Sexualizing Women’s Athletics Points to Bigger Problems

By Chelsey Shannon

First Year Chelsea Shannon

Before me sits a flier for the women’s lacrosse match this past weekend.  The text describes the event: the where, the when and the why.  In the middle of the 8.5” by 11” sheet is an image of a rail thin super model in lingerie holding a lacrosse stick.  Irrelevant?  Yes.  Offensive?  To me, yes.  This ad isn’t the first of its kind that Kalamazoo College students have seen this year; last quarter, a large poster for women’s volleyball game displayed in the caf advertised “girl-on-girl action.”

This is all in good fun, and in the interest of garnering attention for women’s sports.  But, at the risk of being a wet blanket, I have to point out that such ad campaigns are harmful.
As a woman, they offend me because they support the already rampant sexual objectification of women, as well as the dismissal of women’s endeavors, whether athletic, creative, academic, or otherwise.  As a gay woman in particular, the volleyball campaign offends me because it fetishizes sex between women – (or “girl-on-girl action,” as it were) – morphing it from a valid expression of love between two individuals into a sexual spectacle to be delighted in by (presumably) men.

I believe these ads are counterproductive, assuming that their object is to gain positive publicity for women’s athletic events at K. After all, they sexualize—and therefore trivialize—women’s athletics, implying that the volleyball match is little more than a sexy cat-fight.  And the comparison of female lacrosse players to an extremely thin model insinuates that this is all women are, or should be. Why not present these events as the valid athletic functions with valid female athletes (which they are)?  Is it necessary to portray serious athleticism as erotic exhibitions?  Doesn’t this undermine the efforts of K’s female athletes who work hard as individuals and teams?  Even if these demeaning advertising approaches are more effective than a non-offensive approach, they certainly do not attract spectators for the right reasons I can’t imagine that an individual who wouldn’t attend a women’s sporting event unless it was advertised in sexual terms would really be attending to appreciate the women’s athletic skills.

Now, I am neither an athlete nor a sports enthusiast.  In fact, I am possibly the least sporty person I know.  However, my personal lack of athletic finesse only heightens my appreciation for those who do hone their bodies and minds for the sake of sport—especially in the case of women. In doing so they are flying in the face of the male domination of American athletics, as well as the stereotype that women cannot be physically strong.  It makes me especially disheartened to see women athletes at my own college diminishing their abilities and bowing to negative stereotypes of women’s sports and women in general.

I don’t mean to pick on the volleyball and lacrosse teams. Although intention doesn’t change the nature of the message conveyed, I understand that whoever came up with the fliers didn’t intend to sexualize or undervalue the team.  Actually, I think the ads are symptomatic of a broader problem in our culture: the general devaluing of women’s athletics.  Athletes or not, we are all influenced by the sexist idea that male aggression, (whether expressed in sports or in general), is worthy of veneration, while female aggression is “unfeminine” and therefore dangerous.  As Lynn Peril suggests in College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens, and Co-Eds, Then and Now, sexualizing women is one way of disempowering them, — just as the equation of a college volleyball match to “girl-on-girl action” disempowers the sport.

It doesn’t take a sports fanatic to know that men’s sporting events attract far more attention—and respect—than women’s.  According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, the salary discrepancy between male and female athletes in the same sport can be as large as $4,950,000 per year on average, as was the case of American professional basketball players in 2006.  Despite the fact that male and female athletes both work incredibly hard to attain their personal best in their professions, males receive far more compensation, both in terms of recognition and money.  That the volleyball and lacrosse teams felt the need to advertise their events in sexual terms shows that K College is no different from the rest of America in this respect.

So, what’s to be done? What difference does it make if K College’s women’s teams advertise their events in a demeaning, sexualized way if that’s the way the world sees female athletes, anyway?  Well, it certainly wouldn’t change everything overnight.  But, as the motto of the 1970s women’s movement asserts, the personal is political.  If K’s women athletes refuse to take—or, more accurately, present—themselves as anything less than serious athletes deserving of respect, perhaps it will foster a culture of heightened appreciation of women’s sports on our campus, which could then extend outward.

2 thoughts on “Sexualizing Women’s Athletics Points to Bigger Problems

  1. Wait next month for Women’s World Cup Soccer in Germany. You’ll perhaps see female soccer players on the covers of men’s magazines, scantily clad like male soccer players on the cover of women’s magazines like Vanity Fair being scantily clad during the Men’s World Cup Soccer in South Africa last year.

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