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Column Copyright 2019 by Paul Fein

How Should Female Athletes Be Portrayed?

Women have come a long way in sports, especially tennis, whose stars have gained fame and fortune unimaginable a century ago. Even casual sports fans today recognize 21st century tennis champions by their first names: Serena, Venus, and Maria. And prior to these charismatic queens came Billie Jean, Chrissie, Martina, and Steffi. Serena and Maria have earned far more in endorsements and prize money than any other women athletes in history.

Even so, Ashley Abbott, of the New Zealand Olympic Committee, believes female athletes have not achieved gender equality because the media portrays them unfairly. Abbott gave the keynote speech last September at the annual Sports Journalist Seminar co-hosted by the Japan Sports Press Association and the Japanese Olympic Committee in Tokyo. It was titled “Portrayal in sports media, what do we say and think about female athletes.”

Abbott is also a member of the Press Committee of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which published the Gender Portrayal Guidelines before the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games. These guidelines stress that the sports media should sensitively and carefully factor in tone, style, language, and imagery.

What exactly does that mean? “It is not appropriate if you choose words like sexy, flowing hair, sparkling, girls, gorgeous, and beautiful when portraying female athletes,” contends Abbott.

I have rarely, if ever, been accused of being sexist or objectifying women. In fact, many years ago I wrote a seminal essay making the compelling case for equal prize money that appeared in Inside Women’s Tennis, the Women’s Tennis Association’s magazine. However, and this is critical, I have written about the beauty, and even the sensuality, of both male and female athletes—their faces, bodies, and attire—in equal ways, in terms of quantity, language, tone, and respect.

I have referred to the surpassing beauty of Gabriela Sabatini, Caroline Wozniacki, Eugenie Bouchard, and Ana Ivanovic, and the sex appeal of Anna Kournikova, Karol Fageros, Gussie Moran, and Andrea Temesvari. Similarly, I have referred to the handsomeness of Stefan Edberg, Novak Djokovic, John Newcombe, and Stefanos Tsitsipas, and the sex appeal of Bjorn Borg, Patrick Rafter, Marat Safin, and Rafael Nadal.

Without apology, I have described women as shapely, curvaceous, and gorgeous—and men as hunks, ripped, and muscular. Both men and women journalists and broadcasters have used the expression “Big babe tennis” to describe tall, strong women who excel at power tennis. Chris Evert, a 1970s-’80s superstar and now an ESPN tennis analyst, said that she considered it a big compliment when the press described her as “sexy.” Evert also once praised Anna Kournikova “as sexy as a 16-year-old can be.”

Does Abbott have a valid point about how female athletes should be portrayed? Or has political correctness run amok in the sports world?

For an authoritative analysis of non-sexist language usage for sports writers and announcers, I consulted Tennis Channel analyst Mary Carillo. She’s a former touring pro and winner of numerous broadcasting accolades, including two Peabody Awards, one of television’s highest honors, and a Sports Emmy Award.     

“I don’t think much of this light guide to ‘words to avoid,’” said Carillo. “It makes me think back to the early days of [former world No. 3] Vitas Gerulaitis’ CBS-TV career when he was discussing the remarkable exploits of Jennifer Capriati, whom he called ‘girl’ a few times. She was about 14 years old. Our producer came into the studio after the segment was over and scolded Vitas—told him he had to stop using that word to describe Jennifer. Sarcastically, Vitas replied, “Of course! From now on I’ll refer to her as ‘that woman. The overly politically correct producer did not laugh, but I did. Jennifer was a girl, a kid, a teenager.” 

Abbott also decries the fact many stories about female athletes describe their spouses and children, but few stories about male athletes describe their families.

In pro tennis, however, the opposite is true for two reasons. First, men tend to have longer pro careers. Second, there are many more married men than married women. As a result, the spouses and children of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and other active players and retired stars Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg, and Jimmy Connors have been covered extensively. Also, the girlfriends of leading male tennis players appear in countless stories, photographs, and videos.

Images matter as much as words. So the Getty Images Initiative published six “Visual Guidelines for Sporting Women” to encourage photographers to shoot women athletes with a new perspective. Two guidelines target especially critical areas. “Sport appeal, not sex appeal” urges photographers to “focus on the skill, strength, speed, passion, and drama of the sport instead of how the athletes look.” Another guideline, “Keep it real”, argues, more controversially, for “authentic credible imagery that represents the athlete as she’d want to be seen.”

But how do female athletes “want to be seen”?

The WTA Tour concluded it’s not just as superior athletes. So in 2012, the WTA launched its “Strong is Beautiful” ad marketing campaign to promote its players. They happily appeared in glamorous outfits, full make-up, and athletic poses.

“Women’s-rights activists might shudder at the thought of professional female athletes promoting themselves as fashionistas and sex symbols,” wrote Merlisa Lawrence Corbett of Bleacherreport.com. “After all, from the boardroom to the classroom, these activists have fought for women to be taken seriously. 

“That is why the WTA’s marketing strategy is brilliant,” asserted Corbett. “The WTA found a way to market the sport and promote women as individuals. They have created superstars with significant wealth. Perhaps this balancing act of promoting the sport—wink wink—while pitching beauty queens is the reason the WTA continues to grow as other women’s leagues struggle.”

That growth is reflected by the spectacular domination of tennis players as money earners. Throughout this decade Forbes magazine’s annual list of the world’s top 10 highest-paid women athletes has included at least seven tennis players and always the top two.

One wonders how Abbott would have described Suzanne Lenglen, the first female tennis superstar. In the Roaring Twenties, the flamboyant, erotic Lenglen shocked traditionalists by exposing her calves and wearing lipstick on the court at ultra-conservative Wimbledon. It was not uncommon for one of her breasts to pop out of her dress during matches.

Lenglen’s appeal “lay precisely in the way she fused athletic ability with heterosexual allure,” explained Susan K. Cahn in her 1994 book, Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth Century Women’s Sport. “With her unusual dress and dancelike movement, she pioneered an ideal of the female body as physical and actively erotic.”

In her 1994 book, Sporting Females: Critical issues in the history and sociology of women’s sports, Jennifer Hargreaves maintained, “Glamour poses which ignore the skills of performance and those which highlight sexuality transform athletes into objects of desire and envy, providing an unambiguous message that sportswomen are sexual women.”

Many women today, however, clearly believe sex and glamour do not overshadow their undeniable skills but rather complement them.

As Hargreaves tellingly wrote: “But female sports stars are not simply passive subjects in this process—although they are caught up in the imperatives of modern consumer culture in ways which provide gratification for other people, they also exploit their own sexuality to get media attention, public interest and money.”     

Indeed they do.     

The naked truth is that several tennis players have posed nude for The Body Issue by ESPN The Magazine. Caroline Wozniacki, who appeared on the cover in 2017, told ESPN, “I don’t care what people think [about her physique]. My fitness is something I pride myself on. I think that’s definitely something that I win quite a few matches on.”    

Also baring their attractive bodies for ESPN The Magazine were Venus Williams (2014), Agnieszka Radwanksa (2013), Daniela Hantuchova (2012), Vera Zvonareva (2011), wheelchair superstar Esther Vergeer (2010), and Serena Williams (2009). Maria Sharapova, Elina Svitolina, and Ashley Harkleroad, among others, have appeared nude or semi-nude in other publications. (Stan Wawrinka, Tomas Berdych, and John Isner displayed their nude physiques for The Body Issue, while heartthrob Rafael Nadal posed semi-nude beside Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli in the 2012 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit magazine.)    

We should appreciate and enjoy beauty in whatever shape or form it takes, both on and off the court, according to Carillo.        

“It’s undeniable that one of the biggest reasons we marvel at athletes across the broad spectrum of sports is because they are at the peak of fitness, focus, and ambition,” said Carillo. “They will never be stronger or faster than during the small window of time when they are trying to accomplish almost otherworldly things they’ve trained for since childhood. That alone brings great beauty to their bodies. Equally undeniable is that some athletes are rewarded for their looks, whether it’s Kournikova or Sharapova or Bouchard or Edberg or Federer. Other athletes are branded by their style, their temperament. Agassi The Rebel. McEnroe The Hot Head. Borg The Silent Assassin. Serena The Force Of Nature.     

“And though Kournikova never won a tournament in singles [she ranked No. 1 in doubles], she brought plenty of attention to tennis because of her looks, and made a small fortune [an estimated $50 million] from it,” Carillo noted. “At the height of the Russian’s fame, I interviewed Martina Navratilova about Anna. There were some players who truly resented her profile and earning power. Not Martina, who told me, ‘I don’t resent it at all. Anna is bringing the game fans. Good for her, and good for us. She is not taking one cent out of the other players’ pockets. It’s silly for them to resent her for it.’      

“No woman athlete has ever made more money off the playing field than Maria Sharapova,” Carillo went on to point out. (Forbes magazine listed Sharapova as the highest-paid female athlete for 11 straight years, and she amassed more than $200 million in endorsements alone.) “She has the looks, the cool, assured elegance of a winner, and expertly styles herself to attract major companies and products. My guess is that [US Open and Australian Open champion] Naomi Osaka’s winning ways and good looks will see her become one of the richest female athletes ever. The [2020] Tokyo Olympics will be festooned with posters and advertisements of the young champion. Of course, her good looks contribute to all this. We should be allowed to speak about these things, with respect and good judgment, of course. But beauty in all of life’s endeavors is noticed, nurtured, and celebrated.”     

So lighten up, Ashley Abbott. Glamour, sex, and sport go together symbiotically—for both genders—and always will. In fact, some of those women who decry the turning of female athletes into “sex objects” sing a different tune when it comes to women ogling men, especially bicep-bulging Nadal. Rafa need only change his shirt during a match to elicit “oohs” and “aahs” and whistles from female spectators.

Beauty is clearly in the eye of the beholders, and sports fans are passionate beholders. 


Paul Fein has received more than 40 writing awards and authored three books, Tennis Confidential: Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies; You Can Quote Me on That: Greatest Tennis Quips, Insights, and Zingers; and Tennis Confidential II: More of Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies. Fein is also a USPTA-certified teaching pro and coach with a Pro-1 rating, former director of the Springfield (Mass.) Satellite Tournament, a former top 10-ranked men’s open New England tournament player and No. 1-ranked Super Senior player in New England. His websites are www.tennisconfidential.com and www.tennisquotes.com. His email address is: lincjeff1@comcast.net.  

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