In the book Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sports, Pat Griffin discusses the pressure on female athletes to constantly prove they, and their sport, are acceptably feminine, for fear of being labeled lesbians. Women who engaged in, and openly enjoyed, sports have often been viewed with suspicion or concern, ranging from beliefs that physical exertion might make them infertile to a fear that women’s sports teams serve as recruiting sites for lesbians. Some college coaches even try to get young women to play on their teams by hinting to their parents that other schools their daughter is considering are known for having a lot of lesbians and it might not be the “type of environment” where they want their sweet little girl to go.
Female athletes, and women’s sports teams, thus often feel a lot of pressure to prove their heterosexuality to quell homophobic fears and to make women’s sports appealing to a broad audience. One way to do so is to dissociate themselves from lesbians. Another is to emphasize the femininity of female athletes, signaling that they are, despite their athletic abilities, still physically attractive to, and interested in, men.
Texas A&M put out this promotional media guide, which features an image of the male coach surrounded by the team in sexy clothing:
While these types of materials have traditionally been for the media, they’re increasingly used as recruiting tools for players as well. Those who produce them argue that they’re just trying to put out something distinctive that will set them apart. And as Jayda Evans at the Seattle Times says, it’s not like men’s sports teams are never photographed off the court.
But as many researchers have pointed out, and as Evans herself discusses, female athletes are often photographed and discussed in ways that largely erase their athletic abilities. When men’s teams are dressed up for publicity materials, it’s usually for one or two images that are outnumbered by ones that highlight their sports participation. For female athletes, images that exclude any connection to sports often become nearly the entire story. And despite the fact that the creators often stress their interest in doing something unique and distinctive to set themselves apart, there is a very common set of elements in promotional materials for women’s sports: clothing, make-up, hair, and poses that sexualize the players and implicitly include a reassurance to parents, potential players, and fans that the women are pretty, charming, and feminine, regardless of what they do on the court or the field.That is, they are blending masculinity and femininity by being athletic and pretty, not giving up their femininity altogether.
Of course, part of an acceptable performance of femininity is showing that you want male attention, and that you actively try to make yourself appealing to men. So while these materials might do many other things, they also carry a particular message: these girls like to pretty themselves up, and that should reassure you that it’s not a team full of lesbians.
The effect of all this is that female athletes may feel pressured to keep their hair long, wear make-up even on the court, and emphasize any relationships they have with men or children to “prove” they are straight, and a lesbian who likes makeup and sexy clothing may face less suspicion and stigma than a straight woman who doesn’t.
Also see our posts on Serena Williams’s ESPN cover, Candace Parker “is pretty, which helps,” groundbreaking female sailor is also pretty, sexualizing female Olympic athletes, diets of champions, media portrayals of female athletes, and valuing dads in the WNBA.Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.