MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Wed 17-Aug-16 11:21:32

Guest post: Olympic sexism - "We won't let the media get away with it"

Sexist media coverage could eclipse women's achievements at Rio 2016 - but we should be heartened that so many are willing to call it out, says Emma Critchley

Emma Critchley

Island Living 365

Posted on: Wed 17-Aug-16 11:21:32


Lead photo

"20 years ago, no one would have batted an eye at the headlines we’ve seen this summer."

The Olympics is a man's world - or so the media would have us believe. While women have been competing in the Games since 1900, reporting seems to be languishing in some kind of Mad Men era. Women's athletic abilities and achievements have been ignored to make way for headlines about their weight, clothes - and husbands. Welcome to Rio 2016.

It's not just the competitors who have borne the brunt of this criticism, as the furore over presenter Helen Skelton's skirt shows. That Helen has legs appeared to come as a shock to many Twitter users, who were outraged that a humid, 28-degree pool in Brazil might warrant a skirt above ankle-length. Of course, no comments were made about Mark Foster’s tight shirt, and the frankly distracting flexing of his pecs. No snide remarks were made about the fact he had his legs out - and no one suggested that maybe this flash of thigh made up for his annoying voice. No one felt the need to comment on Mark, because he is a man.

Not that men have been absent in the reporting of women’s achievements at the Games, of course. Husbands receiving praise for their wives' achievements has become a familiar trope. Not a fan of trap shooting? You're probably now familiar with the name Corey Cogdell-Unrein anyway - but only because it was conspicuously absent from The Chicago Tribune’s headline about her medal win. After describing her a “Wife of a Bears' lineman”, the paper was roundly called out on Twitter - @KashannKilson’s brilliant quip “You spelled ‘3-time Olympian Corey Cogdell-Unrein wins second bronze medal today in Rio Olympics’ wrong” earned over 20,000 retweets. NBC commentator Dan Hicks also attracted criticism for focusing on Katinka Hosszú’s coach and husband. After she smashed the world record in the 400-metre individual medley for swimming, winning gold, he was quick to pan to the 'man of the moment': “There’s the man responsible for turning his wife into an entirely new swimmer.”

When papers haven't been praising female athletes' partners, they've been intent on comparing them to their male counterparts. Even when women are gold medalists, they are always told that in striving to be better, they must try to be more like a man.

Corey shot her gun and Katinka swam her race. They won those medals, not the men in their lives. Twitter users came out in force to express the same sentiment - but is this storm enough to drown out the sexism of mainstream media? While the Tribune apologised for its tweet, Hicks defended his coverage, saying "It is impossible to tell Katinka's story accurately without giving appropriate credit to Shane, and that's what I was trying to do".

And so the sexism continues. When papers haven't been praising female athletes’ partners, they’ve been intent on comparing them to their male counterparts. Women take note: being a man is where it is at. Katie Ledecky was complimented for “swimming like a man” and the Daily Mail referred to her as the “female Michael Phelps” - as if this were the highest possible praise. Even when women are gold medalists, they are always told that in striving to be better, they must try to be more like a man. The message that women are second class citizens is pervasive, exhausting, and especially damaging to young girls.

A recent study by Cambridge University Press has found that male athletes are three times as likely to be discussed in a sporting context as women - and when women are mentioned, they are likely to be described based on their age, marital status, or appearance. In Rio, the wave of sexism seems to have reached new heights - and it threatens to wash away the fantastic achievements of the female athletes. While the coverage of London 2012 was by no means devoid of sexism, it felt like a cause for celebration. Team GB contained more women than ever; the Spice Girls spread their message of girl power at the closing ceremony; and its legacy in initiatives such as the 'Like a Girl' campaign seemed to open the doors for girls in sport.

In Rio, it seems we've taken a step backwards. But hopefully what we can take away from this year's games is that while misogyny is still deeply entrenched in mainstream media, we're no longer willing to take it lying down. 20 years ago, no one would have batted an eye at the headlines we’ve seen this summer. Now, we're seeing a strength of feeling on social media that has a real chance of changing the tide on how sporting events are reported. We can only hope that in 2020 we'll see coverage that focuses on women's achievements over their husbands or appearance - or that at least mentions Mark Foster's legs.

By Emma Critchley

Twitter: @islandliving365

YouAreMyRain Wed 17-Aug-16 12:25:47

It's shocking how sexist the coverage has been. Thank you for drawing attention to this. Are examples being collated anywhere that we can contribute?

SignoraStronza Wed 17-Aug-16 12:26:31

I was a bit disappointed in Steve Hoy yes ter day actually. When Laura Trott greeted her fiance after his gold medal triumph, she was quite emotional and he was playing it slightly cooler and SH's comment was a bit piss takey "Yeah alright love, what's for tea?"
Anyone else spot that?

Acopyofacopy Wed 17-Aug-16 12:27:45

Admittedly I have not been reading US newspapers, but from what I have seen on the BBC, I thought the reporting was pretty balanced. Meh.

SignoraStronza Wed 17-Aug-16 12:32:32

blushChris Hoy

Bunfighter Wed 17-Aug-16 12:33:07

I think you mean Chris Hoy...and you can't complain about women being described as wives etc whilst calling Jason Kenny Laura Trotts fiancé!

derxa Wed 17-Aug-16 12:49:19

I think it was Chris Boardman who made the 'What's for tea?' remark


IslandLivingEmma Wed 17-Aug-16 12:59:41

Thanks for YouAreMyRain. I'm not sure if examples are being collated. That does sound like a really good idea though!

IslandLivingEmma Wed 17-Aug-16 13:02:21

SignoraStronza - Yes, I was watching last night. I couldn't believe what Chris Boardman was saying. However, he has tried to defend it. You would have thought that he would have realised what he was saying and how it could be taken.

IslandLivingEmma Wed 17-Aug-16 13:05:29

Copyofacopy I agree that on the whole the BBC has been better. Perhaps this is down to their lead presenter Clare Balding, who is doing a fantastic job at reporting.

MrsHathaway Wed 17-Aug-16 13:07:38

You might like this article from the Guardian.

I've been on the BBC's back about this. They seem to think that having women presenters means their coverage won't be sexist. Er, no. Bit more to it than that.

lljkk Wed 17-Aug-16 13:08:30

Folk can vote with their eyes & fingers which media channels to engage with. Not a newsflash that Twitter & social media are full of idiots. And mostly American idiots, at that. (I am American, I get to say that).

Is there much point on a mostly British website at posting examples from US media outlets (Chicago-Tribune, NBC)?

Being compared to Michael Phelps is high praise. That's not a MaleFemale comparison, that's just a ... Phelps comparison. Boardman's quip is about them being a star-sports couple, he'd say the same if Laura Trott was Laurence Trott. Besides, at their level, all their food is prepared for them, neither is the chef.

BristolLFR Wed 17-Aug-16 13:17:19

Following tennis player Andy Murray's second consecutive Olympic gold medal win Sunday night, casual sexism reared its ugly head once again in a post-game interview.

According to the Evening Standard, when BBC reporter John Inverdale praised Murray for being the first "person" to win two Olympic medals in tennis, Murray interjected with a gentle reminder that women are people too. 

"You're the first person ever to win two Olympic tennis gold medals," Inverdale said. "That's an extraordinary feat, isn't it?"

"I think Venus and Serena [Williams] have won about four each," he said.

Doing some on-the-spot fact-checking, Murray clarified he had only made history for being the first to win two consecutive gold medals for the singles title, not in Olympic tennis overall. Indeed, Venus and Serena Williams each have one gold in tennis singles and three in doubles, the latter hardware earned as a team.

SukeyTakeItOffAgain Wed 17-Aug-16 13:34:44

It was Boardman, and I was absolutely enraged by it. Laura Trott, joint sixth on the all time British gold medal winners' table, and yet Boardman thinks it's natural that in the Kenny/Trott household, Laura would be making the tea angry

MrsHathaway Wed 17-Aug-16 13:37:44

Yeah, I didn't like that much.

Here's some more detail about how differently sportswomen and -men are reported on.

I'd also like to recommend Man Who Has It All for challenging how we accept everyday sexism.

IslandLivingEmma Wed 17-Aug-16 13:38:23

Mrs Hathaway I love that article! I agree with what you are saying. The female presenters are doing a fantastic job but it doesn't mean that the BBC and their coverage is sexist free. A classic example being last night with Boardman and Andy Murray interview!

MrsHathaway Wed 17-Aug-16 13:42:10


IslandLivingEmma Wed 17-Aug-16 13:46:34

lljkk - I am sorry but I have to disagree. All worldwide media outlets have a responsibility to report news that is factual, accurate and unbiased. There has been a clear gender bias in reporting from the USA and the UK. With regards to the Boardman comment it is his choice of language. When I was watching I thought he said that "Kenny is asking Trott what's for tea", this does smack of casual sexism. However, he has since defended his choice of language. I am not convinced though.

Felascloak Wed 17-Aug-16 14:07:05

This video is great

I think the headline about "Michael Phelps wins silver" in large font with "Katie ledecky smashes world record to take gold" in much smaller font underneath also says a lot about the value placed on male vs female competitors.

Been finding it interesting the number of threads on here being critical of the Olympic gymnastics, an unusual sport because more people follow the women than the men. I don't think its coincidental that so many people find it uncomfortable and feel the need to start threads on it.

vesuvia Wed 17-Aug-16 16:02:12

55 photos of what Yahoo Sports describes as the most beautiful athletes hotting up the Olympics:

All 55 photos are photos of women competing at Rio 2016, including a weightlifter in a strapless mini-dress, a basketball player in a bikini, a nude basketball player, a football player in a thong bikini, a tennis player in a swimsuit and a topless hockey player

... but no men.

Are they trying to tell us that all the men are (a) ugly and/or (b) not judged on their physical appearance?

BartholinsSister Wed 17-Aug-16 16:30:04

Maybe a start would be to have men and women competing alongside each other, rather than keeping them separate. Sure, in some sports men would probably win easily, but at least there would be equality and the same challenge for all. People would go nuts if it was suggested competitors should be segregated by race in sporting events, even if some racial groups seem to do better at some sports than others.

BurnTheBlackSuit Wed 17-Aug-16 16:56:45

We all say stupid things sometimes that come out not sounding how we meant. I once accidentally told another mum her child with reins on was like a dog, which wasn't what I meant to say in my head at all. One stupid comment that accidentally had a double meaning isn't a crime- I think we can give the benefit of the doubt on that. Focusing on one comment detracts from actual sexism.

The BBCs coverage hasn't been that bad, whilst not being perfect, and is very balanced in its coverage of the cycling.

IslandLivingEmma Wed 17-Aug-16 17:10:39

@vesuvia The fact that they haven't included men reflects the overall sexist reporting of the Olympics. The idea that women are not judged on their merits but on their looks. Apparently, the most important thing about a woman is her attractiveness, not her achievements.

IslandLivingEmma Wed 17-Aug-16 17:12:19

@Felascloak that headline says it all!

IslandLivingEmma Wed 17-Aug-16 17:17:14

@BurnTheBlackSuit I appreciate what you mean. I too am always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. However, I am not broadcasting to millions. When you are in a public role, you really need to be aware of what you are saying and be wary of how certain phrases could be taken. I do agree that we shouldn't focus on this one comment though! :-)

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