These are labels used to describe the world’s most accomplished female athletes including former gymnast and Olympic gold medalist, Mary Lou Retton; NASCAR driver, Danica Patrick; former professional beach volleyball player, Gabrielle Reece; Olympic hurdler, Lolo Jones; and former world number one professional tennis player,Chris Evert.
Athletic accomplishments are supposed to speak entirely for themselves. But in the world of women’s sports the way a female athlete looks adds another layer of scrutiny. The value placed on appearance rather than achievements is difference between a woman excelling in her chosen field or having to relying on alternative revenue streams.
Tonight, ESPN films and espnW explore the double standard placed on women to be dominant athletes on the field and sexy off of it in the Nine for IX film Branded (August 27 on ESPN 8 pm ET).
Executive produced by Robin Roberts and Jane Rosenthal, and directed byHeidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, Branded explores the question: can women’s sports ever gain an equal footing with their male counterparts or will sex always override achievement?
“You look at a male athlete, and they can make their entire living based off of their skill. For a female athlete we make most of our money on the side,” said Hope Solo, a professional soccer player who is featured in the documentary.
How did we get here?
“Girls get the message from early on that what’s most important is how they look; that their value and worth depends on it. And boys get the message that this is what is important about girls,” said Jean Kilbourne, EdD, Senior Scholar Wellesley Centers for Women.
And according to renowned historian and feminist author, Barbara J. Berg, PhD, “Patriarchy really is America’s default setting. Where men hold the positions of privilege and power, and where women very often are treated as second-class citizens.”
No matter what women achieve, we still live in a culture where a woman’s value is judged on her appearance; if you are very beautiful and attractive you can succeed. Being strong, smart, and accomplished is not enough, and this mind-set has trickled down to sports.
Branded offers poignant examples of evolution of this phenomenon.
In the 70’s, Evert was the first female athlete to cross the $1 million mark in endorsements based on her skill and girl next door image. However, equally accomplished but less feminine athletes, such as Martina Navratilova, were not offered similar opportunities. In the 80’s, Retton was the most visible female athlete who endorsed IBM, AT&T, Energizer, McDonald’s, and Wheaties. Given her visibility, advisors told her to smile and not say anything that could possibly upset people, which left her feeling voiceless.
The 90’s ushered in an era where women’s team sports were front and center. The WNBA launched in 1997 and today continues to be the longest running women’s professional basketball league is sports history. The women of the WNBA are tough and competitive, and at times accused of being too physical. Some suggest that the league should take greater strides in the direction of femininity to attract more viewers. Do we honestly want fans, especially young girls and boys, to think that wearing tight short shorts is more valuable than hitting a three point shot? Besides the WNBA knows its core audience would not accept stooping to the lowest male chromosome just to increase ratings.
Juxtaposed with the WNBA, is Patrick who is a talented auto racing driver and not shy about exploiting her sex appeal to attract fans and sponsors. Yes, her Go Daddy commercials sting and women across America cringe every time they air. However, in a male dominated sport where gaining corporate sponsorships directly impacts performance on the track, have we given Patrick much of a choice?
Yes, sports is a business, but is it fair that a segment of athletes must rely on their beauty in order to fully participate? Ultimately, we have to find a way to transform our culture, awaken our consciousness, and change minds.