W Debate: Silencing age-old stereotypes
Question: A BBC announcer said after Marion Bartoli won Wimbledon: "Do you think Bartoli's dad told her when she was little 'You're never going to be a looker? You'll never be a Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight.'" Will sports ever get to a point where a female athlete's looks won't be a talking point in their successes and failures?
Jane McManus: There is this grating assumption that women want first to be supermodels, and if that dream dies early, they can console themselves by winning the Wimbledon title. At least you might make that assumption when BBC commentator John Inverdale went all "hot or not" on Marion Bartoli after the tournament final.
Given the underlying assumptions of Inverdale's imagined conversation, when Bartoli's dad teaches her to be a scrapper once he realizes she isn't a "looker," I can only guess Inverdale grudgingly trained as a radio host when Calvin Klein declined to put him on a billboard in his briefs.
I mean, how dare Bartoli become an excellent tennis player when she isn't alluring enough to set one BBC analyst's heart aflutter? It's almost as if she thinks tennis is her primary occupation.
Look further afield, and architecture, medicine and law could all be filled with women who just weren't pretty enough to cut it.
Sarcasm aside, Inverdale no doubt didn't mean to open this can of worms. The truth is attractiveness is a factor when it comes to women and endorsements. It's why Anna Kournikova was such a popular player. But there is a point at which becoming a champion trumps anything else. Bartoli was a finalist at Wimbledon in 2007 and reached the semis of the French in 2011 before winning her first Grand Slam event. She deserves to be respected on these merits and not dragged down by this kind of commentary.
Sarah Spain: It's sad and infuriating that Inverdale's response to Bartoli's winning her first Grand Slam event was to critique her looks, rather than celebrate her accomplishment. Sad, infuriating and yet not at all surprising.
As a society, we judge the worth of a woman first by her looks, then by her achievements. In every profession, you can find a woman who is lauded or criticized for her appearance, despite the fact that her appearance is in no way related to her job. Adele sings like an angel, but every time she performs at an awards show, the talk is of her weight and not her talent. Michelle Obama is a Princeton and Harvard grad, lawyer, advocate and the flippin' FLOTUS, but she's talked about as much, if not more, for her fashion choices, her bangs and her toned arms.
It's clear that an analyst or radio host would never say, while watching a male athlete celebrate a win, "I guess that boy's mama told him he wasn't gonna be a looker, so he hit the gym and worked hard and now he's a champion." There are countless male athletes who wouldn't win a beauty pageant but get plenty of endorsements and the respect of the media. When a male athlete is good at his job, that's what matters. When a female athlete is good at her job, it sure helps if she looks good doing it too. Helping female athletes earn accolades, endorsements and respect regardless of their appearance is a worthy fight, but it's a battle that's bigger than sports. If society continues to place a premium on a woman's looks first, then sponsors, fans and media will continue to do the same when it comes to sports. The problem may not be fixed anytime soon, but things can get better with baby steps.
Take, for example, Brittney Griner. She plays basketball like no woman before her and has drawn much-needed attention to women's hoops, but when she dunks, scores 50 points or wins an NCAA championship, the social media buzz is about her looks and her body, not her incredible talent. Rather than shrink away from society's expectations, Griner has stood up to them. She recently told ESPN The Magazine, "Reading what people say makes me want to be me even more." If a woman like Griner, who doesn't fit traditional gender norms or look like Anna Kournikova, can be good enough at what she does, and strong enough to be confident in who she is, there will be a place for her in commercials and advertisements. She can stand for the new generation of female athlete, women who are now, more than ever, shown in ads sweating, fighting and winning, rather than posing.
Do you see Griner and more nontraditional female athletes helping to turn the tide?
JM: There have always been athletes who refused to play along with convention. I think of Martina Navratilova as an early example. With more women playing on the international stage, there is more room for outliers like soccer players Abby Wambach, Megan Rapinoe and even Hope Solo -- who refuse to follow the conventional path in one way or another. These women speak their own truth rather than smile sweetly for advertisers. Sometimes what they have to say may be off-putting, but isn't that preferable to cookie-cutter icons?
That said, I'm not sure things are all that different, Sarah. If you did a side-by-side match analysis of the amount of time a camera lingered on a player's significant other, the Kim Searses of the world would win in a landslide. Television is a visual medium, and as humans we make a hundred subconscious judgments of one another in an instant. But certainly we are more aware of the tension between valuing a woman for her beauty and seeing her accomplishments. If this was what Inverdale was alluding to, the clumsy and dismissive use of the word "looker" obscured any serious point.
What has changed is that women who watch these broadcasts and listen to sports radio actually call out broadcasters on the inappropriate remarks now. It used to be that you could assume an audience of sports fans was predominantly male, and the rare female was easily shouted down. I can only imagine the kind of comments that got tossed around in 1973 leading up to the "Battle of the Sexes." Assumptions like that get analysts in trouble now, even if Katherine Webb gets a hosting gig out of it.
SS: While you're right to say there have always been outliers, I believe the women who refuse to play by the rules are often being celebrated for that now, instead of exiled. There is still a lot of room for growth, whether it be in educating the Inverdales and Brent Musburgers of the world or changing the tendencies of the cameramen constantly looking for the hot WAGS and fans in the crowd, but the fact that people continue to stand up and fight against comments like Inverdale's says something. As people become more aware of the effect their comments have on young girls and aspiring athletes (or are reminded of that by others), an effort is made to change.
The reality of living in a patriarchal society is that often society's gaze is deemed to be one and the same with the male gaze. As long as sponsors, advertisers, politicians, CEOs and the rest of the decision-makers in our society continue to view women first as a thing to be seen and admired, female athletes will receive the same treatment.