Blood, Sweat, and Jeers: The Impact of the Media's Heterosexist Portrayals on Perceptions of Male and Female Athletes

Article excerpt

Although the seminal passage of Title IX and the rise of professional women's sporting leagues have begun to propel female athletes into mainstream culture, there is still a ubiquitous yet tacit stigma surrounding issues of lesbianism in women's sport. Despite vanguards such as Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova (who have sought to increase the lay public's understanding of the role of homosexuality in sport), female athletes continue to be confronted with the "image problem," or homophobia in women's sport (Griffin, 1994, 1998; Hargreaves, 1994; Kane, 1996; Theberge & Birrell, 1994). That is, there is an underlying fear in society that participating in sports will encourage homosexuality or even convert female athletes into lesbians and prevent them from fulfilling their stereotypical domestic and maternal roles (Boutilier & SanGiovanni, 1983).

Because being a successful athlete contradicts a woman's prescribed societal gender role, the media often employs a "feminine apologetic" (Felshin, 1974) whereby female athletes are required to overcompensate for their masculine behavior on the field by acting in traditionally feminine ways off the field. Because femininity is often used as a proxy for heterosexuality, the media can implicitly or covertly "assure" their audience that female athletes are heterosexual through coverage and photographs that portrays these women in a "heterosexy" manner (Kane, 1996). More explicitly, the media can also dismiss charges of lesbianism by emphasizing female athletes' relationships with men and with their families in pictures, articles, and television coverage (Birrell & Theberge, 1994; Duncan, 1990). For example, in coverage of the U.S. Women's soccer team after their inaugural World Cup victory, People Magazine ran few on-the-field "action" shots of the players but instead used photographs of the players with their husbands, boyfriends, and children. Through portraying female athletes as adhering to standards of hegemonic femininity and as clearly heterosexual, these athletes consequently become more privileged and accepted than their fellow athletic peers who do not adhere to these standards (Krane, 2001; Pirinen, 1997).

By contrast, coverage of male athletes does not follow this same pattern. Although the onus is on female athletes to prove they are not homosexual, male athletes typically are assumed to be heterosexual (Griffin, 1998). Consequently, whereas sport commentators and writers often allude or explicitly refer to a female athlete's attractiveness, emotionality, femininity, and heterosexuality, coverage of male athletes is free to focus on their athletic accomplishments, as being an athlete is consistent with the traditional male role (Sabo & Jansen, 1992; Messner, 1988; Trujillo, 1991). Indeed, the only time that the heterosexuality of a male athlete is emphasized is under newsworthy or sensationalistic circumstances (Griffin, 1998), such as with Seattle Seahawks linebacker Chris Spielman's decision to leave the NFL to care for his sick wife or with Los Angeles Lakers guard Rick Fox and New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter's relationships with famous singers Venessa Williams and Mariah Carey, respectively. In sum, the media represent female athletes as heterosexual, feminine women first and as athletes second, whereas male athletes are, for the most part, portrayed solely in terms of their athleticism (Boutilier & SanGiovanni, 1983).

Although researchers have speculated about how this differential portrayal of male and female athletes by the media affects people's impressions, to date no research has experimentally addressed this question. As such, we sought to determine how emphasizing an athlete's heterosexuality influences the public's perceptions of him or her by manipulating, within a hypothetical newspaper article, the gender of an Olympic athlete as well as the depiction of the athlete's sexual orientation. Therefore, in the current study participants read and made judgments about either a male or female athlete who had a clearly heterosexual orientation or whose sexual orientation was ambiguous. …