Television Sports and Athlete Sex: Looking at the Differences in Watching Male and Female Athletes

By Angelini, James R. | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, March 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Television Sports and Athlete Sex: Looking at the Differences in Watching Male and Female Athletes


Angelini, James R., Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


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). …

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