Olympic Coverage: Let’s Hear it for the “Girls”

I curled up in front of my television earlier this month, all set to watch the women’s gymnastic Olympic trials, when something caught my attention. At the start of the program, a promotional video began to run, flashing the names of the Olympic hopefuls. There was “Jordyn.. Gabby… McKayla… Alexandra… Kyla…” WAIT. Since when were we on a first name basis? It’s not like these athletes had the same notoriety as LeBron or Tiger. Even Michael Jordan, one of the greatest athletes in the world, is still referred to by both his first and last names. So why was it okay to refer to female gymnasts by only their first name?

Diver Brittany Viola

Gender bias in sports in nothing new. The hypersexualization and objectification of female athletes, both on the television and in popular sports magazines, has been around for years. News outlets have often been guilty of turning female athletes into pin-up girls in photo shoots, focusing on their beauty and femininity rather than their raw athleticism. It’s hard to ignore the visual stereotyping that takes place daily in newspapers and magazine. However, what’s less obvious is another type of gender bias – a verbal (or written) gender bias. What are the commentators really saying? What is the dialogue surrounding women’s sports, both during the Olympics, and the rest of the year? What most people don’t know is that verbal gender bias takes place every single day.

A common example of verbal gender bias in sports? Gender marking. Gender marking takes place when the gender of the athletes is told in reference to the sport or sporting event. Think of when a commentator comes on air, and says, “Welcome to coverage of the United State’s women’s basketball team”. That, in a nutshell, is gender marking. Instead of referring to it simply as the U.S. basketball team, emphasis is put on the women’s part. Gender marking also takes place often when referring to a school’s mascot. There are the Tennessee Volunteers, and then the Tennessee Lady Volunteers. The Arkansas Razorbacks, and then the Arkansas Lady Razorbacks. The LSU Tigers, and then the LSU Lady Tigers. “Lady” is put in place to differentiate women’s sports, from the so-called “real” sports. The result becomes that men’s sports are always set as the norm, while women’s remain the exception. As always in athletics, women become exceptions to the rule.

Gymnast Jordyn Wieber

Where there are ladies, there will also be “girls”. Commentators are notorious for their extensive use of the world “girls” when referring to female athletes. Female athletes have trained all their life to win a spot in the Olympics. Some female athletes are just out of middle school, while others have already had several children. So why are they still referred to as “girls”? Commentators rarely refer to any male athletes as “boys”, so why has it become so socially acceptable to refer to almost all female athletes as girls, regardless of their age?

Which brings me back to my original point – “hierarchy of naming”. Hierarchy of naming is a linguistic process in which female athletes are commonly referred to by their first names, as shown by the Olympic promo video with the female gymnasts. Similar to using the word “girls”, hierarchy of naming is another means of infantilizing the average women athlete. It’s nothing new either. Researchers that have studied past Olympics, found that commentators refer to female athletes by their first names much more often than their male counterparts. A study found that commentators during the Olympics used a woman’s first name 32 times during a swimming and diving competition (compared with 8 times for the male competitors), 87 times for track and field (compared with 11), and 104 times in gymnastics (compared to 64). On average, female athletes were called by only their first name around 60% of the time.

U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials

It’s important to realize that gender bias isn’t just limited to the visual. The way television stations and commentators frame sporting events linguistically also makes a difference, whether we realize it or not. By allowing commentators to continue to refer to many female athletes as “girls” is to say that they don’t deserve the same treatment as “men”, who are the “real athletes”. It perpetuates the stereotype that female athletes are at the end of the day, just “female athletes”. Inferiority is what is implied.

While watching the Olympics the next couple weeks, take note of such examples of gender bias. Add a comment at the end of this blog post for every time you see gender bias take place. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see if a pattern emerges over the course of the Olympics? If commentators refer to athletes more often as “girls” in certain sports, and not at all in others? If hierarchy of naming takes place across the board, or just for certain teams, or certain ages? Leave a comment or tweet at us @NotEnoughGood. The first step to social change always comes through awareness. Let’s get this started.

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    • Tracey on 23 August, 2012 at 8:40 am
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    Hi Kirsten, I’ve been watching my TV thinking why do they say girls when the women are often way past girlhood. Men are men at 18 though. It happens in the workplace too (office) and when I say something its “PC gone mad” apparently. I’ve even heard a 54 year old referred to as a girl and while men are addressed individually, “what about you Greg?” What do you think Bob?” we got a “and you girls”.

    It’s not helped that women refer to themselves in this way.

      • Kristen Wendt on 25 August, 2012 at 11:22 pm
      • Reply

      I agree with your comment completely, Tracey. All too often, I heard commentators refer to female athletes as “girls” during the Olympics. One example that I remember most clearly was when a commentator referred to Misty Mae-Treanor and Kerri Walsh-Jennings as “girls”… they’re both over thirty years old. Walsh-Jennings has kids.

      And it’s not just in the sporting realm – it happens all the time on television, on the radio, and in the workplace. Do I think that people are deliberately trying to belittle women? No. However, I do think that we have to acknowledge our universal blindness to our society’s terminology surrounding gender.

      Anyway, thanks for your comment! And keep up the good work – what you’re doing is not “PC gone mad”, it’s just some common courtesy!

    • TLD on 7 August, 2012 at 10:19 am
    • Reply

    Hi, Kristen. It was so gratifying to find your article, because a lot of people think I’m too “opinionated” or “not cool enough” to understand the objectification of female athletes. It’s actually kind of weird because I’m not at all prudish and quite liberal in my own outlook, but I know where to draw the line! I am a woman, and over a long period of my life, was quite athletic (health issues and age have dampened that somewhat, but I’m in the middle of trying to build my athletic endurance back up these days).

    I found it extremely troubling that the American female Olympic gymnasts were hypersexualized in their promotional pictures. Most of them aren’t even of legal voting age, yet there they are, posing in their “come-get-me” (the polite way of saying CFM) poses, throwing their hair over their shoulders, thrusting their bosoms out.

    It doesn’t help that women like Misty May and Kerry Walsh say publicly that they want to be appreciated for their beautiful bodies first, and only secondarily as great athletes. I’ve seen many posts across the internet that weigh heavily in favor of the “right” of the women beach volleyballers to wear skimpy bikinis during competition, and most of them veil themselves in the rhetoric that “the female body is a work of art,” “these women work hard on their bodies, why shouldn’t everyone see them and appreciate them?” among other comments. Like all such veiled comments, what is missing is the honesty of their intentions — why they try to pretend that it’s about appreciating the female form and not about watching a couple of scantily clad women stretch, grunt, and groan while hoping for a slip of the bikini and maybe catching a glimpse of a nipple, a butt crack, or an outline of a vulva, is beyond comprehension. After all, if it was all about appreciating the female form, why not talk about the amazing women in the weightlifting competition? I saw part of the the 48-kilo competition – those women were just over half my size, so compact, but so strong – there was a real beauty in watching them compete. In the heavier classes of weightlifting, we have Holley Mangold — where is her cheering section, where are the crowds talking about HER beautiful form? Apparently, it’s not enough that she’s a great athlete – she would have to look good in a bikini, too.

    Similarly, many posts across the internet focus on the fact that athletes from water polo, track-and-field, and diving also wear skimpy outfits. They miss the point – in all of those cases, virtually all of the athletes dress that way to reduce drag. In the case of gymnastics and diving, skintight outfits make it easier for judges to see the form of the athlete, which constitutes an important part of the score. Many have decried a double standard in gymnastics, where the men are almost fully clothed and the women are dressed only in tight leotards. The outfits, in my view, are not the problem (but read above, and you will see that I do have a problem with the hypersexualized posing of the young women) — having been a young gymnast, I can attest that it would be nearly impossible to perform women’s gymnastics in anything other than leotard. Even wearing tights would become restrictive, especially on the unevens. The men switch between wearing long pants and shorts, depending on the apparatus (and the potential injuries, like abrasions and cuts, to bare legs.

    So, I’ve gone way beyond the topic of your post. Hope you can forgive that.

      • Kristen Wendt on 7 August, 2012 at 8:01 pm
      • Reply

      Thanks for commenting! You raised some great points.

      The great thing about these Games, I feel, is that while there still is a fair share of objectification and sexualization of female athletes, it’s not the only dialogue that is taking place. There have been SO many articles in the last couple weeks about the representation of women in these Olympic Games. There are articles about the outfits of athletes in everything from beach volleyball to boxing to badminton. There have been numerous articles about the women of the weightlifting competition, like Holley Mangold. And then there’s been backlash against certain media outlets, which have called the weight and fitness of certain female athletes (like Australian swimmer Leisel Jones and the Brazilian soccer team) into question during the first week of the Games. Is there still a lot of gender bias out there? Yes. However, I think with the help of people like you the conversation is finally starting to head in the right direction.

  1. Hi Michelle,

    Here are a couple of things that I’ve noticed over the first couple days of competition:
    -“Girls” is still used quite regularly by commentators whether they realize it or not. I’ve heard it several times in the swimming, gymnastics, and beach volleyball competitions. One particular example that I remember from last night is when the commentator called Misty May-Treanor and Kerry Walsh-Jennings the “golden girls” (even though they’re now both in their thirties.)
    -I definitely had the same thought as you about the gymnastics promo – full makeup and sparkly leotards have long been a part of gymnastics, but was it really necessary for them to pose them in such a manner? Another pet peeve of mine: many of them had their hair down in the promo.
    -As for the Ye Shiwen scandal, the coverage so far has been very interesting. While Shiwen’s progress has been amazing, it seems awfully quick of news stations, especially NBC, to jump straight to the conclusion that she must be doping. Two nights ago, Bob Costas was on air discussing her amazing accomplishments, complimenting her on her success, however then ended by saying that it could just be the result of doping. The problem that I have with the coverage is 1. She’s only 16 years old. Sure, she’s had amazing progress, but she’s still developing so anything’s possible. 2. The fact that “she swam her final 50 meters of freestyle during the 400 IM faster than the men’s 400 IM gold medalist, Ryan Lochte” has been told time and time again on news stations to prove that she must be cheating in some manner. Makes you wonder if a lot of this whole controversy can be traced back to the simple fact that a woman had a faster time than a man?

    Just some thoughts for now. Thanks for commenting!
    Kristen W.

  2. HI,
    female fencer who was protesting against the final point.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/jul/30/south-korean-fencer-protest-olympic

    BBC commentator informed the viewers that ‘She was not having a strop and is fully entitled to protest against this point’

    Cant help but feel that a man would be ‘standing by his decision’

  3. Hi Kristen,

    I’ve actually been paying close attention to some of things that the olympics commentators have been saying this year, though I’ve been focusing more on the nationalistic things that come out of their mouths rather than the gender biased statements. Now I’m wondering what all I missed when I was so busy focusing on, for example, the comments surrounding the Ye Shiwen scandal or the comparisons between American and Russian gymnasts. I do remember thinking that the promos for the American gymnastics team, which showed the girls dressed in their sparkly leotards and in full make-up posing for the camera, were kind of odd, and certainly no one would do that for the mens swimming team. I’ll definintely be paying more attention to gender bias now, though!

    Thanks,
    Michelle

  1. […] One social research blog has identified use of such language as ‘gender marking’. […]

  2. […] social research blog has identified use of such language as ‘gender marking’. The way television stations and […]

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