An analysis of the representation of women in male dominated sports, specifically boxing.

I’d like to set the tone for this article by sharing 2 screen shots with you.

I googled the word ‘boxing’.

Take note – there is no reference to women in either the google search or the image search.

During my final year at The University Of The West Of England, I wrote my dissertation on how women are represented in male dominated sports. I was inspired to write about this topical subject because of the reaction women receive when it becomes known that we participate in sport.

This article is insightful as too how images and advertisements are constructed and fed to us and what impact these images have on our society. Please note – I am posting my dissertation with a few adjustments but I have left my referencing in as to ensure credit is given for ideas!

Keywords: Gender differences, body image, stereotypes gender, objectification, sexualisation, boxing.

Abstract

Boxing champions, Jane Couch, Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate do not fit into generalised female stereotypes that women, ‘punch like a girl’ yet have all been victims of gender inequality during their careers. The stereotype is so strong that even women who don’t fit stereotypical female appearances are still ‘second-guessed’ by men in terms of power and skill.

This academic paper aims to discuss and challenge issues of objectification of women in today’s society. In particular, the perception and consideration of women as well as the development of the current concept of gender equality will be illustrated with a view to discussing how gender stereotyping is and can be controlled.

Boxing represents an extreme example of circumstances where females are hyper sexualised and stereotyped, and, as such, it will be analysed in order to illustrate how these generalisations affect modern women.

The author will attempt to critically evaluate major factors, including gender stereotypes, body image, sex differences, and media portrayals, which contribute to the weak, hyper-sexualised representation of women in our present community.

This essay concludes that whilst prestigious media holds responsibilities for misrepresentations of women in sport, if used to send positive, encouraging messages to and about women, it could be the influential push society needs to re-consider what is it to be a woman in sport.

Despite these issues surrounding objectification of women, our community has generated a strong female generation that will not only fight within a boxing ring, but also fight for their equality rights.

Act like a lady

Assignment of a socially constructed gender role is a typical first experience a human being undergoes. As we grow, particular names, objects and complimenting colours are matched to us within a strict male and female bias to help classify us within a gender boundary (Blinde & Taub, 1992, Koivula, 1995, 2001, Kolnes, 1995, Ross & Shinew, 2008).

This stems from stereotyping (Berk, 2009). Stereotyping is a widely held/fixed and over simplified image or idea of a person or thing, a ‘standardized picture in the head’ (Lippmann, 1992). Stereotypes create archetypes (Jung, 1991) where models of a typical example of a certain person or thing are kept in the collective unconscious.

Binary gender stereotyping leaves those not following gender norms in an unnecessarily awkward and unfair position within our patriarchal society. Western gender policing makes it difficult for women to take on predominantly male or stereotypically aggressive professions and hobbies (Anika K. Warren, 2009 p. 6 Krane et al., 2004).

In sport, not only must women prove themselves against their male counterparts in terms of skill, they must also fit nicely into generic female stereotypes by acting stereotypically feminine (Nelson, 1998, p.145). Krane (2001) expresses, “Sportswomen tread a fine line of acceptable femininity…engaging in athletic activities is empowering, yet maintaining an acceptable feminine demeanour is disempowering”.

Problems occur when female athletes demonstrate predominantly male characteristics. In 1968, Olympic officials introduced gender testing. Female Olympians were asked to expose their nude bodies to an Olympic panel to prove their gender (Peel 1994, Fausto-Sterling, 2000). Women are targeted for sexually objectifying treatment more than men/boys (Fouts & Burggraf 1999, 2000, Fromme & Beam). This degrading form of gender testing developed further into chromosome and testosterone testing (Peel 1994).

Muscly, female Olympic athlete, Dutee Chand was banned from the Olympics after Olympic officials expressed doubts about her true gender. ‘Some in the news were saying I was a boy, and some said that maybe I was a transsexual. I wondered how I would live with so much humiliation’ (New York Times magazine, 2016).

Media gathers and issues its own idealistic version of culturally important and relevant information to share and influence society to ‘perceive[s] movements about gender and gender itself (Wood, 2010, p.259). In Western culture, media holds prestige (Dijk, 1995).

The marginalizing of female athletes creates false impressions that women do not play or are not good at sport (Kane and Greendorfer 1994:35). When women do take on professions such as, boxing, football and hockey (to name a few), the heavily male dominated media pays little attention (Bernstein, 2002, Bishop, 2003, Fink and Kensicki, 2002).

On the rare occasion disciplined sports women do get media coverage, they are often subject to name-calling, comparison to men/animals and sexualisation. For example, ‘Perfect Guo junging makes everyone fall for her’ (Titan sports weekly headline, 27 August, 2004). Men simply do not know how to speak about successful sports women.

Spot the difference

The juxtaposition between two UFC (United Fighting Championship) promotional boxing posters shows contrast in how boxing is publically advertised depending on what gender is fighting.

The first image is for the 18th December 2013, https://twitter.com/MMAenespanol/status/355807323475824640 depicting professional boxers, Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey. Within this highly contrasted, sepia toned image, the women appear to almost collide whilst striding effortlessly and elegantly towards each other through thick white mist.

Other than hand wraps, these women are nude, face-to-face and carefully poised to show off their curvy bodies. Their long, tousled hair flows behind them. Whilst Rousey gazes into the camera lens, Tate looks away. The competition name, ‘UFC 168’, and female fighter’s names, ‘Tate’ and ‘Rousey’ are highlighted in bold, red font. All other text and in particular, the ‘vs’ blends into the background in a soft grey colour.

The second poster is for the 16th November 2013, https://www.mmamania.com/2013/10/15/4840814/ufc-167-full-poster-pic-st-pierre-vs-hendricks-nov-16-las-vegas-mma showing male fighters, Georges St Pierre and Jonny Hendricks wearing typical boxing gear, consisting of black shorts and hand wraps bearing the ‘UFC’ brand name.

Neither man looks at the lens; instead the professionals stare eye-to-eye with raised and veiny arms. Crisp white font placed centrally against a black background reads, ‘The power to shock the world, UCF 167’. It is clear that this poster is advertising a boxing match. This image has also been edited to make it appear as though there are dragged light blotches on the camera lens.

Behind the posters

Having carefully analysed both professional boxing posters, the following observations can be made.

Authenticity within the female poster is under question. Camera angles imply that Tate and Rousey are coded with ‘To be looked at-ness’ (Mulvey, 1975). Photographs are able to construct differences between men and women and address oblivious audiences as if the differences are natural and real (Duncan, 1990, pp. 24-25).

Tate and Rousey are misplaced in a nude relationship imitation where strong intimacy signifiers are performed (Bathes Mythologies, 1957), whilst Pierre and Hendricks participate in active combat. Both men fit the masculine stereotype by being large with toned and defined muscles (Dworkin, 2001; Krane et al, 2004) as well as the boxing stereotype through the suitable, ‘UFC’ branded (and approved), boxing clothing worn.

A war on social power over sexual power declared through images in ads. Bright lighting and high contrast act as visual codes of glamour within the female advert. Retro styling is used to creates an illusion that this image is dated, thus making sexism and fetish imagery to depict power relations more appropriate in the time frame and less obvious (Williamson, 2003).

The sepia filter also blends the background and foreground, distracting the viewer from the only item in the image signifying boxing; hand wraps (not bearing UFC brand logo, unlike the male hand wraps).

Often, women can obtain jobs because of their looks (Nina Power, 2009, p.15). Unfortunately, this leads to the creation of fake stereotypically female media personas, which seem to be necessary in order for a women to become successful and to build and maintain a fan base (Power, 2009).

Mass media consistently reinforce assumed linkages between women’s appearance and their feelings of self-worth (Bloch and Richins, 1992, Downs and Harrison, 1985). The female fighters appear to look like models, ‘marketers compete fiercely to position their products and to design mass media communications so as to embody current ideals of beauty’ (Bloch and Richins, 1992).

The camera angle focuses on Tate and Rousey’s curvy physical appearances. Men are often pictured by face whilst women are pictured by body in media & art (Archer, Iritani, Kimes & Barrios, 1985). We objectify these women through the ‘male gaze’ (Mulvey, 1975). Tate’s disacknowledgement of the gaze upon her adds to the voyeuristic pleasure of the spectator. This poster implies that the provision of sexual entertainment is more feminine appropriate than actual boxing, the sport in which these women have been professionally trained in.

Pierre and Hendricks firm gaze and boxing stance reconfirms to the viewer that these men are focused and ready for combat. The ‘The power to shock the world’ slogan within the male poster reinforces ideas of the strength of these men and is purposely highlighted by the contrasting black background.

Dragged light blotch effects create impressions of rumbling movement made by the sheer power of these men’s punches. The female poster does not possess a slogan or anything to signify power (Barthes). ‘Violent women are always represented as perverse, unnatural, and disturbing, whereas violence is perceived as a male norm’ (McCaughey, King 2009)

Colours can be used to influence emotions (Gombrich, 1977). The competition name, ‘UFC 168’, and female fighter’s names, ‘Tate’ and ‘Rousey’ are highlighted in bold, red font. Red is a signifier (Barthes) for the emotions, passion and desire. Remaining text such as the, ‘vs’, an abbreviation explaining to the viewer the main point of the poster, that Tate and Rousey will be going up against one another, blends into the background in a soft grey colour.

This reiterates that this image does not make it immediately clear to the viewer what the poster is actually advertising; a boxing match, rather than the implied, hidden message or ‘myth’ (Bathes) that this fight will share the same tone as, or literally be, something along the lines of, a girl-on-girl sex tape. The female image may overly adhere to feminine stereotypes because people tend to find things disgusting when they are in the wrong place (Kristeva, J. 1980, P.4).

Predominantly male, sporting event organisers and commentators may create hyper-sexualised and degrading representations of physically strong women, because of a social anxiety towards non-stereotypical feminine women participating in such aggressive, sophisticated and stereotypically male sports.

Women adhering to male stereotype attributes cause gender trouble (Butler, 1990). In an attempt to deal with threat and anxiety, men dress women up and sexualise them. Attractive people are better liked (Brigham, 1980). Could this be an explanation for why Tate and Rousey are depicted so sexually? Alternatively men publically humiliate women. Male BBC presenter, John Inverdale commented on champion tennis player, Marion Bartoli, live on air as she played in Wimbledon.

He said, ‘She was never going to be a looker’ (The Guardian, 2014). ‘Only that which is beautiful is loved, that which is not beautiful is not loved’ (Eco). By participating in a stereotypically male sport and acting with stereotypically male attributes such as aggression, female boxers generally cannot be seen as beautiful and therefore cannot be loved because they are too similar to their supposed gender opposite and are therefore upsetting the gender balance (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). It is only when a sexualised, female ‘Pin up’ style advertisement is constructed that the gender balance can be restored and the threat to the male gender-hierarchy is taken away.

As a result of this sexualised imagery, women’s sport is ridiculed or deemed irrelevant unless highly sexualised. In the film, ‘Some like it hot’ starring Marilyn Monroe, men adhere to Marilyn’s perfectly symbolised performance of womanhood with the simplistic thought process, ‘that’s how you do it’. Marilyn’s sensuality, beauty and grace are directly opposite attributes of a stereotypical male thus creating a harmonious gender binary (Levi-Strauss, 1964) and ridding men of any social anxiety by creating ‘gender balance’.

Punch like a girl

In this section I will introduce seven video stills taken from a video published on You Tube on May 3rd, 2011 called, ‘Jane Couch MBE’. The video (featured below) features British boxing world titleholder, Jane Couch, fist fighting with a male during a garden party.

In video still 1 we see Couch, a well-built, muscly female wearing a white tank top with cropped, pale blue cargo pants. Her brown hair is partly scraped back from her face whilst the remainder sits at shoulder length in tight curls.

The medium built male has short brown hair and wears a yellow branded t-shirt with jersey shorts. The male laughs and smiles at Couch whilst Couch raises her fists to initiate battle. The male does not raise his fists in an attempt to punch Couch. Instead, he playfully ducks and dodges her quick punches with little success.

The male is punched in the face and reacts by picking up Couch. Whilst smiling, he throws her over his shoulder as if he is heroically saving her. The male jumps around laughing and chanting, ‘I’m the champion here!’ whilst Couch is still over his shoulder.

Couch quickly jumps down from the male’s arms. With teeth clenched in a focused rage, she hits him in the face once more

The male ducks and whilst protecting his face, he attempts to hit Couch in the groin area. Couch holds his head at a distance so that his punches are unsuccessful.

Couch effortlessly punches the male in the face. The wide mouthed male looks confused and in pain as he takes the hefty punch.

Onlookers laugh and cheer. One shouts, ‘Go on then’. Jane secures another nasty punch to the face. The male laughs and smiles and once again we hear an onlooker shout louder, ‘Go on then!’. The red-faced male continuously grins whilst pathetically attempting to push Couches hands away. Couch then takes a huge swing and punches the male for the last time.

The male is in disbelief as his mouth begins to fill with blood. Couch growls. Moments later she approaches him sympathetically. Whilst holding his arms at a distance, she hugs him and then walks away whilst laughing and shouting, ‘champion of the world, the whole fucking world!’.

Analysis – Behind the video

Couch has publically proved her boxing abilities in professional boxing on numerous occasions as well as becoming the first officially licenced female boxer in 1998 (Independent, 2014). She also displays a very muscly, athletic figure.

Despite this, it is clear the male doubts her strength and ability. He ridicules and taunts Couch’s ability to fight from the beginning of the video and interestingly he continues to ridicule her throughout, even after receiving punches in the face. The act of picking her up and throwing her over his shoulder indicates further ridicule by roleplaying a ‘damsel in distress’ scenario. Does the male play out these scenarios in an attempt at regaining constraints of patriarchal structures (Heywood and Dworkin 2003)?

Couch mirrors men by acting with stereotypically male attributes such as aggression and dressing in stereotypically male clothing. Media portray women who cross gender “boundaries as “unnatural” and thus “denatures” them as athletes and women” (Costa, Guthrie, 1994). This leads to distortions in what men think women can physically achieve (Higgs, Weiller & Martin, 2003), as well as distortions in what women believe they can physically achieve.

The male may have learnt generic female stereotypes from sources such as the media and applied these stereotypes to Couch thus making him believe that she could not possibly professionally fight. He may be under the assumption that he will not be beaten up by a woman or that all women, ‘punch like a girl’ or in other words, punch pathetically.

Only when beginning to realise the predicament he is in, does the male duck for protection and interestingly, attempt to hit Couch in the groin. Does the male aim for attack within this specific body area because he feels gender deceived?

Couch acts as the ‘trickster’ by adhering to both male and female stereotypes (Jung). Her boisterous behaviour, broad muscly figure and generic male style clothing confuses the male and seemingly the by-standing onlookers too, who encourage her aggressive behaviour with, ‘Go on then!’ chants. The trickster has no stereotype.

It can be ugly or beautiful including an alternate gender (although it is often referred to in the male pro-noun). The trickster (Jung) slips from one persona to another, upsetting order and disrupting playfully, falling in-between liminality boundaries, just as Couch does. I can’t help but wonder if the onlookers would still encourage Couch’s aggression if she were a man?

The male stereotype is usually varied and capable of anything whilst female stereotypes are strict and unchanging (Wood, T., 1994). If a female acts out of the ordinary for her stereotype, she can create confusion and is labelled. For example, a boy is praised for being unkempt whilst a girl is labelled a Tomboy, whilst in this essay I have labelled Couch as ‘the trickster’ because she does not adhere to her female stereotype. Butler (1990) argues that there is no gender, only sex, and that men and women perform gender.

I have already discussed ways in which women work their way up in sport. Some women have both the skill and looks to attract the same respect and attention men receive from the media.

Other women are sexualised or use sexualisation to gain popularity and sponsorships within sport. There is also a collection of women who aim to be taken seriously in sport by demonstrating that they have the character (rather than the physical ability/capability) to be able to perform.

This is an example of mirroring (Mulvey). Do some women box aggressively because they have previously witnessed aggressive male boxers and aim to fit in with that stereotype?

Modern women are physically strong, independent, self sufficient and strong-willed yet are often only recognised in the media for their looks rather than sports skills (Bernstein). Power is traditionally a masculine trait that women do not possess. Because the majority of known sports women in the media are hyper-sexualised, men have a distorted view of the strength a woman can hold, particularly in sport. Tennis player, Anna Kournikova, is a perfect example of an athlete that has gained huge popularity and sponsorship because of her beautiful appearance, despite not winning any singles tennis titles.

Kournikova has participated in paid endorsements such as the, ‘only the ball should bounce’ advertising campaign for Berlei (2000). The advert sexualises Kournikova by making a joke that her breasts shouldn’t bounce whilst the tennis ball should, when playing tennis. Female athletes may feel pressured to participate in activities such as sexualised photo shoots because attractive people have higher earnings (Harper, 2000).

Being physically attractive gives men the upper-hand within boxing but considering their higher social power and gender alongside participating within typically male sport, there is less need for them to be sexualised. Sexual objectification may also lead to self-objectification (Frederickson & Roberts, 1997). By participating in sexualised photo shoots, Kournikova reinforces the exploitation of women (Carty, 2005) and sets a bad example for developing athletes who may feel they have to self objectify in order to get recognised in sport.

Women in sport suffer from social anxiety. ‘Women consciously watch themselves’ (Berger 1973). Physically strong women such as Olympic athlete, Jessica Ennis and Professional tennis player Serena Williams have spoken out about receiving backlash for their muscular appearances, with many comparing them to apes or men.

This is an example of ‘Gender trouble’ (Butler 1990). In 2015, political commentator, David Frum, tweeted an image of Williams with the accompanying text, “Sterioids? Oh no, no, no. ‘Body image issues’”, he then continued to tweet, making comparisons about her to men who have previously doped in sport such as Lance Armstrong and Mark McGwire. In 2014 Williams was one of the most regularly drug tested athletes (Tennis anti-doping programme testing summary, 2014) despite no previous evidence of drug use. When will the harassment end?

Conclusion

In this essay I have analysed actual and constructed imagery of women participating in male dominated sports in an attempt to understand the ways in which women are represented.

My analysis evidences that strict stereotyping and gender policing can be controlled and amplified by the media, which in turn makes up the basis for degrading sexism and potential coping strategies, such as socially constructed identities within sport.

It is unfortunate that in order to be recognised in sport, women must construct identities which will surely continue to damage female sporting representations.

Generally, men are represented by face (as opposed to body) and are praised as powerful, skillful and active individuals. Meanwhile, women are strictly represented by their stereotype, sexualised and ridiculed for entertainment and pre-judged regardless of their past achievements.

A suggested reason for these unjust representations include an apparent social anxiety experienced by men, which is triggered by women who inadvertently upset the binary gender balance by not following gender stereotypes, thus causing gender trouble (Butler, 1990).

As more and more women participate in amateur and professional, male dominated sports it is retro-thinking (Williamson, 2003) to pre-judge physical capability based on gender or be under the impression that someone can, ‘punch like a girl’.

In my view the male male dominated media undoubtedly contributes to the construction of mis-representations of women in sport. Females have already broken the mould by entering male dominated sports and despite consistent false and underrepresentation of women supplied by media, including continuous hurdle jumping in order to participate in Olympic sports, our society has generated a strong female community that thrives in their chosen sporting professions.

We can only hope future women will stop perpetuating generic female stereotypes and thus stop discourage behavior that negatively affects the respect and position they receive in sport today. However, women cannot be solely blamed for representing themselves in this way.

The media’s constant inadequate representations of sporting females may encourage women to adhere to these stereotypes in order to earn money and become successful (Phoenix, Smith, 2001, p 85), yet this only benefits themselves and not women in sport generally (Carty, 2005).

Considering the powerful amount of influence media holds upon society, I question whether it would be naïve to suggest that the media could use their prestige to send out positive and encouraging messages about female athletes. Surely this would aid the inevitable refinement of sexualised and ridiculed female stereotypes, as well as encouraging more women to engage in sport.

Women are speaking out against their inaccurate representation in the media and showing that despite false pre-conceptions regarding their supposed lack of physical strength, there is absolutely no doubt that their mental strength will enable them to continuously fight for their rights in sport.

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