Anecdotally there seems to be no shortage of sexist remarks made in the media about successful female athletes. However, two researchers at the University of Missouri wanted to quantify instances of what they’ve classified these types of remarks as “microaggressions,” specifically with regards to Olympians.
In a new study, Cynthia Frisby, associate professor of strategic communications at University of Missouri, along with her undergraduate student Kara Allen, analyzed 732 newspaper and magazine articles to understand the coverage of female athletes during the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.
They cataloged instances of microaggressions, which are comments made in regards to a person’s race and gender. These comments often have the consequence of belittling the athletic accomplishments of women. The researchers wanted to find “how images…are portrayed in media and how they can be used to create a stereotype, sustain them or make them stronger,” according to Frisby. They focused on seven Olympic sports: gymnastics, tennis, track and field, weightlifting, basketball, swimming and beach volleyball.
In total, microaggressions increased by 40 percent from the 2012 to the 2016 Olympics. Of the 165 instances of microaggressions found in print coverage, 96 of them were during the 2016 Games.
Looking specifically at track and field athletes, 33 instances of microaggressions were recorded. The only sport that had more was gymnastics. Some coverage attributed the success of a female track and field athlete to a man. Others used racist and sexist language, focused on the athlete’s body type or were sexually objective in tone.
“We have sports that are considered more gender appropriate. Gymnastics might be considered more feminine,” says Frisby. “Track and field comes up in the research as being a gender-neutral sport.”
Despite the perception that track and field is a sport for both genders, there was still many instances of objectification around women’s bodies.
“We found that female athletes were written about in a number of different ways in terms of their attractiveness, mostly their bodies,” says Frisby. “Women who are toned and extremely muscular are perceived to be masculine because women aren’t supposed to have muscles. Some of the comments were about how pretty the person is when they were supposed to be a story not on how pretty they were but that they just won a gold medal.”
Frisby also notes that many female athletes are often compared to male counterparts instead of being celebrated for their own accomplishments. She uses Simone Biles as an example. There were instances of Biles being called the “female Michael Jordan.” While these comparisons are often made by journalists to help those unfamiliar with the Olympic sport, it takes away from a female Olympian’s success.
“The biggest problem is when you make those comparisons is that you might unintentionally create and maintain stereotypes,” Frisby says. “So what if someone doesn’t know who Simone Biles is. What impression are they going to get once you have made that comparison?
“To me it makes a subtle inference that your audience is so dumb that they can’t understand and read the material. Most journalists make an assumption that the audience needs those comparisons to understand something not familiar to them.”
Even though the study focused on print media, Frisby says that sexist commentary was also made during TV broadcast, “but print media would pick them up as well and do stories about them.”
Frisby shared that the reaction to the study has been enlightening. Some journalists are appreciative of the research, while others are having a tough time believing the data. However, she has received emails from male journalists who have admitted to struggling with how to frame the accomplishments of female athletes.
“Those are the instances when I feel like my work has made the most impact,” Frisby says. “When we can at least get the data out there to start the conversation.”