Ah, that time of year again, the Summer Olympics. Now that Rio has drawn to a close, I want to take some time to talk about the issues I have with the media’s–particularly NBC’s–blatant bias and chosen narrative surrounding female athletes.
Media coverage of female Olympic athletes is sexist. The two weeks of the Olympics can be used as a lens to show how media in American society treat female athletes. We need to start questioning how women (and their accomplishments) are portrayed; It says a lot about our culture and it needs to change.
Undermining the accomplishments of women in their respective sport is done in a lot of ways but I’m going to focus on three: downplaying their status as world-class athletes, criticizing women who both meet and don’t adhere to society’s standards, and subverting their abilities by giving recognition to men. Most of these examples can fall under two or all three narratives.
Let’s just start with a couple of facts. NBC Universal owns the rights to broadcasting the Olympics across all platforms. And they paid a pretty penny for it: “The agreement from 2021 to 2032 is valued at USD 7.65 billion, plus an additional USD 100 million signing bonus to be used for the promotion of Olympism and the Olympic values between 2015 and 2020” (International Olympic Committee, 2014). Now, because NBC Universal owns the broadcasting rights for literally every single conceivable way to watch the Olympics in the United States, it is important to also take into account how we, the audience, digest this coverage. This is where we start to get into the idea of narrative.
And I know this can sound crazy. Okay okay, so does NBC Universal really create a “narrative”? Think about not only the money spent on these rights but the number of advertisers backing all of the coverage. NBC Universal wants–no needs–people to watch. Before the Games began, John Miller (NBC Olympics Chief Marketing Officer) stated that:
The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the Games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and mini-series wrapped into one. And to tell the truth, it has been the complaint of a few sports writers. It has not been the complaint of the vast viewing public (The Inquirer Daily News, 2016).
I’m not going to spend time talking about how blatantly sexist this remark is for women across the United States, whether you’re a die-hard sports fan, casual sports-fan, or don’t give a shit about sports-fan.
Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post states: “This is where NBC’s real offense lies. It’s not so much that it insults the audience — but it sure does insult Olympic athletes, especially female athletes. The Olympics is the most prominent competition in the world and 53 percent of Team USA is female, which means American women likely will bring in more medals than American men. Yet they will be presented in packaging aimed at a Ladies’ Home Journal crowd. Exactly how does that grow a hardcore audience for women’s sports, or a year-in, year-out base for other Olympic sports, for that matter?”
It’s this ideology that leads to the creation of narratives that undermine the accomplishments of athletes (mainly female) for the purpose of hooking viewers. Because when your goal is to create a reality show based off the best athletes in the world you have to pump in a little drama.
Again, I’m going to quote Sally Jenkins here:
NBC doesn’t necessarily have a social responsibility to cover female Olympians as the real athletes they are. But there’s no question the current setup treats them as diminutives, even while celebrating their “stories.” And this may very well turn off traditional sports viewers.
Even if you buy NBC’s argument that the majority of the viewing public prefers edited, packaged programming over the vagaries of live sports competition, then ask yourself this question: Why aren’t NFL football telecasts tape delayed and packaged? … The fact is, no network would do that. Why? Because the networks assign a dignity and an import to a live NFL game that they don’t to women’s gymnastics.
And that’s a fucking problem.
And I’m not saying here that this should be an argument of men’s vs. women’s sports. The differences in how they’re broadcasted, how athletes are portrayed, how the media responds–basically how sports are packaged and then fed to us as viewers–is what needs to be assessed.
How does NBC Universal and the Media portray female athletes in a sexist way?
#1: Downplaying their Status as World-Class Athletes
Debating Olympic Athletes Wearing Makeup
Mark Simone and Bo Dietl debated on a Fox News radio show whether Olympic athletes should wear makeup. The host, Tamara Holder, begins the segment by stating that female Olympians are“sexing it up more than ever by wearing makeup during their competitions.”
Dietl starts with, “I think when you see an athlete, why should I have to look at some chick’s zits? Why not a little blush on her lips? And cover those zits! I like to see a person who wins that gold medal go up there and look beautiful.” (Dietl also said that Michael Phelps should wear acne cream too). He goes on to say: “We all have opinions, but when someone looks better, people support them more… When you look like a washed-out rag, no one’s gonna support you.” Finally, Dietl ends with the comment to Tamara: “Tamara, look how beautiful you are with that makeup. What do you look like when you crawl out of bed in the morning? I’d rather have you now, the way you look.” The full video can be found here.
So you’re damned if you wear makeup and damned if you don’t.
The Final Five, Gymnastics
After a qualification round that put the USA in first by over ten points ahead of #2 China, NBC Commentator Dan Hicks stated that the team looked like they “might as well be standing in the middle of a mall” as they were waiting for their final score.
Sanne Wevers, Gymnastics
When Dutch gymnast Sanne Wevers finished her beam routine that would eventually win her the gold medal (and her country’s first individual gold in the sport), the 24 year old began calculating her routine’s start value in her notebook. NBC Commentator Al Trautwig said, “Right after her routine she went over and grabbed that book. I can only guess it’s some sort of diary.” Dear Diary, Shut the fuck up.
#2: Criticizing Women who Both Meet and Don’t Adhere to Society’s Standards
Katie Ledecky, Swimming
After Ledecky broke her own record in the 400m freestyle, rather than celebrate her own accomplishments in the sport, NBC Commentator Rowdy Gaines said, “a lot of people think she swims like a man.” This wasn’t the first time similar notions about Ledecky’s ability were comparable to her male counterparts. Christina Cauterucci wrote in Slate:
“A lot of people,” in this case, are Ledecky’s fellow swimmers. “Her stroke is like a man’s stroke,” 2012 Olympian Connor Jaeger told the Washington Post earlier this summer. “I mean that in a positive way. She swims like a man.” Perennial Olympic broRyan Lochte told Sports Illustrated of Ledecky, “She swims like a guy. Her stroke, her mentality: She’s so strong in the water. I’ve never seen a female swimmer like that. She gets faster every time she gets in, and her times are becoming good for a guy. She’s beating me now, and I’m, like, ‘What is going on?’ ”
Laura Trott, Cycling
Laura Trott became one of the most successful GBR Olympian of all time after she won her fourth gold medal in cycling. When her fiance Jason Kenny won his own event, Trott broke down while Kenny remained emotionless. BBC Commentator Chris Boardman stated, “She’s doing the emotion for both of them really, isn’t it? He’s looking at her going ‘what’s for tea?'”
Gabby Douglas, Gymnastics
I have a lot to say about the Gabby Douglas narrative created for this Olympic cycle even before the Games began. But I’m limiting this here to issues that happened during the competition.
After the team won the gold medal by the largest margin in history, many people claimed that Douglas appeared to be distant and unpatriotic because she didn’t place her hand over her heart during the national anthem. Bill Plaschke, longtime writer for the LA Times wrote:
“Douglas failed to show what many considered appropriate reverence. As her four teammates stood at full attention with their hands over their hearts, Douglas was slumped with her hands held casually in front of her as if she had just finished last. Even during moments when she showed a smile, her body language was disconnected. The difference in aura with the other American gymnasts was palpable.”
Even though Michael Phelps laughed during the playing of the anthem and there are plenty of examples of NFL players not putting their hands over their hearts, no one bitches about their dedication to the sport (or country).
Gabby Douglas, Gymnastics (again)
After not qualifying for the all around final, Douglas was in the stands watching the two American women compete. She was criticized for not cheering as much as her teammates, with many people calling her attitude “salty.” Maybe she’s just more introverted? Maybe reflecting on the fact that even though she placed third in qualification she wasn’t allowed to move forward to defend her title? Criticizing her for not smiling while celebrating Phelps for this facial expression is fucking sexist. Gabby is “salty,” “immature” “disconnected,” and “unpatriotic” but its “boys will be boys” when 32 year old Ryan Lochte lied about being held at gunpoint.
During the team final fluff in primetime, NBC also didn’t refer to Gabby as the Olympic Champion she is (like they said about Aly) but that Marta had “faith in her.”
So for the media you’re too much a female if you show emotion and not enough woman if you show less emotion than expected? What’s the right (and amount of) emotion I should show?
#3: Giving Recognition to Men Rather than the Athlete Herself:
Katinka Hosszú, Hungary
After winning the 400m individual medley, NBC Commentator Dan Hicks gave her coach/husband the credit for the win stating he was “responsible” for the swimmer’s win. Later Hicks would go on to state that he should have worded the statement differently, but that he shouldn’t apologize.
Corey Cogdell-Unrein, Shooting
HER NAME IS COREY COGDELL-UNREIN. Rather than use her name, The Chicago Tribune tweets that the “wife” of a Bears Lineman wins an olympic medal. Because its her status as his partner that makes her important, not the fact that she’s won medals both in 2012 and 2016.
Katie Ledecky, Swimming (Again)
Katie Ledecky’s gold medal win–and new record–takes a backseat to Phelp’s silver, at least in the eyes of The Eagle. Law Professor Nancy Leong tweeted a picture of the article with “This headline is a metaphor for basically the entire world.”
Andy Murray, Tennis
Andy Murray gets a giant Feminist High Five for correcting Commentator John Inverdale’s statement that Murray was “first person ever to win two Olympic tennis gold medals.” Murray replied that the Williams sisters have “won about four each.”
Simone Biles, Gymnastics
After dismounting the uneven bars, one of the NBC Commentators stated “I think she might even go higher than some of the men.” Biles went on to win four golds and a bronze, more than any other gymnast (man or woman). She commented:
“I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I’m the first Simone Biles.”
Whether its referring to woman as “girls” or talking about their nail polish or uniforms (Bill Plaschke referred to them as “sparkles and spandex” ugh) rather than their competition, these kinds of statements–along with the general way we let them slide–need to stop. We’re just furthering the notion that female athletic wins will not be taken as seriously as the accomplishments of men.
We can use this coverage as a lens for how our society sees and values women in modern culture. When we call a woman a bitch because she’s not bubbly, when we call a woman emotional because she’s disappointed in herself, and when we think of “successful partner” and automatically see a man–those are ways we continue to perpetuate the patriarchy. Female athletes are all shapes and sizes. They look different and similar to women you know. If we keep laughing off this type of media coverage or downplaying the impact it has on not only athletes, but people in society, its never going to change. Media reflects society.
NBC Universal (and the media) are making a profit off of selling female athletes in this sexist fucking way. If that isn’t the picture of patriarchy, I don’t know what is.