Television sports and athlete sex: looking at the differences in watching male and female athletes.

Author:Angelini, James R.

Women's sports are slowly becoming more popular among audiences in the United States. Successful coverage of women's sports during such events as the Summer and Winter Olympics, as indicated by higher ratings, has been the impetus for television networks to increase the amount of women's sports they broadcast (Lopiano, 2000). Women's sports makes up approximately 5% of the total televised sports coverage (Tuggle, 1997). But this increase in the amount of coverage has been a relatively recent phenomenon; 1992 marked the first year that that total coverage of women's sports surpassed the total coverage of sports that featured animals such as horses and dogs (Lopiano, 2000).

Despite the fact that there is an increased amount of women's sports being telecast, there are inherent differences in the way the sports commentators speak about the female athletes, compared to their male counterparts (Halbert & Latimer, 1994; Messner, Duncan, & Jensen, 1993). There also are differences seen in the production techniques used in broadcasting each (Hallmark & Armstrong, 1999). While many researchers in the past have examined this differing content of comparable men's and women's sporting events, very little research has examined how these different portrayals may affect the members of the viewing audience. The purpose of this study is to examine how males and females differ in their cognitive and physiological processing of television sports that feature male and female athletes. The primary goal of this study was to test how sports broadcasts that differ in the sex of the participating athletes are physically reacted to and cognitively processed differently by male and female viewers.

Researchers have generated an extensive body of literature about the perceived inherent qualities of masculinity and femininity and how they contribute to the societal roles of men and women. These traditional ideas of what the inherent qualities of masculinity are include strength, self-control, aggression, stamina, discipline, fearlessness, and competitiveness (Koivula, 2001; Laberge & Albert, 1999). Therefore what is not masculine is therefore feminine; more specifically, the traditional qualities of femininity include beauty, passivity, grace, emotion, and expressiveness (Koivula, 2001; Laberge & Albert, 1999).

Individuals learn the qualities that are encompassed in the concepts of masculinity and femininity through personal experience (Calvert & Huston, 1987). Children, in particular, observe societal cues about what is acceptable behavior for men and women and use them to form expectations about what constitutes acceptable behavior for men and women (C. L. Martin & Ruble, 2004). This exposure to and personal experience with these cues instill beliefs about how men and women should feel in certain situations, what their general appearance should be, and what is appropriate behavior (Nathanson, Wilson, McGee, & Sebastian, 2002); these ideas about what is appropriate behavior often contribute to how an individual behaves due to a strong sex role identification and overall schema about how his or her own biological sex should behave (Bem, 1977, 1981 ; Spence, 1993). These exposures assist individuals in forming their own gender schemas, which affect the processing of future gender messages (C. L. Martin & Halverson Jr., 1981; Nathanson et al., 2002). Gender schema theory, then, allows for stereotyped attitudes to be reinforced when individuals view stereotyped portrayals of gender in society, including those portrayals seen on television and the media as well as exhibited in other individuals (Calvert & Huston, 1987; Nathanson et al.).

Television has the potential to assist in the forming and reinforcing of gender schema that incorporate stereotyped ideas about gender roles, possibly through implicit learning. Implicit learning allows for someone to "unconsciously" form a personal belief about an individual or a group of people without having any knowledge of where this belief was attained, or even that this knowledge was learned; the abstract information learned essentially becomes a rule within the individual's personal beliefs (Reber, 1967, 1989). The viewing of negative images of different social groups on television could possibly assist a viewer in the forming of abstract negative schemas about members of these groups without the conscious knowledge of where such beliefs were learned; past research, for example, has discussed the possible effect of implicit learning on beliefs about women following a brief exposure to photographs of women with varying lengths of hair (Squire, Knowlton, & Musen, 1993).

These stereotypical perceptions inherent to many individuals' gender schema are reinforced by what programming television networks choose to air. Televised sports are an arena where such reinforcing practices are evident. Televised women's sports tend to focus on athletes who participate individually and not with a team, as well as on sports that stress the charisma and grace of the athlete (Koivula, 2001). These are also the women's sports that tend to receive the most airtime, due to their focus on beauty and the overall attractiveness of the participant as well as the sport itself; these sports include gymnastics, synchronized swimming, and figure skating (Koivula, 2001; Laberge & Albert, 1999).

In contrast to female athletes, male athletes are believed to have personality characteristics not appropriate for women; these characteristics include "aggressiveness, competitive spirit, discipline, and stamina" (Koivula, 2001, p. 379). These personality characteristics are the ones believed to be inherent to masculine sports. Some of the sports that are believed to be masculine, and therefore not appropriate for female participants, include football, boxing, and wrestling (Koivula, 2001; Laberge & Albert, 1999).

These societal beliefs about what personality traits are appropriate for boys and girls are taught at an early age and are widely accepted with no actual evidence to support their validity (Holtzman, 2000). These stereotyped ideas are then reinforced, oftentimes through their unconscious assimilation through implicit learning during the viewing of television images, and can lead to an individual's increased belief of these gender roles (Reber, 1967, 1989). These beliefs of the differences between men and women, and in this context between masculine and feminine sports, are constructs of social reality that reinforce societal inequities between genders, which include the concepts of masculine dominance and feminine inferiority (Halbert & Latimer, 1994).

These ideas about men and women are a major component of social dominance orientation. Social dominance orientation, an individual difference variable within social dominance theory (Sidanius, 1993), is a personality measure that allows for an individual predilection toward a societal hierarchy (Bates & Heaven, 2001). In other words, individuals have a preference for the group to which they belong to be perceived at a higher level than and superior to other groups (Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, & Malle, 1994). Groups that can be considered socially weak, including women and minorities, have a difficult time in attempting to overcome these perceived hierarchical structures. There are structures in place that reinforce these perceptions and contribute to their sustainment over time (Sidanius, Liu, Shaw, & Pratto, 1994). The media is considered one of these structures that, through their stereotypical portrayals of women, reinforce these patriarchal beliefs of society.

This bias in the coverage of women's sports has been shown to not be exclusive to any one sport. Evidence has been gathered of biased presentations in a wide array of sports and events: tennis (Billings, 2003; Halbert & Latimer, 1994); basketball (Eastman & Billings, 2001; Hallmark & Armstrong, 1999); golf (Billings, Angelini, & Eastman, 2005); soccer (Christopherson, Janning, & McConnell, 2002); and the Olympic Games (Billings & Eastman, 2002; Tuggle & Owen, 1999). As other professional women's sports become more mainstream in the media, such as ice hockey, boxing, and softball, it is possible that these gender stereotypes will come to apply to these sports and their athletes as well.

It is undeniable that the watching of television programs has some effect on the beliefs and attitudes of viewers. As briefly described previously, Gender Schema Theory examines how individuals, particularly children, form beliefs about the societal roles of men and women. Children's processing of information and behaviors pertaining to gender are influenced by their own mental representations of men and women, otherwise known as their gender schemas (C. L. Martin, Ruble, & Szkrybalo, 2002). These schema of gender are formed by seeing and processing repeated social cues from their immediate and mediated environments (C. L. Martin & Halverson Jr., 1981; Nathanson et al., 2002). These schemata are active representations of gender during which, once a child identifies himself or herself as a boy or a girl, he or she actively searches out more representations of gender in order to comprehend and meld into their schema of gender what qualities go into being a boy or a girl (C. L. Martin et al., 2002). Because children do not passively mimic these representations of gender but rather are also internalizing these depictions of gender into their own personal beliefs, the possibility of inaccuracies within their overall schema is even greater (C. L. Martin et al.). One of the sources from which children gather their cues about gender is television. Exposure to stereotyped messages about gender through a television broadcast, including through the viewing of a sporting event, can assist in the active formation of a gender schema that contains counterfactual information, and then has the possibility to reinforce these erroneous beliefs...

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