The 15 rules of sports media representation of female athletes
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How are women portrayed in the press? Toni Bruce explained on day two of the IWG World Conference on Women and Sport.

Researcher and author Toni Bruce has studied female sports coverage for more than 20 years. Speaking at a workshop in Gaborone, Botswana, she shared the main patterns shown in research – rules that show current and past trends in how female athletes are portrayed in the media. Those principles should be used to hold the media accountable and can be split into four categories.

Older rules (still exist but research suggests they are no longer that prevalent)

1. Lower broadcast production values: Coverage of women’s sport used to use fewer cameras, fewer statistics and fewer replays. Commentators were male and had little knowledge of the players. The overall quality was bad and it made women’s sport look boring.

2. Gender marking: There is football and then there is women’s football. There is the World Cup and then there is the Women’s World Cup. That is the concept behind gender marking – men’s sport is described as just ‘sport’; women’s sport is not.

3. Infantilisation: It was common for coverage to describe women as girls or young ladies throughout the twentieth century. The problem is not with women being called girls but that it was only applied to women – men have always been called men.

4. Non-sport related aspects: Studies have shown a high level of attention to women’s personal lives, appearances and families. This tendency is reducing but has not disappeared.

5. Comparisons to men’s sports: “She’s the female Usain Bolt.” Such statements intend to flatter women but are actually another way that men’s sport is presented as the standard against which women’s sport should be judged.

Persistent (established and difficult to change despite extensive critique)

6. Sportswomen don’t matter: Media coverage is very low. In New Zealand, for example, it has averaged 10% of coverage since 1980.

7. Compulsory heterosexuality/appropriate femininity: “Ok, you can be an athlete but only in a feminine way.” This rule views femininity as incompatible with physical strength. Coverage emphasises heterosexual femininity and negatively represents lesbian identities and ‘masculine-looking’ bodies.

8. Sexualisation: This rule focuses on athletes’ bodies rather than athletic abilities. This is common in the United States where women are shown in ‘sexy poses’ in magazines.

9. Ambivalence: When a female athlete does get media coverage, it focuses on both the strength, skill and achievement common in sports discourse and also attributes associated with infantilisation, compulsory femininity and sexualisation. These contradictions continue to place her outside of sport’s ‘norms’.

Current (focusing on situations where coverage of female athletes is similar to that of men)

10. Athletes in action images: Coverage shows women’s power, strength and athleticism. Research shows that images of female athletes competing at events are similar to those of men. The number of images is lower, however.

11. Serious athletes: Women are increasingly portrayed as serious athletes, with more focus on the abilities than in the past. This is particularly evident in global events such as the Olympics.

12. Model citizens: When women win, particularly if they are from our country, we see them as standing up for us, as people we should look up to. We associate whatever stereotypes we have for us with them. They might be strong and determined, for example.

13. Us and them: However, we only put those stereotypes on our own country’s women, not on others’. Our own athletes are strong and determined model citizens and serious athletes but we excessively feminise or sexualise women from other countries.

Emerging online (new trends in the age of the internet)

14. Our voices: Athletes and sports fans are now able to produce media themselves due to websites, blogs and social media. The internet has allowed alternative voices to gain media attention.

15. Pretty and powerful: You can be feminine but also a powerful and determined world champion. Female athletes who are represented in both ways are often those who have risen to prominence on social media. Research on this comes mostly from the US, where a study showed that athletes are rated as more attractive than models. It’s difficult to say if it’s really positive or just another form of sexualisation. In the US, athletes viewed as attractive tend to be white, thin, tall and heterosexual.


Senior Project Manager
International Platform on Sport and Development