The Common Good

Women and the Olympic Gaze

I have a love/hate relationship with the Olympics. I love the pageantry and global drama of it all. And even as one who hardly ever watches sports (I make exceptions for Roller Derby and Quidditch), I nevertheless find myself glued to the screen whenever the Olympics roll around. At the same time I am uneasy with the neo-colonial aspects of the Games and the fact that one’s ability to win a medal increasingly depends upon how much money one’s country has (making the Games a vivid illustration of global economic injustice). Yet even as I have watched (and enjoyed) the London Games with conflicted emotions, I find myself more and more uncomfortable with the ways the presentation of the Olympics serves to reinforce harmful assumptions about women in our culture.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Zoe Smith of Great Britain competes in the Women's 58kg Weightlifting in the London Olympics. Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

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It started before the Games. As the world geared up for the Olympics, it was hard to avoid hearing some guy or another (from TV hosts to bloggers) saying that what they were most looking forward to watching was women’s beach volleyball. It was this strange inside joke insinuating that the real purpose of the Games was to give them an opportunity to see women diving around in bikinis. I even heard complaints about the new Olympic rule allowing women to compete fully covered (a concession offered to allow Muslim women to compete in the Games). It was uncomfortable to hear how nonchalantly women continue to be reduced to mere sexual objects, but I brushed it aside as typical of our culture. 

Then the health and fashion magazines put out their summer issues. On their pages I saw a sprinkling of female Olympians looking more like made-over models at a cover shoot than hard-working dedicated athletes. And I noticed another trend as well. I wasn’t seeing any shot-put champions or rowers on those pages. Instead they were gymnasts, swimmers, soccer players, and (of course) beach volleyball players. Instead of reading stories of amazing athletes committed to their sports, I was left with the impression of how one could look pretty (alright, sexy) while playing an acceptably feminine sport. I know that’s just what these sorts of magazines do, but I found myself asking, why can’t these women just be admired for being good athletes?

At first I thought my discomfort was peculiar to me, but then I read more about the ways these stereotypes typify the televised presentation of the Olympics. It’s not just my impression that women athletes are objectified for their looks, two recently published studies prove it to be the case. One study found that in the Vancouver Olympics, men received some 23 hours of primetime footage while women received under 13 – most of that from figure skating. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, while women made up 48 percent of the U.S. team and earned 48 percent of the nation’s medals, male athletes received more television coverage, especially in individual events. Significantly, “nearly three-quarters of the women’s coverage was devoted to gymnastics, swimming, diving and beach volleyball” – all sports in which women wear bathing suits (or the equivalent). Another 13 percent of the coverage was devoted to track and field where women are also scantily clad. Only 2 percent of the coverage depicted women competing in hard-body contact or power events (judo, weight-lifting) that are not typically deemed “socially acceptable” sports for women.   

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not belittling the efforts or achievements of women gymnasts, divers, or even beach volleyball players. They are amazing at what they do and I wish I had the dedication they have to train at their sport. But I am uneasy in how they are presented to the viewing public. I wonder whether it is just the assumption of the network that people are not interested in watching female athletes unless those athletes are sexually appealing in some way, or if that is in fact the reality of the U.S. audience? 

There was much derision from western countries when, after the IOC forced a few traditionally Muslim countries to allow female athlete to compete (or else not be permitted to compete at all), an Arabic hashtag which translated to “prostitutes of the Olympics” trended on Twitter in reference to the female athletes from Saudi Arabia. The opinion that a woman’s virtue is compromised if she participates in competitive sports led to this backlash against these women and had many in the U.S. declaring how sexist those countries are. Yet, the facts show that it is in the U.S. where women are not fully accepted as athletes unless they can be “sold” as sex objects in order to boost ratings.       

As I watch these Games with my 7-year-old daughter, I find myself wising for a better world. She keeps asking me when she can see the women weight-lifters, archers, and shot-putters and I have to explain to her that it is unlikely that those events will make it on TV. I want her to feel confident in her body and take joy in its strength, but cringe when even the Olympics, the supposed pinnacle of pure sport, instead send her the message that her body’s primary purpose is to be admired for its alluring qualities.  She deserves more than that. These athletes deserve more than that.

Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com (where this post originally appeared) and emergingwomen.us.

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