FROM SEXUAL OBJECTIFICATION TO A SHAMEFUL GOAT (?)

— This image, created by artist dayxsleep, was posted by SportsCenter but later deleted —
 
Remember this picture.
Something is missing in this picture…. Can you point it out?
 

To this day, there are still parts of our ideology, media, and sports world that take advantage of systems of privilege, further shaping individual identities and social institutions (Van Rheenen, 2019). In this paper I provide a textual analysis of an ironically stated tweet, to explore how gender, race, and mental health intersect within the context of sporting and broader society (Lenskyi, 2012). I argue in this intersectional analysis that media still helps reinforce the social issues of social discrimination through our failure to embrace intersectionality.

During the 2021 Olympics, the world-famous American gymnast Simone Biles announced her decision to take a break to prioritize her mental health. Her decision was met with considerable media debate, given the medal risk for the U.S. Further, dominant media has overlooked Simone’s groundbreaking Olympic achievements and record-making performance and instead framed her as “shameful, quitter, and weak.” Consequently, mainstream media has ​​devoted a lot of attention to Twitter discussions among politically charged media accounts, with harsh attacks on Biles and her inability to “shut up and dribble.” NashVilleResist, the blue city within the red deep state of Tennessee, has actively been responding against such claims, this is how one tweet thread began:

NashvilleResist further replied to their tweet, which is the tweet I am specifically analyzing:

Their ironic tweet against the conservative right-wing media successfully captures implicit assumptions in sports media for at least the last 60 years. It suggests the emergence of more progressive trends in media’s treatment of sexism and racism inherent in our discriminatory social systems (Lenskyi, 2012). Firstly, it states “How DARE a ‘5 foot’…,” which speaks to the role of our discriminatory system, specifically height discrimination – also known as heightism (Wikipedia, 2021). The tweet represents how media uses size to permit men’s collective dominance over practices, which in turn stabilizes gender dominance in especially sports settings (Connell, & Messerschmidt, 2005). Further, it states “How DARE a 5 foot ‘black’…,” highlighting the discrimination of race, tied to our long history of race, slavery, and white supremacy. Lastly, the sentence includes “How DARE a 5-foot black ‘woman’…,” which presents contemporary toxic masculinity and suppression of women, in which media discourse shapes how women of color are positioned in social gender relations and society.

NashVilleResist’s tweet demonstrates the importance of recognizing media’s power of different priorities, as the gatekeepers of sport (Lenskyi, 2012). Their way of discriminating is reproduced within a larger social discourse of division specifically through the division of body and mind, female and male, black and white, and of sport and media (Van Rheenen, 2019). The appearance of toxic masculinity in sports has long been promoted through implicit or explicit regulations concerning media’s sexist and racist images of sportswomen embodying sexual objectification. The culture of sexualization ignores sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression, which consequently shape the social and cultural lived experiences of women of color, whose bodies have been understood as sexually deviant and dangerous (Cooky & Rauscher, 2016). Sports media has now added the oppression of women’s mental health, as women’s elite skills do not mitigate the impacts of these intersecting discriminations.

NasvilleResists’ tweet represents the intersectional challenges of female athletes of color. They are neither to be too feminine or too masculine. They are to learn how to give it their all without seeming too aggressive, how to succeed in traditionally white sports without dominating white people or diminishing people of color. Their experience of such intersectionalities emphasizes the cross-cutting systems of inequality and plural identity categories developed centuries ago (Messner, 2011). Our history and its longstanding problems of gender and race become an essential part of our understanding of sports as an institution with characteristics reflecting the society it exists in, enforced by the conservative right (Crosset, 1990).

The origin and meaning of sport in Western society emerged during the 19th-century justification of male sporting activities, defined by the discourse around sexuality and men and women’s “natural” positions. During the post-Civil War era, the institutionalized sex segregation of contradictions and tensions carried over to early modern sports. As sports socialized participants to accept the notion of male sexual superiority, it became an important institution for the inherent connections between sport, morality, and manliness (Crosset, 1990). However, this normalization of sports gender preferences was challenged by three concurrent social movements in the 1960s: the sexual revolution, the women’s movement, and the fitness movement, which all expanded the scope of hegemonic masculinity (W10, Lenkyi). The modern feminist movement was a powerful counter-hegemonic ideology, in which gender equity became a cultural expectation and was legally mandated (Van Rheenen, 2012, p. 425).

Women’s collective empowerment came from discovering similar experiences of oppression and shared strategies of changing society (Messner, 2011). Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 improved the contemporary landscape of female participation in the US and excluded all sports participation defined by sex or subjected to discrimination. However, it is to this day challenged by the 1980s emergence of hegemonic masculinity of toxic practices within social processes, permitting men’s collective dominance over women (Lenskyi, 2012). Consequently, sports became a place of contested gender relations, which sports media thrives off of (Messner, 2011). At this time binary constructivism emerged as a viewpoint that would challenge the actual specific gender hierarchical belief, as well as mobilize counter-hegemonic discourse and actions. Further, feminist sports scholars have critiqued media’s hypersexualized images exploiting female athletes as sexual objects, fueling discrimination and a climate of racism, sexism, and debates on mental health, driven by hegemonic masculinity (Lenskyi, 2012).

Gender-based authorities within sports were already raced and affected by racism. At the time of the post-Civil Rights era, a new form of racism emerged by rearticulating some racial practices characteristic of the Jim Crow period of race relations (Oates, 2009). To this day, female athletes of color negotiate consistent bodily surveillance, due to the persistent forms of inequality in women’s sports and how whiteness shapes their participation. There are two main ways in which racialization of female athletes occurs in cultural discourses, firstly, media portrays controlling images to marginalize them in a desegregated, “post-racial” society, as a part of the ‘new politics of containment.’ Secondly, women of color’s representation rely upon discursive whiteness, which silences and excludes in favor of white privilege in the context of desegregated, color-blind racism (Cooky & Rauscher, 2016).

NasvhilleResist’s tweet presents outcomes of more than five decades of liberal sport feminist activism, where media’s obsession with female athletes, through a heterosexual appeal, has continued, virtually uninterrupted. Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century, sports as a social control mechanism has had two functions: to shape behavior in socially acceptable ways and to define hegemonic femininity and masculinity (Lenskyi, 2012). Trends in hegemonic cultural representations of women in media are performed through silencing, with the lack of respectful coverage of women’s sport, and trivialization with images that downplay their achievements and physicality. The main policing mechanism used to enforce consent with the dominant conversation are sexual discrimination and toxic masculinity, in which women of color reveal their vulnerability and are subsequently targeted as the symbolic “weaker” in sports media (Messner, 2002). Therefore, the concept of hegemony affects the diversity and the selectiveness of media images in commercial sports’ representation of masculinity.

Commercialized sports as an institution reproduce our contemporary social relations and the historical and cultural systems of privilege and oppression (Van Rheenen, 2019). The media’s different gender treatment serves as an addition to the socially constructed gendered differences (Messner, 2011). As athletes are presented and expected to live up to the idealistic idea of being “superheroes,” to perform and act as superhumans, women are under greater pressure, as they have more to prove. Mass media have successfully grown from subcultural obscurity to mainstream profitability in recent decades, based on these unattainable standards. Foucault (1977) in Discipline and Punish presents our societal change from the spectacle of a small population visible to many, to mass media’s surveillance. Today, media represents the few who sit with the surveillance over the larger population of athletes, this is sustained by viewers and serves corporate interests (Oates, 2009). In this process, female athletes are to be sold and viewed as commodities. Through the scope of the media, their actions and words are translated into a language defined by the media. With the increased commercialization and globalization of competitive sport in the last half-century, mental health is continuously left out.

Mental health has been challenging for society to comprehend, as it is pervasive, so much so that we are not able to see how bad it is. Today 1 in 5 live with a diagnosable mental health disorder and we still do not have the language, vocabulary, nor the will to speak of it. We have the science and research, but now we need to put it forward. Therefore, as a society, we need to critically examine our standpoint and transform our consciousness as the first stage in the process of mental health politicization. There needs to be an acknowledgment and understanding towards athletes’ decision of prioritizing their mental health.

Racialized and politically contested mental health controversies have become more common in media coverage of female athletes of color, specifically when they occur within white-dominated sporting spaces (Cooky & Rauscher, 2016). Biles’ willingness to go public is a superpower. Under the weight of just being a person of color in America, not to mention a female athlete, Biles knows that she is representing something larger than herself. She is a voice for the voiceless, to release stigma and be a barrier breaker. A part of the problem is the overgeneralization of the contemporary gender divide and how binary construction expects men not to be vulnerable. The beauty of this story is how women are opening the discussion, through a possibly more compatible message that can help to educate closed-minded men. No matter how intelligent, athletically gifted, or brave a female of color is, she is always under suspicion and white supremacy is always out there to say that she is less than and not as capable. In total, the intersecting identities of female athletes of color can have a snowball effect across communities that struggle with shame tied to being open about mental health.

In the process of abolishing the stigma of gender, race, and mental health, there is a need for a reformulation of the concept of hegemonic masculinity. The nature of gender hierarchy must change, where the agency of women is emphasized. The geography of masculine configurations must change, where we recognize internal contradictions and the possibilities of movement toward gender democracy. In addition, the process of social embodiment and the dynamics of masculinities must change (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). Such intervention strategies will confront the root cause of white male controversial and psychological violence against women. The request lies in unlearning white supremacy that executes different kinds of racism. One key way to accomplish this confrontation is by providing a context in which the ‘silent majority’ of men move affirmatively away from being quietly complicit with the culture of sexism and racism at the center of our sports culture. According to research fear, pleasure, embarrassment, and frustration keep men silenced in complicity with the group’s practice (Messner, 2002). Our desired outcomes of equality and acceptance involve policy change and legislation to ensure fair and equal treatment for members of discrimination (Lenskyi, 2012).

Similar to how there was a time when there was a need for the creation of a body of feminist scholarship that would address the specific realities of women of color, I see the need for more research and scholarly attention on the specific realities of mental health, specifically focusing on marginalized groups. Today, the US remains racially despotic and there is a slow and painful process for the political standing and the empowerment of women of color and their mental health (Omi, & Winant, 1994).

As a female athlete of color, I agree that there are benefits to being honest, however, in our marginalized community, a lot of my personal experience relates to discomfort. It’s uncomfortable to share and talk about mental health challenges, and in the process having people look at and speak to you differently. However, I have been empowered to share such uncomfortable experiences through difficult conversations, as that is the fundamental birthplace of change and the only way to break the barrier to a more inclusive society and to embrace the intersectionality of gender, race, and mental health. This past year, I have appreciated all discussions around being a female and dealing with mental health, and I am excited to continue having them in hopes of sparking change. I am learning to put myself and my mental health first.       

There needs to be room to educate ourselves for critical consciousness, critical thinking, listening, discussing, and answering questions – that is how we will begin to make a difference in the world – that is revolution. We need to look to the individuals who are speaking up, no matter their height, gender, race, and/or mental state – and embrace all forms of intersectionalities. Now, look at the picture below… as this is the “correct image,” representing our contemporary sports, a female athlete of color, brave and strong, above and beyond all – someone to look up to.

Resources

Connell, R.W., & Messerschmidt, J.W. (2005). Hegemonic Masculinity. Rethinking the Concept. Gender & Society, 19(6), 829-859.

Cooky, C., & Rauscher, L. (2016). Girls and the Racialization of Female Bodies in Sport Context. In M.A. Messner & M. Musto (Eds.), Child’s Play: Sport in Kid’s World (pp. 61-81). New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Crosset, T. (1990). Masculinity, Sexuality, and the Development of Early Modern Sport. In M.A. Messner and D.F. Sabo (Eds.) Sport, Men, and the Gender Order: Critical Feminist Perspectives (pp. 45-54). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Lenskyj, H. (2012). Reflections on Communication and Sport: On Heteronormativity and Gender Identities. Communication & Sport, 1(1/2), 138–150.   

Messner, M.A. (2011). Gender Ideologies, Youth Sports, and the Production of Soft Essentialism. Sociology of Sport Journal 28(2), 151-170.

Messner, M.A. (2002). Taking Center: The Triad of Violence in Men’s Sports. In Taking the Field: Women, Men, and Sports. University of Minnesota Press.

Oates, T. P. (2009). New Media and the Repackaging of NFL Fandom. Sociology of Sport Journal, 26, 31–49.

Omi, M., & Winant, H. (1994). Racial Formation. In Racial Formation in the United States: from the 1960s to the 1990s (pp. 53–76). New York: Routledge.

Van Rheenen, D. (2012). A century of historical change in the game preferences of American children. The Journal of American Folklore, 125(498), 411-443.

Van Rheenen, D. (2019). Reproducing race logic in higher education: Exploitation, athletic privilege and institutional resentment. In S. Dgakas, L. Azzarito, K. Hylton (Eds.), Race’, ‘racism’ and ‘race logic’ in youth sport, physical activity and health: Global perspectives. Routledge Critical Perspectives on Equality and Social Justice in Sport and Leisure. New York, NY: Routledge.

Wikipedia. (2021, Sept. 29). Height discrimination.

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