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172 Chapter 12 BABEDIDRIKSONZAHARIAS’S RHETORICALBRANDING WHENIT’SNOTENOUGHTOBETHEWORLD’SGREATESTWOMANATHLETE Lisa J. Shaver I would like people who feel sorry for me for becoming a professional to know I am having more real fun than I ever had in my life. I never wanted to be a “muscle moll.” I get lots more fun out of a basketball game than I do putting the shot and throwing the discus. —Mildred “Babe” Didrikson [Zaharias], January 19, 1933 Soon after her highly publicized announcement to give up her amateur status and become a professional athlete, Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias wrote an article assuring fans that she was enjoying her professional career, which at this juncture entailed sports exhibitions, endorsements, and promotional events.1 Oddly, she also attempted to distance herself from track and field, the venue that had catapulted her to worldwide fame. Indeed, just a few months earlier, Zaharias accomplished a feat some regard as the greatest one-day athletic achievement of all time: she dominated the 1932 Olympic trials. As a one-woman track team, she competed in eight of the eleven events—winning five outright (80-meter hurdles, baseball throw, broad jump, javelin, shot put), tying for first in another (high jump), and placing fourth in another (discus). Following this feat, media interest in Zaharias soared, and at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games she did not disappoint. Competing in three of the five track and field events for women, Zaharias won gold medals in the javelin and 80-meter hurdles and a silver medal in the high jump. She also established three world records. Zaharias’s athletic performance made her the toast of Los Angeles, and the American press quickly turned Babe Didrikson (Zaharias) into a household name. In the midst of the Depression much of the country reveled in the story of the Texas typist who became an Olympic champion. 173 Babe Didrikson Zaharias’s Rhetorical Branding However six months later, Zaharias was attempting an even more daring venture . In an era when professional athletes were men, Zaharias gave up her amateur athletic status and set out to earn a living as a female professional athlete. Without established professional leagues for women, making a living as a professional athlete required Zaharias to participate in barnstorming tours and exhibition matches. She also relied on sponsorships and even briefly appeared in a vaudeville show. Attracting media coverage and fans was vital to Zaharias’s success. Soon after she turned professional, Zaharias signed a deal to write a series of syndicated newspaper articles;2 she used these articles to reposition herself, which meant distancing herself from the “muscle moll” image that often stigmatized women athletes. Because track and field included the shot put, discus, and other sports considered inappropriate and even dangerous for women, Zaharias shifted her focus to basketball, a more widely accepted sport for women. To make a living as a woman professional athlete, Zaharias had to refute the idea that women athletes were manly. Thus, I argue that creating an appealing personal brand became a rhetorical means for both attracting audiences and persuading them that a professional woman athlete was not aberrant. While all branding is inherently rhetorical, I use the term “rhetorical branding” to highlight how Zaharias used branding as a means of invention in order to earn a living as a professional athlete. In this chapter, I show how leveraging the topic of gender, emphasizing her folksy charm, and using other attributes beyond her athletic talent were all part of Zaharias’s rhetorical branding. In essence, Zaharias had to demonstrate that she was a gifted athlete while also demonstrating that she was still a woman. In her discussion of early women aviators, Sara Hillin shows how women crafted provocative public images, linking themselves closely with their aircraft , so as to open the field of aviation to women. Similarly, rhetorical branding shows how Zaharias carefully crafted a public image in order to earn a living as a professional athlete. Rhetorical branding also highlights the emphasis audiences place on a woman’s image as she moves into male-dominated spaces and the additional rhetorical efforts required to negotiate what are often incongruous expectations of femininity and professionalism. In ESPN’s 2013 Nine for IX film Branded, which explores the ways late twentieth- and twenty-first-century women athletes have branded themselves, directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady explain, “Branding is all about controlling one’s image.” They assert, “No matter what sport these women played, branding themselves and...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780822987185
Related ISBN
9780822945888
MARC Record
OCLC
1113898346
Pages
303
Launched on MUSE
2019-08-28
Language
English
Open Access
No
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