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Textual Portrayals of Female Athletes: Liberation or Nuanced Forms of Patriarchy?
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Textual Portrayals of Female Athletes:
Liberation or Nuanced Forms of Patriarchy?


Sport has been an area of society that has traditionally oppressed women by limiting their opportunity to participate. Mariah Nelson aptly reinforces this assertion: "We learned . . . that batting, catching, throwing, and jumping are not neutral, human activities, but somehow more naturally a male domain. Insidiously, our culture's reverence for men's professional sports and its silence about women's athletic accomplishments shaped, defined, and limited how we felt about ourselves as women and men."1

Since the implementation of Title IX in 1972, women and girls' participation has increased dramatically in sports and fitness, accompanied by broadening public support.2 Participation has improved in team and individual sports, many of which had conventionally been limited to males.3 Female athletes have broken out of the stereotypical women-designated sports such as figure skating, gymnastics, and tennis. Girls and women now play football, rugby, ice hockey, and wrestle and box as well. In addition to the material benefits of opportunities and rewards that females gain, equally significant has been the uncovering of the construction of masculinity and the ideology of gender difference.4 At the same time, however, many recent textual portrayals of female athletes have raised interesting questions regarding these gains. For example, television commercials, print ads, and press coverage commonly focus more on the sexual appeal of female athletes and their "feminine" qualities than on their athletic achievements.

This research explores certain social changes that have accompanied the increasing popularity of women in sports and some of the ambiguous and contradictory messages in advertisements that these changes have spawned. The ads and much of the media coverage in general reflect a society in flux regarding gender roles and notions of femininity and feminism. For instance, many [End Page 132] of the ads and textual portrayals I analyze reveal a clear attempt to unify noncontradictory notions of feminism and femininity that, as Robert Goldman, Deborah Heath, and Sharon Smith claim, have given rise to an "aesthetically depoliticized feminism."5 Many companies actively encourage manifold readings of ads to "recapture the attention of alienated viewers by encoding messages that are ambiguous, incomplete or polyvalent."6 Critics argue that such portrayals exalt traditional feminine stereotypes and assumptions at the expense of feminist ideals and aspirations.

Other representations in advertising, however, contain a message that seems to acknowledge the achievements of the feminist movement, and hints that these should be pursued over traditional ideals of femininity. Although images of femininity and feminism often coexist within the same ad, what are perceived as more traditional feminine qualities (passivity, dependency, sensuousness, and an emphasis on family and relationships) are downplayed to promote feminist goals of independence, self-determination, assertiveness, control, and gender equality.

It is important to note, however, that several meanings of femininity can coexist at any given time and can mean different things to different people. Masculinity and femininity, of course, are not universal essences but are constructed through fluid meanings and behaviors. Another caveat that must be addressed in addition to the danger of rigid gender categorizations is an inflexible projection of feminism. A reliance on such rigidity can obscure how the ads are connected to the production of meanings. I refer to "depoliticized" and "politicized" feminism as ideal types for the necessary purpose of conceptualization, while remaining cognizant of the fluidity of gender boundaries. In many of the representations discussed here, female athletes combine con-tradictory stereotypes, thereby renegotiating dichotomous traits of strength-objectification and athleticism-passivity.

Of course, such analysis would be incomplete without a consideration of how definitions of femininity and stereotypes of beauty are racialized. Race intersects with gender and sexuality in complex ways in the cultural venues examined here. It plays a critical role in influencing which athletes are sexualized and for what purposes. The fact that the sexuality of black females is often marginalized in mainstream media portrayals reflects the different historical experiences of white and black women. Thus, the characteristics that are deemed "appropriately feminine" are different for white and nonwhite athletes.

In drawing from various strands of feminist theory to help explain the convoluted messages in much of...