Keeping with Gender Roles, Image still Dictates Interest in Women’s Sports

“She’d rather eat, half-ass her way through non-major tournaments and complain she’s not getting the respect her 11-major-championships résumé demands…. [S]eriously, how else can Serena fill out her size-16 shorts without grazing at her stall between matches?” said by Jason Whitlock in a 2009 column for fox sports about Serena Williams, the number one ranked women’s singles tennis player in the world. Serena Williams is a world-class athlete and one of the most famous female athletes in the world. You would think her fame comes from the numerous wins she has had, but when you look at the articles written about her, more often than not she is criticized about her weight, her butt, her muscles, and her race. Serena Williams is a perfect example of the paradox that female athletes face, performing at a high level and looking beautiful while doing it.

When women receive attention in the media, their appearance is oftentimes addressed instead of their athletic ability because women’s sports “aren’t as interesting as men’s sports.” The problem is, women face a dichotomy when they play sports, since sports have always been “for men,” getting sweaty, aggressive, and competitive show a masculine side, which people don’t always like to see. Airtime for women is close to nonexistent compared to men’s athletics. Researchers, Amy Jones and Jennifer Greer explored this difference in interest in female sports in a recent paper. They looked at whether the feminine appearance of a female athlete increases audience interest in a news story or the sport they are playing. Jones and Greer tested participants by giving them a short news story about a star athlete (who played volleyball or basketball) and accompanied the news story with a photograph. The photograph was either a feminine or masculine female athlete. The feminine athlete was thin, had sexualized clothing, was in a sexualized pose with a feminine face, and was lightly muscularly toned. The masculine athlete was average to larger in size, looked powerful, wore athletic clothing, had a masculine face, and a high degree of muscular tone. So each participant read a story and saw a photograph about a feminine volleyball player, a masculine volleyball player, a feminine basketball player, or a masculine basketball player. They were then given a questionnaire measuring the interest in the article, the interest in the sport, and the sex typing of the sport.

Jones and Greer found that for either sport those who saw a feminine female athlete had a greater interest in the sport than when viewing a masculine female athlete. Results indicate that for men, feminine appearance in female athletes is linked to greater interest in a story when the female was participating in a stereotypical female sport (a feminine volleyball player). Men reacted negatively when masculine looking athletes participated in feminine sports (a masculine volleyball player). Therefore men prefer for female athletes to maintain a feminine image. Women on the other hand were different; they were less interested in both the article and the sport when feminine athletes played a feminine sport (a feminine volleyball player) and were more interested in the story and sport when feminine athletes were playing basketball.

These results indicate that gender biases are still prevalent in our society and largely dictate how much airtime and interest are given to female sports. This study does have some limitations; there was no baseline for researchers to measure against, so they were only able to compare interest between masculine and feminine conditions. A baseline could have given a better idea of whether people are less interested in watching a masculine athlete play compared to a female athlete who is more neutral looking. This study also is not very generalizable, since the participants were white, largely female, and college aged. It would be intriguing to see if interest would increase or decrease when a wider variety of people were tested.

Despite these limitations, the study still gives us valuable information; women are still fighting against stereotypes, and their sexualized image is still important to their abilities as an athlete. But the fight is long from over; women’s empowerment has become a hot topic. Recent campaigns for example, He for She by Emma Watson, as well as Fast and Female, an organization working to empower young girls to be athletes have both added to the dialogue surrounding women’s empowerment. The fight may be continuing, but hopefully someday we can appreciate women as equals for the qualities, skills, and athletic abilities they possess instead of their image.


Jones, A., & Greer, J. (2011). You Don’t Look Like An Athlete: The Effects Of Feminine Appearance On Audience Perceptions Of Female Athletes And Women’s Sports. Journal Of Sport Behavior, 34, 358-377.

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