People magazine’s latest edition features Team USA’s star gymnasts Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Madison Kocian, and Laurie Hernandez. It celebrates their team gold medal (and utter dominance) in the Rio Olympics.
The only problem? The main cover line describes them as ‘America’s sweethearts.’
These women didn’t win gold because they’re sweethearts. They did it because they are athletes. Hell, they’re world champions. And yet, the publication chose to describe them using a favourite word of catcallers and patronizing bosses — a word that pays exactly zero tribute to their intense commitment and athleticism.
The poor word choice is emblematic of sexist media coverage that female athletes often face. Sure, sexism in sports media is sometimes inadvertent — but its presence is undeniable, and the examples from the Rio games alone are astounding.
When Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu won a gold medal and shattered a world record, the victory was attributed to her husband. When the Chicago Tribune tweeted about medal-winning trap shooter Corey Cogdell, they neglected to mention her name, referring to her instead as the “wife of” a local NFL player. And tennis player Andy Murray had to remind a reporter that he wasn’t the first person to win two gold medals in Olympic tennis — Venus and Serena Williams did it first.
Here’s another head scratcher: Look at the way these two headlines were arranged after Katie Ledecky broke her own world record in the 800-meter freestyle.
It comes as no surprise that a new Cambridge University study found hard evidence of this sexist bent in sports coverage. The study analysed more than 160 million words from newspapers, academic papers, tweets and blogs, and found male athletes are three times more likely to be mentioned in a sporting context than female athletes, CNN reports. Female athletes, by contrast, are more often described by their marital status, age, or appearance.
It’s probably immensely frustrating for the athletes. And it’s no wonder that when Serena Williams was asked about being the “greatest female athlete of all time,” she replied by saying: “I prefer […] ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time.'”
The US women’s gymnastics team has also been subject to sexist coverage at the Rio games. When they were seen laughing and talking during the team final, a commentator said that the women “might as well be standing around at the mall.” In an awkward interview with NBC last night, Bob Costas largely failed at asking Simone Biles and Aly Raisman about their gold- and silver-winning flour routines, instead steering the conversation to Biles’ celebrity crush.
Commentators have also repeatedly described Biles’ greatness by comparing her to male athletes. (She responded by telling a reporter, “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I’m the first Simone Biles.”)
But this People magazine cover line might take the cake.
Biles and Team USA didn’t endure years of gruelling training and competition because they wanted to be sweethearts. They did it because they wanted to be great athletes — and that’s what they are. Let’s celebrate them for that.
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