, women’s movements have focused on achieving basic rights, such as the right to vote and equal pay, as opposed to focusing on cultural activities such as sports. Nevertheless, sports are a significant means of building community and reinforcing cultural values such as strength and leadership. As long as women remain on the fringes in sports, the same will likely be true of women in society.

For example, while there have been many women in sports over the past fifty years, they rarely hold positions of power, such as the role of coach. The majority of coaches tend to be white men in their fifties, sometimes older. Nevertheless, this year, Becky Hammon, when hired by the San Antonio Spurs basketball team, became the first ever woman to hold the position of full-time assistant coach for any of the four major sports in Canada and the U.S. – basketball, football, hockey, and baseball. Not only is she the first, but she also led the Spurs to win the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas this summer. She received massive media attention for this victory, from ESPN to the New York Times, and was congratulated by U.S. President Barack Obama. Hopefully, women sitting on the bench next to the court will only become more common, one day resulting in a woman becoming head coach of a NBA team.

In addition to the presence of women in fields dominated by men, women’s sports themselves, which have long been insufficiently covered, are starting to receive more attention thanks to figures like Serena Williams. While Williams has been talked about in the media for quite a while now, 2015 is perhaps the first year in which her skills and outstanding performances have received more coverage than her attitude.

Though any number of men in sports are arguably more aggressive than Williams, their skills get all the attention, while their attitudes are shrugged off. For Williams, it has always been the other way around, as she’s faced harsh attacks on her personality and body. John McEnroe, another tennis star, reflected a couple of years ago that despite their great achievements, Williams and her sister Venus, another tennis pro, “have no respect for anyone in the game.”

This year, Williams captivated viewers with her on-court achievements, as she attempted to become part of the small group of players who have won all four Grand Slam opens in one year, otherwise known as a ‘calendar year Grand Slam.’ Despite Roberta Vinci ending Williams’ Grand Slam dream in the semi-final of the U.S. Open, the number of viewers per game for the tennis event averaged 1,218,000 this year, up 40 per cent from 868,000 last year. The link between this sudden interest in tennis and the possibility of Williams’ historic victory is extremely likely.

Media coverage of Williams has also begun to shift – she had the cover story in the April issue of Vogue this year, and there was a world of backlash against a July New York Times piece that explored why other women in tennis were choosing not to “emulate her physique.” Yet again, the fact that this piece discussing the disadvantages of Williams’ muscular arms was published is indicative of the attitude shift mainstream media still needs to undergo.

While Williams has been overcoming discrimination on the court, Ronda Rousey has been fighting it in the ring. Rousey became a world-famous Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter this year, winning Best Fighter at the Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly (ESPY) Awards, beating out several men. In the stereotypically masculine atmosphere of UFC fighting, Rousey’s fame is the exception to the rule.

As Rousey has garnered fame for her fighting, she, similarly to Williams, has been attacked in social media for her body. Some people have tweeted that her “features are manly,” or that she is “disgustingly manly” and “not sexy.” The refusal to accept Rousey’s muscular body demonstrates that traditional beauty standards and gender roles still often overpower women’s sports achievements. Women in sports still face stereotypes; the ideal woman in media and pop culture is often portrayed as skinny and weak, and certainly not muscular, while beauty standards for men encourage them to be strong and athletic.

The increase in coverage of women in sports is undeniable, and demonstrates a real evolution in the Western cultural mindset: strong, powerful women have become more accepted. And the coverage is expanding outside of traditionally ‘feminine’ sports, such as gymnastics, dance, or horseback riding. Yet, representation of women in sports remains low, and more must be done in order for women and men to be seen as equals in sports. Rousey and Williams, who are lauded for their strength and simultaneously criticized for their muscular bodies, are only the most famous cases of such criticism. As for Hammon, she is the only one in her position. They each serve as strong examples of women in sports, and will hopefully encourage girls and women around the world to carry on their fight.