Female Olympians, Like Women in Politics, Are Still Stuck in the Cheap Seats

14 Aug 2012

There is a reason why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fights for the empowerment of women and girls around the world.  Even in the 2012 Olympics, we were not immune from institutionalized sex bias.  At 16, Gabby Douglas became the first African American to win a gold medal in gymnastics.  She subsequently received Twitter-bashing about her hair so widespread, it was reported by CNN and prompted her mom to write an article defending her daughter; explaining why her hair wasn’t perfect.

U.S. gymnast Alexandra Raisman performs on the balance beam during the artistic gymnastics women’s apparatus finals at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012, in London.

American weightlifter Sarah Robles almost couldn’t compete this year because she was not considered attractive enough and couldn’t find sponsors.  On Facebook, a man wanted to know, “Why all the male gold medal winning swimmers are so gorgeous and the females so “fugly”?

Huffington Post reported that: “Sports governing bodies from Japan and Australia are under fire after complaints that male Olympic athletes flew business class to the London Games, while the women sat in the cheap seats.”  This even though the female athletes had seniority and were medal winners where the men were not.

For the first time this year, the U.S. sent more women to the Olympics than men, yet the Huffington Post shared a study that female athletes are far less likely to get endorsement deals due to over-sexualization of female athletes, under-exposure and far less coverage of their achievements.  And who is making the decision to sexualize female athletes when they are selling products that appeal to women?  Men.  Clearly, the women desired a different focus.

Female athletes are far less recognizable than their male counterparts.  USA Today reported that in 2008, for example, only 1.6 percent of women’s sporting events were broadcast.  Coverage now amounts to about 5%.  Therefore, women offer less brand appeal to advertisers and endorsers and are far less likely to profit from their abilities.

Last week, the first Saudi woman, Wojdan Shaherkani, competed for a Judo medal.  Her Olympic career lasted 82 seconds but it was a miracle she made it at all.  The Miami Herald reported that Saudi Arabia’s government “bans physical education for girls on the grounds that athletics and femininity are incompatible. Hard-line clerics have argued, variously, that sports damages the female psyche, corrupts a girl’s morals and can lead to lesbianism.”  After condemnations by a Saudi royal at Shaherkani’s participation, an Arabic hash-tag appeared on Twitter:  “Olympic whores.”

The oppressive regime of Saudi Arabia notwithstanding, the concept of athletics and femininity being incompatible still exists in the U.S., as does the concept of the incompatibility of femininity and leadership.  Let’s ask Hillary Clinton why she was not able to compete in sports as a girl – the reasons sound alarmingly similar to the Saudis, if couched in more polite terms.  Despite Title IX, which passed in 1972, women are still not competing on a level field.  Though women kicked butt in the medal count, and accounted for 29 out of 46 gold medals this year, they still suffer an over-emphasis on appearance, and under-emphasis on ability and achievement.

According to an article by Daniela Quintanillain in PolicyMic, Sexism in the coverage of the 2012 Olympics ran rampant:

Science Daily reported when female athletes succeed, commentators attribute their success to luck instead of physical ability; when they fail, their physical abilities are noted for being inferior. The inverse was found for males. When they succeeded, commentators lauded their skill and when they failed it was because their competitors were superior or had good luck.

Britain’s first medal winner was cyclist Lizzie Armitstead, who said that women athletes face “overwhelming” sexism in unequal pay and less recognition. “…the main issue facing women is lack of sponsorship. Major financiers prefer men’s sports and competitions to women’s and event organizers cannot pressure them towards one sport over another.”

More troubling – and something we see here in the U.S. all the time:

[W]omen’s volleyball players must wear bikinis and sports bras while men are allowed to wear t-shirts… “they [female athletes] have to be sexy to get noticed but they are not taken seriously as sportswomen because they are sexy.”

Like Goldilock’s porridge – too hot or too cold.  Never right:

ThinkProgress also pointed out that “whether they play better in a bikini or a sweatshirt is up to no one but that athlete – any other rule is extremely paternalistic and unjust.”

Furthermore, the IOC has also been getting a lot of criticism for testing female athletes for testosterone levels…

Some athletes face sexism from the public itself and not from the IOC or NBC. Female weightlifter Zoe Smith, 18, had to shut down her Twitter account because of the sexist things that were posted about her like the tweet, “Your insecurities are kicking in lol. Now pi** off back to the kitchen and make your boyfriend a sandwich he’s hungry.”

Not too far from the taunting placard at a 2008 campaign rally: “Hillary – Iron my shirt.”

Two weeks ago, at the passing of astronaut Sally Ride, we discovered even she was not immune from unreasonable criticism.  A magnificent, ground breaking role model for women everywhere and for all young people in pursuit of the sciences, Ms. Ride was second-guessed for not revealing herself to be gay while she was alive.  If she would have come out, it is likely her career as an astronaut would have been torpedoed, and the media’s only focus would have been her “lesbianism,” not her many achievements.

A pattern starts to emerge, regardless of age, or position in the athletic world or in positions of leadership – objectify first, ask questions later.

In politics, even today, a woman is referred to as granny, diva, ice queen, bitch, domineering mother, yapping troll, hag, slut, moron, c*nt.

In athletics, she’s “Fugly,” a “dyke” or “hot.”

Her sexuality, questions about her sexual preference and her appearance still rule.

It would seem that a woman has to carry the torch in all respects:  appearance, comportment, motherhood, wholesomeness and have all the magnetic qualities required of a spokesperson to boot.  A man is not hampered by equal burdens.  A man can be sexy, handsome, an absent dad and still have gravitas in a suit.   And no one is going to accuse him of being a bimbo just because he’s pretty.

There is no woman on a major ticket in the election this year.  And why is a woman not on the ticket?  After what happened to Hillary Clinton Sarah Palin in 2008, I can assure you, women are considered a risky “distraction” from the issues at hand.  That is not the word of the candidates, but it is mine – and I’m sure I’m right.  Half the population and still a distraction.  When will that change?

In fact, we had to fight to get a female journalist to moderate one of the presidential debates.  Candy Crowley will moderate the Town Hall debate between Obama and Romney.  A paltry victory.  Four years ago, we were considering having a female President or Vice President.  Now we are shouting for a female moderator.

The Fourth Estate’s study on 2012 election coverage has received considerable coverage here.  Logging 51,000 quotes in print and tv media, the articles studied pertaining to women’s health, economy and foreign policy, showed that men’s opinions overwhelmingly outnumbered women – by as much as 5 to 1.

Is it any wonder then that women are viewed as entertainment and accorded less value?

Some women likewise are of no help in the value wars.  It was women who criticized Gabby Douglas’ hairdo – the fact that she was flying through the air turning somersaults at high speed, performing near superhuman feats to win the gold medal didn’t seem to matter.

Women who project onto other women an expectation of perfection at all times only mirror the fact that we, as women, are constantly taught, reminded and, in fact, brainwashed, that nothing we do will ever be enough.  Once we stop doing this to ourselves and each other, it will be easier to place the focus squarely where it belongs – on the media culprits, advertisers and comedians who seek to continue this tiresome, outworn and damaging mindset.  If we ever want women to have an equal place at the table and to capitalize on the inspirational performances we have seen at this Olympics, and from women in leadership positions at all levels, we need to embrace tolerance for each other and intolerance for bias and shoddy treatment.

Have we made amazing progress?  Absolutely.  But the fact that we must continue to work over these issues means the road is still long ahead.

We pretend women are equal in all things, but when it comes to being respected for our achievements, women are still flying the cheap seats.


Anita Finlay is the author of Dirty Words on Clean Skin: Sexism and Sabotage, a Hillary Supporter’s Rude Awakening, available on Amazon in print and kindle editions.

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  1. Women who project onto other women an expectation of perfection at all times only mirror the fact that we, as women, are constantly taught, reminded and, in fact, brainwashed, that nothing we do will ever be enough.

    It is certainly a shame that our culture really encourages the double standard you so clearly presented. What is really bad, is when females feed into that nonsense. Ability, talent, intelligence, and potential should be nurtured and cultivated, not bashed.

    • Thanks, towncrier. It is unfortunate, and the result of consistent brainwashing. We have to break the cycle of looking in the mirror and beating ourselves up for what we see there. The media and advertisers wind up getting a pass for their awful behavior, at least in part, for this reason.

  2. Female Olympians, Like Women in Politics, Are Still Stuck in the Cheap Seats | Anita Finlay | Author | Actor | Blogger | Speaker | Host

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