Visibility and Invisibility: Gender Shrapnel in the Coverage of the 2016 Rio Olympics

I know what you’re thinking: Aren’t the Olympics over? Haven’t we heard enough about gendered, raced, and U.S.-centric coverage of the Olympics? Haven’t traditional media outlets and social media done their job by signaling all of the problematic reporting? The answer is: Nope, not even close.

We need to think of the realm of athletics as a workplace. In the United States, of course, the athletics workplace has been greatly changed and enriched by the 1972 passage of Title IX. This New York Times article and this one attest to the many ways in which Title IX has changed the sports landscape (although still not enough) for girls and women. Despite significantly greater access to sports opportunities and the demonstration of amazing talent, skill, teamwork, and dedication, girls and women still don’t get the positive media attention they deserve. I still cringe when I think that Sports Illustrated believes that women in bikinis (although unprepared to swim races or to dive) are appropriate subjects for the magazine’s cover.

We all absorb the gender scripts promoted by more than a few of our media outlets. These scripts are insultingly limiting for women because they dictate along the lines of the “good” (wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, helpmates) and the “bad” (oversexualized, undersexualized, homosexualized), rather than focusing on the athletic accomplishments of the incredible athletes we watch on television. Let’s not forget how limiting gender scripts are for men: men are not supposed to express emotions (except for anger and braggadocio) and/or have also become hypersexualized. The male gold medal winners (oh, and also Katinka Hosszu’s husband) who beat their chests in victory give us a revealing shorthand to examine the narrow confines of gender scripts.

(Quick note: Even as I write this, when I google “beach volleyball” and get taken to the NBC Olympics site, the site defaults to men’s beach volleyball.)

Even as women Olympians in many nations rack up the medals, they are scrutinized for their familial roles, race, “hotness,” choice of hairstyle/make-up, and demonstration of emotions. They are too visible in these arenas, and then remarkably invisible when it comes to their numerous accomplishments.  Why hasn’t media coverage been saturated by Katie Ledecky’s amazing achievements in Rio? Ledecky won individual gold medals in the Women’s 200, 400, and 800 freestyle events, a group gold for the Women’s 4×200 freestyle relay, and a group silver in the Women’s 4×100 freestyle relay. She won the 800 free by over 12 seconds and set a new world record. Her success is unprecedented, and yet she planned each step and worked towards it in a steadfast, steely, no-nonsense way. Have we not heard more about Katie Ledecky because she hasn’t turned pro, and therefore doesn’t have to do hair and make-up according to company contracts, or because there was no boyfriend or husband or child around her to narrate an acceptably gendered story? Is her brilliant success not enough of a story? Again, visibility for women and people of color seems to emerge only through prescribed gender and race roles. At the same time, the incredible talent, competence, and accomplishments of women and people of color often don’t become the fundamental element of the narrative around them.

We also haven’t heard enough yet about Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Simone Manuel, or Aly Raisman. Ryan Lochte and his supposedly excusable boyish behavior eclipses coverage of other athletes, and his white privilege makes even more profound the violence against black lives. (*See The Washington Post’s excellent opinion piece by Alexandra Petri, “Ryan Lochte and the Privilege Tree.”)

(Another quick note: I haven’t addressed the invisibility of athletes from other nations, because I saw so few in the NBC coverage.)

As the first African American swimmer to win a gold medal (actually, two golds and two silvers) at the Olympics, Simone Manuel has made history. In her first race to gold, the announcers almost forgot to mark her presence. She only seemed to exist when she won the gold, which the announcers seemed never to consider as a possibility. This clearly exemplifies the invisibility—in this case, at the race and gender nexus—of accomplished people of color and women in the gender shrapnel puzzle.

Women Olympians are repeatedly linked to their male family members (visible), and sometimes this element is highlighted over the actual prowess and success of the Olympians (invisible). Katie Rogers examines this in The New York Times, August 18, 2016.

Some examples include:

(1) An NBC Olympics feature on Kerri Walsh Jennings’ role as wife and mother. This is not negative per se. It’s just that the male athletes are rarely highlighted in their roles as husbands and fathers;

(2) the focus on Italian synchronized diver Tania Cagnotto’s father. There was no mention of her mother, Carmen Casteiner, who was a diver in the 1976 Olympics. In unfortunate related news, the site fully objectified Cagnotto by focusing on her looks rather than her ability to dive. (I have not included the link so as not to dignify it);

(3) the repeated attribution of Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu’s incredible swimming success to her husband-coach, even after the social media storm that decried it (see also The New York Times long and worried piece about domestic abuse). If I had to see her husband beat his chest, as if all of Hosszu’s victories were his own (as claimed by one of NBC’s announcers), one more time…

(4) the focus on U.S. high jumper Vashti Cunningham’s father (example here at; and

(5) Corey Cogdell-Unrein, Olympic medalist in trap shooting, referred to in this Chicago Tribune tweet as simply the wife of a Bears lineman.

The message: It’s time for those who work in media and in athletics to recognize women athletes and athletes of color for their many accomplishments. It’s time to let go of the media circus and overwrought attention on women as appendages to others and women as mere objects. It’s 2016. It’s the 21st century. We can kick these rotten habits.



Rarity, Reporting, and Retaliation in Baltimore (and elsewhere)

Gender shrapnel hits home in Baltimore (and everywhere). The New York Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Jess Bidgood reported on August 11, 2016, that the Justice Department’s report on police bias in Baltimore “painted a picture of a police culture deeply dismissive of sexual assault victims and hostile toward prostitutes and transgender people. It branded the Baltimore Police Department’s response to sexual assault cases ‘grossly inadequate.’” They cite examples from the report that include calling an individual who reported a sexual assault a “conniving little whore,” testing only 15% of the rape kits of reported sexual assaults, and expressing concern about “messing up” the life of alleged rape perpetrators. The article also mentions similar investigations in Missoula, Montana, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Puerto Rico.

Just two weeks before (July 26, 2016), The New York Times published an opinion piece by Amy Stewart in which Stewart makes the case for hiring many more women police officers across the United States, in part because “studies show that female officers are significantly less likely to be involved in instances of excessive force or police brutality.”

Taken together, these two stories reveal four key elements of gender shrapnel.

First, the rarity of women on police forces speaks to our collective vision of police officers as armed men. As we know, current questions about hypermasculine cultures and the increased militarization of police forces are on the table, especially as we consider the use of violence against unarmed black men and women. Hiring more women to police forces and, ultimately, to leadership positions in law enforcement will certainly encourage a more “in the trenches” move to have police forces reflect and respond to—rather than oppose—our communities.

Second, all of the important issues raised by the BlackLivesMatter movement, and by many other activists and authors, point to an increased need for intersectional reflection. Baltimore’s NAACP President Tessa Hill-Aston, as cited in the New York Times article about Baltimore, says, “They just didn’t care, because it was a poor black woman or a poor black neighborhood.” Ms. Hill-Aston perceptively signals that we need to look at intersections of gender (including transgender), race, and class in the case of black women’s reticence to report rape in Baltimore.

Third, a sure sign of a sick system is when people attempt to go to authorities to report crime and are further victimized or abused by those authorities. To have to report, possibly have a rape kit done, and then continue to recount the story is difficult enough. Add to that real additional abuse by the authorities (ranging from an officer actually raping a victim making a report to letting rape kits languish for years in labs), and you’ve created a system in which individuals are actively discouraged from reporting severe felonies. Retaliation—a turning against and punishing those who report crimes—is the reinforcing element of sexual and racial discrimination and harassment. In many cases, authority remains coolly white and patriarchal, reinforcing its power and maintaining its distance from the communities it is supposed to serve.

Fourth, we need more people to call out these actions and to recognize the dehumanizing effects of them. Silence and shutting up (see Chapter 7 of Gender Shrapnel) contribute to a real and rhetorical violence that permeates our communities.

Don’t we want to live in communities in which we value each other’s full humanity? Let’s address questions of rarity (hire more women and people of color), reporting (transparent and fully accountable), and retaliation (remove those who practice it) head-on.

Gender Shrapnel, General Information


After deciding that I had experienced too many bad gender days and had observed too many others do the same, I wrote Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace to describe gender problems in the workplace, provide new terminology to give shape to gender phenomena, and offer solutions.  The book first provides new descriptive terms, then giving voice and texture to gender problems in the workplace through real-life stories, offers a set of concrete solutions for employers and employees, and finally outlines training principles to create a workplace more focused on equitable treatment.  “Bad gender days” can be alleviated with more knowledge and deliberate actions proposed in this book, in which vivid stories of gender shrapnel make the notion of gender in the workplace come alive.

Gender Shrapnel employs the image of “shrapnel,” bits of scattered metal that can hit purposeful targets or unwitting bystanders, to narrate the story of workplace power and gender discrimination. The project interweaves stories of gender shrapnel with an examination of national rhetoric surrounding business, education, and law to uncover underlying phenomena that contribute to discourse on privilege and gender in the workplace. Sample terms include the “feminist fuse,” the “last straw phenomenon,” the “professional mystique,” “being radioactive,” and, of course, “gender shrapnel.”  I establish concrete examples that serve as case studies for subsequent discussion of data about women in the workforce, language use and misuse, sexual harassment, silence and shutting up, and hiring, training, promotion, and the glass ceiling.  This book examines how one small comment or one minor deed that relays gender inequity takes a series of zigzag paths—the route(s) of gender shrapnel—to arrive at bigger organizational mishap and entrenched labor and cultural problems in the workplace.  The examination of these paths is part of the storytelling component of Gender Shrapnel.

Gender Shrapnel in the Workplace is unique for three principal reasons: (1)  It combines a sometimes funny, always hard-hitting, narrative voice with solid, up-to-date research on sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation and is therefore highly readable but also chock-full of information; (2) it appeals to employees, employers, and full organizations—helping all three groups to understand how gender dynamics gone bad have negative consequences for all involved; and (3) it provides tools (glossary, case studies, training sessions) to teach organizations how to create equitable work environments.

Now that you understand the notion of gender shrapnel, make sure to tune in to next week’s post.