UPDATED: “Girl Games” still grappled with gendered language, commentary

As the 2012 Olympic Games wind down in London this weekend, the Gender Report compiled coverage from both the broadcast coverage of the Games, as well as the plentiful commentary and feature reporting from print and online media sources.

Photo taken from http://www.bostonglobe.com

Female athletes for the first time represented every participating country, and the U.S. team brought a female-majority team to London (as did Russia and China).

Females served as both the U.S. flag bearer and delegation chief, and female athletes took home almost double the gold medals for the United States than their male teammates. The Boston Globe went as far as to deem London as the “Girl Games,” and Time magazine named London the “Year of the Woman.”NBC’s features during the Closing Ceremonies did include a feature on women’s participation, and medal count dominance, in London. Accomplishments highlighted included women’s basketball, water polo, rowing, (also highlighted as a team of “strong personalities”), and soccer, which was credited for doing more for attention to women’s sports than any other event. (The U.S. men did not qualify in soccer).

But with plentiful gains towards gender equity in these games, the Gender Report also found plentiful bias in both spoken and written commentary throughout the past weeks.


In both live and prime time coverage, NBC offered a glimpse at the language biases still present in sports coverage. For example, in his interview with beach volleyball gold medalists Kerry Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor, Bob Costas reminded viewers to watch the girls’ medal ceremony, despite both women being in their 30s. Similar use of “girl” to refer to female athletes over the age of 18 could be found in swimming and basketball commentary. Similarly, commentators giving background or “color” information on athletes tended to focus on the personalities of female athletes but the training or athleticism of male athletes, even in the same sports. For example, a feature piece for the Washington Post focused on swimmer Missy Franklin’s accomplishments despite her “bubbles and dimples” and that a “mean girl” takes possession of her in the pool. The Atlantic Wire noted “It is truly hard to imagine Michael Phelps’ or Ryan Lochte’s desire for victory being described in this manner. ” Other feature coverage highlighted female swimmers’ nail polish choices or other athletes’ hairstyles, while male coverage, largely lacked these kinds of pieces.


Throughout the games, companies from Proctor and Gamble to Kellog’s to Gillette featured athletes endorsing their products. An upcoming article in the Journal of Brand Strategy focused on the “cycle of failure” facing female athletes because they are less featured in the years between Olympics, and when they are featured, appear in oversexualized advertisements.

A lack of femininity has also been criticized as a reason some female athletes, in sports like boxing and weightlifting, don’t receive as many endorsements.

Gymnastics Coverage

One particular sport highlighted the gender biases prevalent throughout these Olympics. While the U.S. Women came into London as gold-medal favorites in both the team and all around competitions, many media, and in particular NBC, put extensive emphasis on the femininity, rather than the athleticism, of this team. At one point in the team final, a commentator noted the beads of sweat on one athlete, saying viewership of the sport may be declining as the women show “less grace” in the sport. A Washington Post article noticed “grimaces have outnumbered smiles” in the women’s competition. Coverage of NBC commentators zoomed in on the tears of Jordyn Wieber and the “divas” of the Russian team. But as Slate columnist J. Bryan Lowder notes, “That “these girls are very emotional,” as NBC’s Tim Daggett put it, should be neither here nor there. After all, when Michael Phelps and his teammates express diva-like torrents of emotion poolside, their whooping and grimacing—if it’s noticed at all—is deemed nothing more than uncomplicated masculine enthusiasm.”

All-around gold medalist Gabby Douglas faced gendered, and at times racialized, coverage. Bob Costas often made comments about her “winning smile” and “bubbly” personality, but Douglas’ physical appearance also drew particular interest. As the first African-American to win the all-around title, Douglas became a social media target for the way she styled her hair. After congratulating her accomplishment, one fan told the Daily Beast “I just hate the way her hair looks with all those pins and gel. I wish someone could have helped her make it look better since she’s being seen all over the world. She representing for black women everywhere.” Tennis sisters Venus and Serena Williams have faced similar criticism of their hair styles in the past. NPR, Ms. Magazine , the LA Times and Jezebel also noted the commotion around Douglas’ hairstyles. However, Ebony magazine gave more blame to media stereotypes of black women criticizing one another than social media posts.

In its summary of the gender-focused coverage, The American Prospect summarized the games by crediting the athletes themselves:  “Even if the media wanted to maintain an image of the demure, petite female Olympian, the women themselves clearly won’t be having it. For no other reason than pure competition, women from all sorts of backgrounds have been redefining what’s acceptable. “

Read more about gender issues in Olympics coverage:

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