“She Swims like a Man”: Why the Sexist Olympic Commentary is Bullshit.

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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#Leslieforpresident

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.

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So you’re damned if you wear makeup and damned if you don’t.

The Final Five, Gymnastics

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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)

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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.

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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

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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  

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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)

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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

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

(Almost Two) Week Reflections.

Wow how has it almost been two weeks here?

The weather has been lovely; we had a couple of chilly days, but thankfully its warmed up because we brought zero cold weather clothes with us (and the rest of our clothes won’t be here until the end of September).

A couple of reflections in our two weeks here:

1.) The buildings are awesome.

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Side Streets

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Walking Street

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Great Church in the Main Square

 

2.) Food (Part 1): Alright so my opinion on food is strictly from the vegetarian options available, so keep that in mind. Our lack of a kitchen has made actual cooking non-existent so its been a lot of cheese sandwiches for me and mystery meat lunches for Chris with a side of yogurt/fruit. The plus side of our situation is that eating at restaurants here is pretty cheap, so we’ve been able to go out and try some of the local cuisine. I also titled this as a “part 1” because I am terrible at social media and forget to take food pictures, so I’ll have to do a follow up to this post in the future.

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Free Breakfast from our hotel. Yaaaaasssss. (Villa Classica)

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Gnocchi with fresh vegetables (Villa Classica)

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Mushroom Toast for lunch (Vitafit)

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I mean let’s be real, we’re all interested in the ‘zerts. (Villa Classica)

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Finally, Potato Pancakes! w/ Spinach Gnocchi (Galeria Bistro) Not pictured: My strawberry gelato I had for dessert.

3.) Random Music Tastes: Unfortunately I don’t have much photographic evidence of this so you’ll just have to take my word on it. Our first day here I saw someone spray-painted “korn” on the side of a building when I was walking PC and Ike. You might be thinking, hey they could mean something other than the music, who are you to jump to conclusions! except this was a very deliberate homage to the Jonathan Davis fronted band of our middle school days, complete with the backwards R. I saw another korn tag walking to the pharmacy the other day too; someone clearly is trying to bring this band back. From hearing Alien Ant Farm in a pub to the constant techno in cars passing by, Hungary has some very interesting musical choices. Do you, Papa, do you.

Chris snapped this pretty amazing music option at the pub jukebox:

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Let’s listen to the complete Matrix album as we take Jameson or Palinka shots!

4.) My new (dog) friend: On nice days this little guy is always hanging out his window and I get to see him/her on my way to Walking Street.

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Straight up chillin.

Yesterday he/she was being walked by her owner; I tried to sneaky-style take a picture but I didn’t want the owner to know what an actual creep I am so alas, no photo for you.

5.) Hotel dogs: Lawwwwd. I can’t tell whether being cooped up in a hotel is a positive or negative for PC and Ikers. Their lack of a backyard seems to be made up by sleeping on a made bed.

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Hopefully we’ll be traveling soon, but you know getting those adult things (a place to live, a car to drive) decided has been unfortunately consuming our days.

Happy belated birthday to this babe!

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Travel.

Whoa. I have woken up the past few days still a little shocked that we made it to Hungary all alive and in one piece. Where to start?

South Carolina – Ohio: 11.5 drive turns into a 15 hour drive. I think both Chris and I got out of the cars and collapsed in the driveway.  But I’m really glad we got to say goodbye to family.

Ohio – Maryland: Super easy 5 hour drive. Dropped the car off to be shipped (an ordeal); we finally realized that we are officially nomads that have no transportation or address.

Maryland – Austria: Probably the source of the majority of my anxiety, there was a lot stress going into that plane ride. What happens if they decide Porkchop can’t ride in the cabin with us? How will these dogs react to being on a plane? Oh shit, I forgot I’m traveling in a plane! In classic Ashlyn style, all that worry was really for nothing. Check-in was a breeze. Both dogs were approved for the cabin and all of our bags weighed around or under the 50 pounds each limit. We went through security just fine and actually got to board the plane first because of PC and Ike. Austrian gave us the bulkhead seats (much to the chagrin of the people who originally booked them, sorry not sorry). The crew was in love with the boys. Rather than putting Ike up in the overhead they let Chris put sit in the back and hold him on landing. PC was great too; he got a little antsy a couple of hours in, but literally couldn’t give a damn about the flight or the fact that he was on an airplane at all. All of the crew members came up to say goodbye to them before we got off the plane. So cute! I can’t say enough positive things about Austrian Airlines. At customs the lady just looked at our passports and sent us on our way.

After everything we went through to make sure the flight was okay with the dogs and the paperwork was completed correctly, I seriously could not have asked for a better flight, crew, or traveling day. For all the stress that went into everything, it was amazing to just actually realize hey, this is happening, we’re on our way.

Austria – Hungary: The drive from Vienna to Papa was about an hour and a half. Austria looks a lot like Germany, which makes sense. Crossing over the border, we immediately started passing a TON of sunflower fields. Seriously, so many on either side of the road! The country is pretty and (as expected) has a definite older world feeling about it.

Its day 4 and I’m still getting used to the idea that we actually are here and living in this place. Right now we’re still in a hotel and learning a ton about the city. Extra special thank you to the family and friends who helped make our travel possible! At this point I think I could write an entire guide to traveling overseas with pets and through the military. It’s a great feeling of relief to know this part is over and the new adventure can start.

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