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Feminizing Sport’s Elite Female Stars

One of the most effective ways to view gender discrimination in society is by examining the world of sport. Even if you are not a sports fan, it’s interesting to see the different ways sport – much like the rest of society – values and compensates women based on traditional gender norms tied to physical appearance.

“Show me the money!” Jerry Maguire taught us that in the sports world money is everything. Recently Forbes magazine published a list of the best paid female athletes. Looking at this list we can see what sports are the most lucrative for women and what type of female athlete our society values the most.

How is the highest paid female athlete not the definitive best at her sport?

The New Zealand Herald has two articles exemplifying the gendered discrimination women continue to face in sport and society. The first article titled, “Sharapova tops highest earners list yet again,” focuses on tennis star, Maria Sharapova, whose earnings were “estimated at $US25 million…” For $25 mill we can assume Sharapova is at the apex of the tennis world right? Well no, she has not achieved the level of success she did in the past, and, “… most of [her earnings are] coming from endorsement deals having one won one tournament in the last 12 month[s].” Huh? How is the highest paid female athlete not the definitive best at her sport?

Perhaps the answer is obvious – She makes bookoo bucks, but not predominantly on the court. Sharapova is an excellent athletic talent (she was the 2011 Wimbledon runner up), but is widely considered an extraordinary beauty off the court. For a female athlete (or a female anything for that matter), physical beauty carries a high degree of social currency. Though men may also benefit from being considered physically attractive, beauty standards matter much more for women, especially with regard to occupational compensation in fields with high public visibility.

Take a look at the list below and see if you can spot some trends. What do these ten women have in common?

Top 10 women earners

  • Maria Sharapova $US25 million (Russia, tennis)
  • Caroline Wozniacki $US12.5 million (Denmark, tennis)
  • Danica Patrick $US12 million (US, motor racing)
  • Venus Williams $US11.5 million (US, tennis)
  • Kim Clijsters $US11 million (Belgium, tennis)
  • Serena Williams $US10.5 million (US, tennis)
  • Kim Yuna $US10 million (figure skating, South Korea)
  • Li Na $US8 million (China, tennis)
  • Ana Ivanovic $US6 million (Serbia, tennis)
  • Paula Creamer $US5.5 million (US, golf)

 

Every female athlete on the list plays a sport considered traditionally feminine (tennis, figure skating, and golf), except Danica Patrick who is ranked #3 and competes in “motor racing.” Historically, the traditionally feminine sports discouraged physical contact with other athletes and focused on the theatrical beauty of their athletic performance. Tennis, golf, and individual figure skating all lack physical contact between athletes. In the sports world today we don’t pay women who touch one another. Ok, Danica Patrick may touch her competitors, but there is a ton of steel and fiberglass between her and Jimmy Johnson.

So where did this line of thinking come from? Well at least partially from 19th century medical doctors who argued that physical contact and heavy pounding in athletics jeopardized child birth, and in turn discouraged upper-class white women from partaking in high-contact sports, such as basketball. Such ideology reflected how women were valued as mothers above anything else. While doctors have long since dispelled such sexist myths, a clear trend persists – female athletes in those same “traditionally feminine” sports are compensated more than those women who play historically masculine sports (e.g., basketball, soccer).

Although Danica Patrick is an “outlier” of sorts, one can still see how she is constructed in popular culture as a beauty symbol, despite participating in a male dominated sport with extensive physical risks. It is worth asking, would Patrick be one of the top earning professional female athletes if she did not emphasize her femininity the ways she does? I’m looking at you GoDaddy Commercials. Does Patrick’s approach to making her profession a highly lucrative one reflect how women working in other male-dominated professions must fulfill certain gender expectations if they want to succeed? What might this say about how society limits women’s pathways to financial success and stability?

The second article, “The 10 top earners in women’s sport,” offers an even more vivid example of gender inequality. Go look at pictures of these ten women. You can see for yourself that of the ten women pictured, only two (Venus Williams and Kim Clijsters) are pictured while playing a sport. More to the point, Clijsters is the only female athlete pictured in an “active” photo, meaning she is shown actively playing her sport. Every other female athlete is pictured in a “passive” stance, frequently wearing fashionable attire that emphasizes traditional femininity.

The pictures presented in the present article have been deliberately selected because they are strikingly similar to those provided in the NZ Herald’s photo array. A sociologist (specifically a symbolic interactionist) would ask, if these are professional athletes, why were so few of them shown playing their sport? And what might this say about how women – even elite professional women – continue to be valued in society relative to men?

Dig Deeper:

  1. After reading this article, can you see a connection between the gendered patterns we see in sport with those in the broader society?
  2. How are male athletes presented in mainstream media, and how is this different from the presentation of female athletes discussed in this article?
  3. Go to a nearby supermarket and quickly examine a few sports and/or fitness magazines. What patterns do you notice with regard to males and females? How are men posed differently from women? What body parts are emphasized differently? What might any differences you see in the presentation of men and women suggest about how understandings of gender are created in society?
  4. Put on your symbolic interactionist hat and look at the photos used in the second article about the top 10 highest paid female athletes. What trends can you see beyond the one discussed in this reading?