If sex doesn’t sell women’s sports, why do they keep trying?

It’s no great revelation to point out the fact that media representations of female athletes usually focus on anything but their athleticism.  I’m not adding anything new to the conversation when I point this out.

It’s not really surprising that this happens, either.  For a certain segment of the population, the idea of a physically competent woman is so threatening that she has to be “softened” in some way to compensate for that, whether that’s by showing her in ways that are more conventionally attractive or feminine or heterosexual.  I still remember coming across a “what do boys really think?” feature back in my teen-mag reading days and coming across a quote from a guy who said he didn’t want to go out with girls who were too good at throwing baseballs, as if a girl’s ability to throw a little ball detracts from her sexual attractiveness and makes him feel like less of a man.  (Here’s hoping Mr. Insecurity grew out of that idiocy by the time he emerged from puberty.)

And of course, it’s also no great revelation to point out that marketers have been relying on sex as a selling point for…well, for longer than I’ve been alive.   Most advertisers are aiming for their dream demographic – the men ages 18 through 35 – and what better way to grab the attention of a young man than with a scantily-clad female body?

Which is why I found this article at The Nation (h/t to After Atalanta) so interesting.  Media researcher Mary Jo Kane did a study that found that this long-held article of faith – that sex can be used to sell everything, including women’s sports – doesn’t hold true:

Our findings revealed that in the vast majority of cases, a “sex sells” approach offended the core fan base of women’s sports—women and older men. These two groups rated the image that portrayed athletic prowess as the one most likely to influence their interest in women’s sports. Said one younger female: “This image [of a WNBA player driving toward the basket] really sucked me in. I want to be there. I want to be part of that feeling.” In contrast, younger and older females, as well as older males, were offended by the hypersexualized images. One older male said: “If she [Serena Williams in a sexually provocative pose] were my sister I’d come in, slap the photographer, grab her and leave.” Even when younger males, a prime target audience, indicated that sexually provocative images were “hot,” they also stated that such images did not fundamentally increase their interest in women’s sports, particularly when it came to attending a sporting event. The key takeaway? Sex sells sex, not women’s sports.

Think about the Women’s World Cup and the way it was covered in the media.  Certainly a lot of attention was paid to Hope Solo, who is frankly a total knockout, but she’s also the top goalkeeper in the world.  But just as much attention was paid to Abby Wambach, who is also completely hot but not in the way that graces magazine covers or shows up in swimsuit issues.  The attention that was paid to the women of the U.S. Women’s National Team didn’t focus on the way they looked in their bikinis or who they were dating, but rather how they played.  When we saw b-roll of the players, they were in their warm-up suits or on the field.

In short, the U.S. Women’s National Team was treated pretty much the same way most professional male athletes are treated – with respect for their skills as athletes.

And it worked.  People were riveted, not because they were pretty girls, but because they were excellent athletes who rocked the field every time they stepped on it.

Yet it appears as though old habits die hard, which is why I was chagrined but not surprised to hear that the Lingerie Football League had spun off a sister basketball league (h/t once again to After Atalanta):

Not too much explanation needed here, the league is exactly what you think it is — Women playing basketball in their underwear. An offshoot of the ever popular Lingerie Football, the Lingerie Basketball League is L.A. based and has four teams right now: The Beauties, The Divas, The Glam, and The Starlets.

*sigh* Where to begin.

You can tell by watching the video of the basketball players that these are not half-ass athletes.  These ladies are good at their sport.  They make solid layups, they post up under the net, they throw elbows and knock each other around. But the fact that they are doing it while wearing their underwear – and not just their underwear, but garters and thigh-highs – detracts from their athleticism.  It all looks rather silly, to be perfectly honest.

If it was about watching women play sports, the WNBA would suffice.  But that’s not what it’s about.  Instead, the lingerie sports leagues are all about half-nekkid ladies.  As Ken at After Atalanta points out, “After all, the league’s reason for existence is the uniform. Why else would it be called the Lingerie Basketball League?”

(My problems with the Lingerie Football League extend beyond the silliness of the uniforms and into questions of safety.  Those women are playing full-tackle football on turf with minimal padding and limited protection from clothes, and they are playing hard.  But I guess it’s okay if women seriously hurt themselves, as long as straight dudes have yet another source of spank material for their enjoyment?)

I think maybe the biggest problem with all of this is that marketers are consistently aiming their efforts at that specific demographic of men aged 18 through 35.  They do this despite the fact that women are just as likely to spend money and buy stuff.  I suppose the idea is that women are more likely to go along with their boyfriends/husbands than vice versa, but still, it gets more than a little bit annoying to see so much of the world framed and advertised as if the only people who walk on this planet are young, heterosexual men.

(And not even actual young, heterosexual men, but a pile of stereotypes about young, heterosexual men that make them all seem like sex-crazed broheims who spend their days engaged in drunken buffoonery.  I know very few living, breathing men who fit that stereotype.  Most men are more complicated than that, just as most women are more complicated than the marketing profiles given to us.)

Amy Klein of Titus Andronicus makes this point about another traditionally male-dominated cultural realm: rock music.  She wrote about being on tour and picking up an issue of Rolling Stone and finding only three women in the entire magazine who were a) engaged in actual musicianship and b) not dressed in a bikini:

I know that the magazine industry is failing and is doing everything it can to sell copies, and I know that it’s not easy to come up with content that will sell, and I know that sex sells, and that pop music in its purest form has a lot to do with sex, but dammit, Rolling Stone, can’t you try to be a little more fair to us? We are, after all, people too. We have purchasing power. We buy magazines. By we, I don’t just mean feminists, but women. We deserve to buy into this glorious image that you call music these days just as much as straight males do. We deserve to see ourselves as present in pop culture in some capacity that does not totally dehumanize us, and overly sexualize us, and turn us into objects for the straight male consumer to ogle. And since there are women fucking DOING incredible things in the music scene these days, we deserve to see images of women DOING things, alongside men, and not just passively posing, semi-naked, for those men’s titillation. Got that? Okay!

Klein goes on to make the point that showing women engaged in their chosen pursuit, instead of just standing around passively doe-eyed with their tits out, inspires other women and girls to get their asses out there and do what they actually want to do, instead of contenting themselves with daydreams and what-ifs and reflected glory from their boyfriends and husbands.

Dr. Kane’s research found the same thing:

Said one younger female: “This image [of a WNBA player driving toward the basket] really sucked me in. I want to be there. I want to be part of that feeling.”

But when all of the images of women you see are passive, sexualized ones, it’s hard to really get the feeling referred to in the quote, because it’s entirely predicated on being an active participant in the world around you.  It can be hard to find room for yourself in that vision of the world, especially if you are not particularly interested in being an overly sexualized woman.  (Notice that I said “sexualized” and not “sexual.”  It’s possible to be one but not the other.)

It’s nice to say that women should be able to find inspiration from anyone regardless of gender, but it hasn’t worked that way for me.  I never looked at, say, Michael Jordan and said, hey I can do that!  No, it took seeing Rebecca Lobo for me to realize that I too could play basketball.  It took seeing a woman for me to understand that I could do that, too.  Without those female role models – and I mean that in the literal, sociological sense of the term – the barriers to entry were too high and I would have forever felt cut off from embracing what is a seriously huge part of human culture.   Why do you think riot grrrl was such a big deal to so many teenage girls?  Because for the first time in our lives, we saw girls just like us doing exactly what we wanted to do, which was making music, writing zines and being awesome.  It’s boring to sit around and watch your boyfriend do stuff, you know?

Women need to be active agents in our own lives, instead of sitting on the sidelines and watching the world pass us by.  We need to be the subjects of our own lives, not objects meant to decorate the lives of others.  We need to stop watching and start doing.  But it’s hard to start doing when all you’ve ever known is a world in which women merely watch.

If marketers are at all serious about promoting women’s sports, if they want to reach a bigger audience and inspire the kind of devotion found in other sports, if they want girls to grow up dreaming of Being Like Hope the way boys grew up dreaming of Being Like Mike, then they need to quit reducing lady athletes to sexy-circus sideshows.  After all, if media and advertisers can’t be bothered to respect the women for their prowess as athletes, why should the audience be any different?

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