Bernstein, A  (2002)  'Is It Time for a Victory Lap? Changes in the media coverage of women in sport', in  International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 37/(3 - 4): 415 - 28.

The main points of this article are found in the conclusion, although a good deal of supportive evidence is summarised in the body of the text itself.

In general, the traditional view of sport is that it is sexist, male dominated and the major site for perpetuating hegemonic masculinity. However, recently, we have become much more aware of female athletes and their achievements, and we now tend to believe less in the view that the differences between men and women are rooted in biology. A considerable number of facts and figures to illustrate the changes ensue -- women now participate more than ever in the Olympic Games, although they are still  'but 30 per cent of the athletes' overall  (416).

The article focuses on the effects of the media, arguing that media coverage is crucial in conveying information about other people, and in representing particular groups.  [Oddly, though, much of the study is focused on print rather than on television -- Bernstein evidently feels that TV is unrepresentative of media coverage, partly because of its deliberate policy of gender equality and  'political correctness', and because. she argues, print based media are somehow more fundamental to the issue of representation. This can look like special pleading, of course].

Media coverage of women athletes has increased to some extent, although they are still under-represented. This in turn means it is harder to attract sponsorship. Indeed, in some examples of coverage, women are almost invisible and have become  'symbolically annihilated' (Bernstein, quoting Tutchman, page 417). Some statistics of British and Swedish television coverage ensue. The argument is that females are shown largely only if they are doing gender appropriate sports, or if their sports are so significant that they are likely to yield unusually large audience ratings -- the women's World Cup in the USA in 1999 is an example. Television coverage can be misleading, since it deliberately pursues policies of equal coverage, but there are many reservations to make. For example the coverage tends to be focused on particularly  '"socially acceptable"  individual sports... 61 per cent of the coverage devoted to women focused only of three sports: swimming, diving and gymnastics' (418). Women's tennis is also disproportionately covered -- indeed, it is covered more prominently than men's tennis. However , this can indicate a concern with the appearance of gender equality rather than an attempt to really promote gender balance.

Moreover, the actual personnel involved in coverage, including the commentators, may not actually promote the official policy. Women are treated differently from men, described differently, as '"girls'" or "young ladies"' whereas male athletes are "men" or "young men"' (420). This infantilises female athletes, as does the practice of referring to them by their first or familiar names, a strategy which was 'almost exclusively applied to women' according to a German study (420). Similarly, men were described more often as active subjects, women were more often  'framed within stereotypes that emphasise their appearance and attractiveness rather than athletic skill' (420). Thus although women's athletics is regarded as legitimate, it is still other than and lesser than men's athletics. Again it is not easy to generalise, and some exceptions can be found, for example in American TV's coverage of the 1996 Olympic Games. However, this is an exception, and female athletes were often subject to sexualised and stereotyped descriptions involving their appearance, grace, beauty and the rest.

Bernstein goes on to consider the reporting of two female athletes, Marion Jones and Anna Kournikova, and how they were covered in newspapers, magazines and websites. Marion Jones is a very successful female athlete who does not fit the female stereotype but has been described as  'too boastful, too assertive, too cocksure'. She is married, and so does not face rumours about 'her likelihood of being a lesbian' (422), but tended to be largely ignored by media coverage in favour of a much more glamorous high jumper called Amy Acuff. In the case of Kournikova, her particular glamorous image might even be responsible for the increased coverage of women's tennis. Her looks have been far more important in the coverage she gets than her actual tennis performance. The overall impact she has made is therefore rather ambivalent -- she has attracted viewers for women's tennis, she may be an attractive role model for aspirant women tennis players, and she's certainly not a victim but a willing participant in earning millions from her coverage, but she has contributed to a coverage of women's tennis as a matter of style and sex-appeal.

Bernstein notices that some male players also attract fans on the basis of their sex appeal, but 'overall, we do not see as many  "sexy"  images of male tennis players as we do of their female counterparts' (425).

Thus overall, there is much more media coverage of women in athletics, but it is still not  'realistic... [in the]... manner... [in which it covers]... the sporting activity of women' (425). Demeaning and infantilising language is very common, and even the successful athletes often make it because they are attractive sexually. In this respect, additional coverage may actually be less helpful.

Back to list of notes