Don't Ask an Athlete to Twirl - Pacific Standard

Don't Ask an Athlete to Twirl

Asking Serena Williams and Eugenie Bouchard to "twirl" isn't right, and it's emblematic of a larger problem.
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Serena Williams. (Photo: Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock)

Serena Williams. (Photo: Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock)

Despite stellar play and stunning upsets, perhaps the biggest storyline to emerge thus far from the Australian Open has been one not of athletic prowess, but media sexism. The sports world has been abuzz after Australian Channel 7’s Ian Cohen asked female tennis stars Serena Williams and Eugenie Bouchard to treat the Melbourne crowd to a “twirl.”

“A twirl?” Bouchard asked incredulously, to which Cohen further encouraged the 21-year-old star—who’s since been eliminated from the tournament—to flaunt her clothing for the crowd. It was an uncomfortable moment for both Williams, the No. 1-ranked player, and Bouchard, ranked No. 7 (moments actually; Ian Cohen asked both women to twirl on separate occasions). Unfortunately, it’s not that unusual for women’s sports coverage.

In 1990, the LA84 Foundation, a non-profit created by the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, released an important report on gender stereotyping in sports coverage. Led by researchers Margaret Carlisle Duncan, Michael Messner, Linda Williams, and Kerry Jensen, the study determined that women’s sports received five percent of total airtime, with most televised women existing as sexualized objects or as the focus of newscasters’ jokes. In tennis specifically, the authors found that female athletes were referred to by their first names 52.7 percent of the time; for men, that number was only 7.8 percent.

Things may have actually gone further downhill since then. A 2010 study by Messner and Cheryl Cooky determined that indeed there has been a decline in disrespectful treatment of female athletes, though they note this may be more a result of an even further diminished televised female presence in sports, as opposed to real progress. The pair pulls up one particularly depressing statistic:

...during 
this 
two 
decades 
of 
growth 
in 
women’s 
sports, 
the 
gap 
between 
TV
news 
and 
highlights 
shows’ 
coverage 
of 
women’s 
and 
men’s 
sports 
has not 
narrowed,
 it
 has 
widened. 
Women’s
 sports 
in 
2009 
received a 
paltry 1.6% 
of 
the 
coverage
 on 
TV 
news,
 and an 
anemic 1.4% on 
ESPN’s SportsCenter.


With so little time allotted to women’s sports as is, we can’t afford to have sexist psychology infiltrating and spoiling the few big moments female athletes have.

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