Sexualisation of Female Athletes in the Media

The way female athletes are portrayed in the media is something that I take personal interest in, well, because I am one. I may not be competing on the world stage and fighting for the media attention over counterpart male athletes, but even so, I think that the lack of athletic recognition of female in the media not only plays a huge role in motivating a woman to continue her athletic pursuits, but in how she sees herself as well.

The world of sport has developed and continues to develop primarily as a male endeavor; focusing on male skills and attitudes. There has been very little progress around sports that emphasize the physiological characteristics to which women are naturally superior. However, I believe that this predominant male superiority is but one of the major contributing factors to women accepting the limitations on participation, or taking a second-class status in the athletic realm.

Jane English wrote a paper in 1978 on the topic of Sex Equality in Sports, where she suggested that further development of sports that enhance natural female advantages over men would help resolve the issues of self and public respect. In my opinion, however, these issues go beyond the development of sports. Though it may increase the amount of attention female athletes get in the media, it does not change the current nature of this attention. To me, the language and visual portrayals used in these broadcasts, has a greater impact on the female image then does women competing in a man’s world.

Even now, with almost equal participation by females in ‘male’ sports, male coverage remains dominant. This trend continues to persist in athletic events, such as the 1992 Olympic Games, where 9 of the 11 medals won by Americans were achieved by females. Research has shown that even with the increase of participation, and development of ‘female’ sports, synchronized swimming or gymnastics for example, there has been no improvement in the amount of coverage female athletes receive (some statistics surrounding this issue over time can be found here).

Yet, the small amount of coverage that women athletes do receive, tends not to focus on their athletic accomplishments, but on objectification and maintaining the traditional societal gender roles; as if their athletic abilities are not newsworthy. I decided to look into some of the trends surrounding the differences of how females and males are represented differently in the media and discovered that:

  • Female athletes are often referred to as girls (even when they are in their 30’s) or by their first names or nicknames, suggesting inferiority. This is contrary to men, who are referred to as men or young men or by their last names, denoting a position of power
  • The media focuses attention on a female’s looks and age over her athletic abilities, rendering them as ‘sex-pots’ and ‘darlings’. Men are referred to as heroic and strong
  • Headlines promote a women’s family or marital status before her athletic pursuits, which diminishes her achievements. The opposite is true for men
  • The media makes it clear when covering female events that they are “only the best women”, leading to further implications of them being weak or inferior to their male counterparts

As English predicted, female coverage does tend to focus on sports such as gymnastics, figure skating, and beach volleyball, where women, for the most part, are naturally superior. However they are also sports where women have uniforms with very little bodily coverage and the focus shifts to aesthetics, grace and beauty.

Tennis stars for blog

Image 1: Both Anna Kournikova and Roger Federer are very accomplished tennis players, however, Kournikova is photographed at a down angle, in casual clothes, and looking into the camera with a seductive glare; while Federer is photographed in a powerful action stance and athletic clothing (Image retrieved from:

Photographs are sexual by nature, with a crotch shots being a common theme. Women are also often seen from down angles, lying down, or crying which indicates inferiority and weakness. Males on the other hand, are more likely to be photographed in action and from an elevated position to enhance their powerful and heroic statures (for more examples of contrasting photographs between the sexes click here and here).

English makes an excellent point in her paper: “spectator interest is a cultural product, tending to follow rather than lead media attention.” I think that this could not be more true, as such, not only do we need to increase the amount of coverage that women get in the media, but we also need to change the kind of attention female athletes receive through it. One of the most powerful examples towards this change, in my mind, is the Always #LikeAGirl campaign. The video demonstrates how somewhere between childhood and adulthood society has implanted this idea that ‘Throwing like a girl’ is not a powerful activity but an insult. This stigma needs to change in order for female athletes to earn some well-deserved respect, both for themselves as well as from the public. They are not second class, their accomplishments are something to be celebrated and recognized as having equal value to that of their male counterparts.


Resources and Additional Information:

Always #LikeAGirl. Retrieved from

Curtis, M.K. (2014). America’s Heroes and Darlings: The Media Portrayal of Male and Female Athletes During the 2014 Sochi Games. All Theses and Dissertations. Paper 4078. Retrieved from

English, J. (1978). Sex Equality in Sports. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 7(3), 269–277. Retrieved from

Jackson, S. (2012, August 3). What’s Wrong With The Media Coverage Of Women Olympians? – Role Reboot. Retrieved from

Kfalcone93. (2014, September 23). Magazines Against Female Athletes: A Form of Propaganda? Retrieved from

Postow, B.C. (1980). Women and Masculine Sports. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 7, 51-58. Retrieved from

Robson, D. (2004, December 5). Male & Female Athletes In The Media: Are They Equally Portrayed? Retrieved from


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