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.