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 coed.com 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 espn.com); 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.

 

 

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