By Taylor Buck
Mainstream media offered a refreshing change in the women-in-sports narrative in January when United States soccer star Carli Lloyd won the FIFA World Player of the Year, the most prestigious award in the world of soccer.
The concept of women existing, let alone succeeding, in male-dominated worlds is the thorn in modern media’s side. Uncertain how to approach women possessing traditionally masculine qualities such as strength and independence, the media tends to resort to traditional feminine ideals, allowing a woman’s achievements to fall wayside in comparison to her femininity.
Feminism won many major victories in the media throughout the past year, with a number of Hollywood’s biggest stars bringing positive press to embracing and defining an individual’s own womanhood. However, popular media often forced feminism a step back.
Sports Illustrated appointed Serena Williams as the 2015 Sportsperson of the Year in celebration of her achievements after her record-smashing year. Williams’ mercurial skill on the court won her the title. However, her Sports Illustrated cover side-stepped her athletic accomplishments in favor of celebrating her sexuality.
One could argue that Serena, posing in spiky black heels and a matching bodysuit, demonstrated that athleticism and femininity are not mutually exclusive. However, almost every past Sports Illustrated cover for Sportsperson of the Year features athletes with their respective athletic gear. The last issue of the Sportsperson of the Year pictured without their game for the cover was LeBron James, who was pictured in a suit coat. However, his championship ring was displayed prominently as the focal point of the image, the silver glinting off of his fingers. Williams’ cover included no reference to her life as a tennis player, the very reason she won Sportsperson of the Year.
The red carpet is another notorious venue for sexism, as the media favors fixating on a woman’s outfit over her achievements. The first question directed towards women to roll off every red carpet journalist’s tongue is “Who are you wearing?”
While nominated men answer questions regarding their recent films and careers, women participate in the inane “mani-cam” made popular by E! News and its successor, the “clutch-cam,” while telling the world how long it took them to get ready, or what they carry in their purses, or how they lost weight for their newest project. As Cate Blanchett put it at the 2014 SAG Awards when cameramen panned over her dress, “Do you do that to the guys?”
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with an interest in fashion and how it is presented on the red carpet, the problem arises when the spotlight for women focuses on their clothing. This toxic, misogynistic culture reinforces the idea that women are defined by their beauty and sexuality rather than their achievements.
However, in the media frenzy following Carli Lloyd’s achievement, the headlines of the top online newspapers contained no references to her beautiful dress or her smooth bun, choosing instead to highlight the soccer superstar’s ingenuity on the field. As part of an invigorating change, the media deliberately chose not to focus on Lloyd’s choice of dress to undermine her athletic ability; rather, all eyes were firmly directed to Lloyd’s year in soccer.
Often, we struggle with trying to reconcile the image of a feminine woman and a powerful women, leading to the damaging idea that a woman can only be one or the other. As a result of this harmful concept, the media, perhaps influenced by the residual affects of centuries of gender roles forced upon society, breaks women into components of themselves by brushing aside their achievements in order to focus on their appearance.
The result of overlooking women’s successes is an idea that women cannot be powerful, that women do not have a place in traditional male positions of power. The media presents the idea that successful women are not the standard: they are the anomaly. Due to this ideology, women in business are severely underrepresented.
The media’s celebration of Carli Lloyd as a brilliant athlete came none too soon. Today, only 19.2% of board directors in the U.S. are women, while only 4.6% of Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs, who are paid an average of 11.5% less than male CEOs. These numbers grow particularly more discouraging when you take into consideration that women constitute 59% of the United State’s labor force and 51% of its population.
These numbers are not a coincidence. They are the offspring of a patriarchal society and the media’s refusal to values women for anything more than their beauty. By constantly displaying women as objects only to be admired, the media is training our girls to believe that there is no place for them in male-dominated spheres.
The coverage of Carli Lloyd’s award may seem insignificant compared to other current world issues. But the simple acknowledgment of the star’s hard work and talent indicates that a change in tone of the media’s involvement with successful women may be starting. Is it finally time for the dawn of a period in which women are acclaimed for their talents and triumphs?