*originally published on Epic Times*
Why would he? That insult was reserved for Marion Bartoli, the Ladies’ Wimbledon Champion. At the apex of her professional career, senior BBC presenter John Inverdale pondered: “Do you think Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little ‘you’re never going to be a looker?’” So, after winning the most prestigious trophy in tennis last Saturday, she was bashed for not resembling Maria Sharapova? Inverdale also affronted Bertoli’s father by insinuating he would choose to degrade his own daughter’s appearance instead of complimenting it while encouraging her talent – celebrating who she is, not whether she is a clone of what this BBC commentator considers attractive.
Inverdale’s comments were criticized far and wide. That is the good news. But while his apology offered up the requisite backpedaling, it was almost as bad as his initial slight. The BBC has stated it will take no action against him: he’s apologized, so move on. A number of British papers noted that Inverdale’s comments were not a “one off” and reflected a 30-year pattern, not dissimilar from the endless sexualized preoccupations of his news and sports counterparts in America. Perhaps putting Inverdale of the receiving end of his own commentary would clarify the butter on the devastating effect of these types of slurs. That is unlikely to happen.
While Bartoli handled his behavior with grace, the Herald Sun noted she was also the subject of an alarming number of tweets from young men calling her “fat” and “ugly,” and stating that “Bartoli did not deserve to win because she is ugly.”
Without offense to male Wimbledon champ Andy Murray or his mum, did anyone dare to state that he is “nothing to look at?” All we heard about is what a hero he is to his native Great Britain after bringing the trophy home to them after “a 77 year drought.”
This brings us to what the Herald Sun reported as the “second insult.” Britain’s Virginia Wade won the title in 1977, along with two other Grand Slam singles titles and four Grand Slam doubles titles. Her win for the British 36 years ago does not seem to matter and is never mentioned when discussing the British “drought.”
Associated Press columnist Jim Litke also noted that no matter how lackluster their looks, each male tennis champion was “instantly fawned over the moment he held the trophy aloft, celebrated for toughness, smarts and the kind of devotion that knows no quit.” Women, on the other hand, are often touted for their “luck.” And naturally, we must comment on their looks.
That Inverdale is a condescending, sexist boob is not up for debate, but he brings larger issues into focus. First, coverage of female athletes is still skewed toward appearance over ability and luck over skill. Second, endorsement deals for female athletes are less lucrative and far less frequent than those of their male counterparts. Women who are fortunate enough to have them, like tennis champion Maria Sharapova for example, arguably get such deals because advertisers see the potential to exploit their looks and sexuality, thereby making them more palatable commodities.
Recall tennis player Anna Kournikova, now retired, who was better known for her good looks than her ability to win a match. As the always fabulous and brutally honest commentator, Mary Carillo aptly put it: “Kournikova should enter the Waring Blender Open and beat my mother in the final” so that she might have a tournament win to her credit. She was a tennis player able to command large endorsement deals during her career – but not necessarily for her athletic prowess. Still, she was far more likely to get a contract offered to her than newly crowned champion Bartoli.
Mr. Murray’s lack of matinee idol good looks will not stop him, however. It was noted during ESPN’s broadcast last weekend that his “historic” Wimbledon win would likely be worth nearly a hundred million pounds to him over a lifetime.
The double standard is as tiresome as it is damaging and also echoes the 2012 Olympics. Google “sexism in sports” and you will get 108,000 hits. Last year’s Olympic coverage offered powerful illustrations of the same on the world stage, where American women won 29 of our 46 gold medals, and won 58 medals overall, dwarfing the counts of most other countries. Some might assume lucrative endorsement deals would be forthcoming for these women, but a study from the Journal of Brand Strategy shows that very few women get those deals and when they do, advertisers do not utilize their skill sets to best advantage.
They also noted our near pathological need to “feminize” female athletes. What is it about their skill set that is so threatening?
The male dominated media and advertising culture makes the choice to sexualize female athletes. The reasons may reflect a paradigm resembling Mr. Inverdale’s. But does that reflect what the public wants? How about what women want – since 73% of women are in the workforce today and 40% are now head of households or sole breadwinners with considerable buying power?
They are selling to women by offering their version of what a woman is. Their campaigns generally do not fare well when trying to appeal to a female audience.
Women do not want to see talented female athletes sexualized – it does not make them relatable or the object of admiration, unlike men who do the same thing. How about the magnificent Dara Torres? Instead of highlighting her great achievements as a winner of twelve Olympic swimming medals (4 gold, 4 silver, 4 bronze), while juggling childcare as a 40ish mom and author, advertisers’ “Got Milk” campaign faltered badly when they chose to focus on her appearance instead, making her look like a robotic version of herself. Female consumers want to see women’s achievements and life skills advertised front and center – not cheesecake.
We look for someone to encourage us, someone who is real, whom we can emulate – not a Barbie doll that fulfills some fourteen year old male fantasy. And considering women kicked butt this last Olympics, it would be nice if they got equal respect for the same.
It would also be refreshing to see women represent all demographics. As Australian Womensport and Recreation Association president Janice Crosswhite put it, we want “women to be recognized for their talent and the strength of their performance….we don’t want all players to be Sharapova lookalikes. We want a range of women – skinny and fat, short and tall and brown and blonde.”
Many female athletes succumb to the pressure of this “makeover,” advertising themselves in a sexual manner – and then get criticized for doing the only thing that seems to win them the attention of sponsors. And if they don’t – they get the Bartoli treatment. What kind of a message does this send to our young girls who aspire to be athletes?
British Olympic weightlifter Zoe Smith, who holds the record for the ‘clean and jerk’ in her country, offered this after she was bashed for not looking like a catalog model:
What makes them think that we even WANT them to find us attractive? If you do, thanks very much, we’re flattered. But if you don’t, why do you really need to voice this opinion in the first place, and what makes you think we actually give a toss that you, personally, do not find us attractive?
What do you want us to do? Shall we stop weightlifting, amend our diet in order to completely get rid of our “manly” muscles, and become housewives in the sheer hope that one day you will look more favorably upon us and we might actually have a shot with you?! Cause you are clearly the kindest, most attractive type of man to grace the earth with your presence.
Oh, but wait, you aren’t. This may be shocking to you, but we actually would rather be attractive to people who aren’t closed-minded and ignorant. Crazy, eh?! We, as any women with an ounce of self-confidence would, prefer our men to be confident enough in themselves to not feel emasculated by the fact that we aren’t weak and feeble.
The sexualized paradigm is also destructive because whether on an Olympic level or not, it has been shown that girls who participate in athletics are more likely to become executives, excel in many business disciplines, have higher self-esteem, are less likely to become pregnant as teens or engage in violent confrontations. If girls know they will be dissected on the basis of their appearance from the moment they step into the public sphere, does that make them less likely to step up and compete? We know that is true with women in politics – less women run for this reason. The last thing we want to do is to discourage young women from putting themselves out there because they have an aversion to running the gauntlet of comments such as the one made by Mr. Inverdale.
Anita Finlay is the author of Dirty Words on Clean Skin, a shocking and empowering exposé revealing the nasty truth of contemporary misogyny. “This book tells it like it is for women aspiring to power.” — Marcia Pappas, NOW-NYS Pres.
Available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon. #1 on Women in Politics books for 16 weeks.
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