Women in Sports: The intersection of gender, race and sexuality in female athletics

| by Erica Johnson |

The fight for gender equality in the sports industry is far from over

The first place my parents took me after I was born was a soccer game. Needless to say, sports became a large part of my life.

My parents put me in house league when I was six years old, and if you asked me what I wanted to be when I was older, I would have said a professional soccer player. My love for the sport only grew, but when I started playing competitively, I became more conscious of the challenges and barriers faced by women in sports. Although every woman’s experience in sport is varied, some of the main challenges include sexualization and lack of media coverage. The challenges faced by Black female athletes are also unique because of how stereotypes about gender and race intersect.

The sexualization of women in sports is experienced at all levels. 

When I was 10, my refusal to wear skirts or dresses fostered assumptions about my sexuality. The reality was I didn’t want to be slowed down when playing with the boys during recess. That reasoning didn’t matter: sexuality and femininity of women in sports is always up for debate. 

Serena Williams, for instance, is regularly criticized for her “manly” physique. But it is this physique that has helped her win 23 Grand Slam single titles. Other female athletes must regularly answer questions about their sexual orientation or their relationship/marital status. When was the last time you saw an NHL player asked about their personal life rather than their performance?

Female athletes are never portrayed solely as performance athletes. The ‘women first, athlete second’ rhetoric is heavily perpetuated in the industry and undermines female athletic achievements by diverting focus to more superficial aspects of sport.

Female athletes are heavily scrutinized for their appearance both on and off the playing field. For example, during the 2016 Rio Olympics, female track stars were criticized by male sports commentators for choosing not to wear makeup during their races. Similarly, women’s uniforms are often more revealing than men’s uniforms of the same sport. This is another distraction to what really matters for female athletes: their sport.

Women’s sports lack coverage in the media. And when coverage is received, it’s sexualized. 

The sexualizaed attention female athletes receive is especially concerning considering how little coverage women’s sports get from media outlets at all. A 25-year long study found that local news outlets spend a mere 3% of their airtime covering women’s sports. The stats for large networks like ESPN are even lower--as low as 2% of coverage is women’s sports. Oftentimes when this issue is brought up, people argue that there is simply a lack of audience for women’s sports. This is a cop out. The way in which media outlets market and advertise women’s sporting events have an impact on the amount of viewership they receive, directly influencing their ratings. Media networks dismiss WNBA or women’s soccer games in their advertising and primetime lineup. This sends a message to audiences about the networks’ priorities and what is exciting TV--not the other way around.

The realities for black female athletes are nuanced. Not only do they face challenges of sexualization and lack of coverage, but they also require an entirely new skill set to navigate the obstacles of race, gender, and stereotypes.

The ability to perform in plain sight, without being seen, is something many Black female athletes face. Stepping on the soccer field, I was usually the only Black girl on the pitch. When tensions were high, I would watch my typically white teammates shout, curse, and fight our opponents. I was required to take the same tackles and aggression, but if I reacted in the same way, I would be labeled as aggressive or “ratchet” by the opposing team.

In order to avoid falling into the “angry Black woman” stereotype, many Black female athletes feel the need to overcompensate by exhibiting an even greater composure than other female athletes. There is a constant pressure to not “act out” and to tone down feelings of anger, aggression, disappointment, and even excitement.

Black female athletes at a professional level face an immense pressure of having to be an ambassador for the race, and carrying the weight of Black history on their backs.

Feminism Must Continue to Transform Gender Rights.

The hypocrisy that exists within the world of sports only serves to detract from the hard work, dedication, and raw talent possessed by female athletes. Women are expected to match and exceed the athletic ability of male athletes in order to be taken seriously. But even when they do so, they are criticized for sporting “manly” physiques, which enable them to excel in their respective sports. Black women especially face unfair criticism that undermines their athletic excellence.

Feminism has helped to challenge many of these issues by transforming gender rights and athletic welfare. Despite this, we have more work to do in order to make the world of sports a more equitable place for the next generation of female athletes.

Written by Erica Johnson, third year PPE specialization