Why we need to see the “ugly” in women’s sports

Dr Erin Whiteside

Associate professor of Journalism & Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee. Her research examines sports media practices and texts including how industry norms shape the coverage of women’s sports as well as the experiences of women in sports media.

Twitter: @erinwhiteside

Section 2: Media Coverage & Representation

Publicly demonstrating support for women has become increasingly prominent in a variety of contexts, with sports serving as one of the most visible platforms for those declarations. Indeed, prior to the Games, the International Olympic Committee updated its portrayal guidelines for broadcasters, urging them to “steer all Olympic sports and their rights holders toward ‘gender-equal and fair’ broadcasts of their events.” And then there was NBC’s promotion of the Olympics, which revolved heavily around Simone Biles — holding her up not just as a great female athlete, but as one spot dramatically announced: “the greatest of all time.” During NBC’s broadcast, there were countless examples of the type of coverage long called for by feminist sports scholars. When track phenom Athing Mu hit the final straightaway during the women’s 800m final and separated from her competitors in a feat of speed and strength, announcers did the race justice, injecting further excitement into the broadcast, when one shouted into the mic, “[N}ow the superstar is the best in the world!” 

These examples, and the overall visible presence of women in much of the United States’ coverage during the Olympics beg the question: Is sports media taking a feminist turn? What are we to make of what appears to be positives steps forward? 

Feminist media scholar Rosalind Gill has noted the rise of seemingly feminist discourses in the media, and has documented how such discourses are “uneven,” and marked by an “entanglement” of both feminist and anti-feminist narratives that define what she calls a postfeminist media culture. Among the postfeminist patterns she has observed over the past decade is the way that meeting  a normative feminine aesthetic is now situated as “fun,” and a form of “self care,” while the actual labor enacted by women through these forms of self-surveillance is, importantly, “never disclosed.” By keeping that labor hidden, the disciplining process also remains out of view, and the maintenance of normative gender norms thus remain obscured by the seemingly feminist narratives of empowerment. 

Returning to the Olympics coverage, the Games include a number of sports that have the potential to enact forms of normative femininity, including gymnastics, beach volleyball, diving, and artistic swimming. They are non-contact, showcase athletic traits associated with femininity such as flexibility, balance and precision, and importantly, include uniforms that are understood in the context of women’s sexualization. In order to break the boundaries of a postfeminist media culture, we must be allowed to see the athleticism of these particular sports in ways that depart from their perceived “beauty” and the related effortless, fun context in which these sports are often cast.  Which brings me to an example that I believe accomplished that call. Writing for The New York Times, author Gillian Brassil took on the topic of artistic swimming in a piece accompanied by an array of images depicting what many typically think of when it comes to artistic swimming. Among them was a Twitter post by @usaartisticswimming that included an image of a swimmer soaring above her teammates while completing a perfect split in a shimmering silver swimsuit with text calling it “the most difficult lift in history.” Brassil’s accompanying writing makes visible the work that goes into executing such a lift by showing how the “beauty” of the swimmers smiling and having fun above the water, appearing to effortlessly complete their maneuvers, is only accomplished through an “ugly” kind of athletic labor below it. In doing so, she recasts the sport as “brutal” by describing the furious kicking and dangerous landing techniques that happen out of view, all of which contribute to a high rate of concussions in the sport. She shows the danger of artistic swimming, ultimately calling on health officials to include the sport along with football and sliding sports in their research addressing head injuries. 

I call her descriptions “ugly” not as pejorative, but because of their sharp departure from the visible “beauty” of the sport that is so often showcased in coverage. Ultimately, that ugliness is beautiful in that is an important and necessary component for the continual feminist progress of women’s sports coverage. Declarations from NBC and other prominent sports media personalities about the accomplishments of women athletes are a significant step forward. The next is to understand their athleticism in ways this disrupt commonsense understandings of gender. Coverage like Brassil’s story, which destabilizes the narratives of “beauty” that are produced through coverage of this so-called feminine sport, is one such way to accomplish that task.