"Naturally" less exciting? Visual production of men's and women's track and field coverage during the 2004 Olympics.

Author:Greer, Jennifer D.
Position:Report
 
FREE EXCERPT

When Canadian writer Binks (2004) suggested on the CBC Web that the media should increase airtime for women's hockey, the comment prompted swift reader reaction. One wrote, bluntly, "Women's sport will always have difficulty succeeding in the entertainment world because fourth and fifth rate men's sport is still better" (Binks, 2004, Letters, para. 5). Another reader gave Binks "the brutal truth." "There is not much interest in watching most women's sports ... Women's sport may not have the intensity level of the men's sports, may be slower paced or not on the same skill level. This may be hard to swallow for some people, but it's the truth" (Binks, 2004, Letters, para. 5).

These comments reflect the attitude that women's athletics are "naturally" less interesting than men's (Hallmark & Armstrong, 1999). The truth is, however, that sport delivered via mass media involves far more than action by athletes. Commentary and visual production combine to project the sports experience to viewers, as explored to varying degrees by scholars since the 1980s (Duncan & Hasbrook, 1988; Higgs & Weiller, 1994; Messner, Duncan, & Cooky, 2003; Messner, Duncan, & Jensen, 1993; Messner, Duncan, & Wachs, 1996). Clarke and Clarke (1982) describe the mediated viewing experience, "Between us and the event stand the cameras, camera angles, producers' choice of shots, and commentators' interpretations" (p. 73).

This study focuses on what happens "between us and the event," in relation to gender, by examining visual production techniques in a mediated sporting event. Studying production techniques can show how sport is constructed as entertaining; doing so with an event that features men and women in the same activities sheds light on how coverage may be constructed differently depending on the gender of the athletes (Borcila, 2000; Higgs & Weiller, 1994). Focusing solely on television production techniques is a deviation from past studies that have examined commentary as prime in the framing of athletes (Billings & Angelini, 2007; Billings & Eastman, 2003; Eastman & Billings, 2001; Messner et al., 1993). However, the power of visuals in a medium defined and remembered for its images (we watch TV) cannot be overstated, "The picture is the story" (Fitch & McCurry, 2004, p. 107).

This study examines NBC's 2004 men's and women's Olympic track and field telecasts through Zettl's (1999) applied media aesthetics approach that examines the amount and type of coverage as exhibited through visual production. The study asks if the visual production frames the events in ways that would present them as equally visually exciting. Visual excitement is understood to be the result of the production of events using techniques that can enhance viewers' emotional engagement and visual stimulation. Implied is the idea that an event can be presented in ways that encourage perceptions of it as one that is active, interesting, and entertaining (Hanjalic, 2006; Sandomir, 2004). Production of sports events may either challenge or reinforce the "commonsense" idea that women's sports are naturally less entertaining than men's (Hallmark & Armstrong, 1999).

The Olympics provide an ideal venue for this study. They showcase men and women competing in many of the same events in the same venues almost simultaneously, thus removing many external factors that could lead to different production choices based on gender. Further, the Olympics are among the most-watched events in the world; the 2004 telecasts reached 3.9 billion people worldwide (Global TV Viewing, 2004).

Literature Review

The relationship between sports and media is so interdependent that Jhally labeled it the "sports/media complex" (Jhally, 1989, p. 70). Scholars have indicted the sports/media complex for reinforcing masculine hegemony, defined as the "taken-for-granted" system of gendered power relations reinforced by the ideology that (White) men are, and should be, "naturally" at the head of the socio-economic hierarchy. It is built on the understanding of masculinity as the place of "symbolic authority" in contrast with femininity, which is "defined by lack" (Connell, 2001, p. 33). Men's symbolic authority is represented through less coverage of women's sport and through presentations of women's sport within traditional gender boundaries; both devices symbolically annihilate female athletes (Hargreaves, 1994; Pedersen, 2003; Tuchman, 1978).

Marginalized in Coverage

The marginalization of women in sport media seems almost universal. This trend is apparent in children's media (Cuneen & Sidwell, 1998; Lynn, Walsdorf, Hardin, & Hardin, 2002), daily newspapers (Eastman & Billings, 2000; Pedersen, 2003), sports magazines (Bishop, 2003; Salwen & Wood, 1994), and major programming on ESPN and CNN (Eastman & Billings, 2000; Shugart, 2003).

Studies of televised Olympic Games consistently show similar patterns. Analysis of NBC's 1996 Olympic track and field coverage found that men were featured twice as often as women (Higgs, Weiller, & Martin, 2003). A comparison of the 1996 and 2000 Olympics by Tuggle, Huffman, and Rosengard (2002) showed that men received more coverage than women overall; women's coverage actually declined between 1996 and 2000. In the 2002 Olympics, men's events were featured twice as much as women's, also a decrease in parity from 2000 (Billings & Eastman, 2003).

Framing Within Gender Boundaries

Masculine hegemony is reinforced through the way sports are mediated. Women are presented as "naturally" less suited for sport through coverage that emphasizes their differences from men. Discursive themes present women as weaker, more prone to emotional outbursts, and less able to handle the stress of sports (Borcila, 2000; Hall, 1996). Further, female athletes are sexualized (Bernstein, 2002; Shugart, 2003).

Perhaps most influential in the trajectory of feminist critiques over the past decade of televised sports has been the work of Messner and colleagues (1993, 1996, 2003). Messner et al.'s 1993 study examined the quantity and the quality of basketball and tennis broadcasts through commentary and production. The analysis focused mostly on commentary, pointing out the ways female athletes were encoded (see Hall, 1980) in ways that diminished their athleticism in comparison to men. Although they did not cite Hall's seminal work on encoding/decoding of televised messages, Messner and colleagues' analyses rely on Hall's assertion of the power in the "moment" that a raw event becomes a communicative event--laden with the hierarchy of social relations.

Studies of Olympic television coverage have extended the links between masculine hegemony, gendered language, and the general encoding process in sports production. An examination of 1996's coverage found contrasting presentations of men and women as illustrated by a feature on Jackie Joyner Kersee's marriage and her husband-coach; a narrative on Michael Johnson, in contrast, focused solely on his athletic talent (Higgs et al., 2003). This finding was supported by Eastman and Billings (1999), who found that 1996's Olympic commentators emphasized the athletic victories of men, and the family life and attractiveness of women. Borcila's (2000) analysis of gendered language and stereotypical images in the 1996 Olympics found that female athletes were depicted as more vulnerable to injury, more emotional, more prone to stress, and less focused than male athletes. A practice of commentators in 2000, found in two studies, was the comparison of women to men in descriptions of excellent performances, but not the reverse (Billings & Eastman, 2002; Weiller, Higgs & Greenleaf, 2004). Most recently, Billings and Angelini (2007) found that male athletes were mentioned more frequently and depicted as more courageous than were female athletes. Researchers have found exceptions to this pattern, however. Billings & Eastman (2002, 2003) found that Olympic commentators more often attributed wins by men to athletic skill in 2000, but more often attributed wins by women to skill in 2002.

Masculine hegemony also is reinforced through emphasis on sports considered "gender-appropriate." Such sports allow for traditional images of femininity (Koivula, 1995; Tuggle & Owen, 1999). Team sports with an element of body contact, such as basketball, hockey, and football, are deemed masculine. In contrast, sports focused on individual performance and judged on aesthetics, such as gymnastics and figure skating, are rated as feminine (Koivula, 2001; Pedersen, 2003). Media provide more coverage of women in "feminine" sports because of the emphasis on traditional feminine ideals such as grace and glamour (Brookes, 2002; Vincent, Imwold, Johnson & Massey, 2003). A study of newspaper coverage of interscholastic sports found that girls in neutral or feminine-appropriate sports received more coverage than girls who participated in "masculine" sports (Pedersen, 2003).

A range of individual sports that do not involve body contact, but are not judged by aesthetics (i.e., running, golf, tennis), have been rated as "neutral" in experimental studies involving youths and college students; researchers argue that such sports do not incorporate physical tasks that have been culturally co-opted as masculine or feminine (Koivula, 2001; Riemer & Feltz, 1995). It is important to note, however, that sports often considered "gender-neutral" are not; they still involve the use of skills and attributes that favor men. For instance, speed skating and downhill skiing, both seen as gender-neutral (Angelini, 2008), allow men to become the benchmark for excellence because they require strength and speed.

Many track and field events are considered gender neutral because they allow athletes to perform in ways that do not blatantly violate gender norms; e.g., women are not in physical contact or lifting heavy objects and men are not judged on aesthetics. Shot put, discus, and javelin, however, are...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP