While watching the 2016 Rio Olympics, Dr. Cynthia Frisby, an associate professor of strategic communications at the University of Missouri, was struck by the amount of sexism she noticed in the coverage of female athletes.
She wasn’t alone. The internet was abuzz over the blatant sexism displayed by the media during the Games, from Fox News panelists debating whether or not female Olympic athletes should wear makeup, to Katie Ledecky’s world-record swim playing second fiddle to Michael Phelps’ silver medal. (Fusion has an entire breakdown of the coverage, if you want to be filled with rage.)
But Dr. Frisby took things a step further, and decided to properly research the racist and sexist microaggressions female athletes face.
“I’ve always been interested in media messages and the impact it has on behaviors and attitudes,” she told ThinkProgress. “People on social media were discussing how much more sexist the coverage was, and I wanted to see, did it really get worse?”
Her research proved that no, the public wasn’t going crazy or being oversensitive — the number of microaggressions against female athletes in the media increased by a staggering 40 percent between the 2012 Summer Olympic Games and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.
Additionally, Dr. Frisby found that female athletes of color were subjected to more microaggressions than white female athletes, and that coverage of sports we consider to be more masculine—such as basketball, weight lifting, and boxing—was more likely to be laden with microaggressions.
“Results seem to imply that coverage of the female athletes focused on policing behaviors acceptable for the female gender and whether or not women were adhering to these expectations,” Frisby wrote.
For the purposes of her research, Frisby broke up microaggressions into seven categories: sexual objectification; second-class citizen; restrictive gender roles; sexist/rasist jokes; focus on traditional female appearance; focus on physical body and shape; and use of racial insults and slurs.
In “A Content Analysis of Micro Aggressions in News Stories about Female Athletes Participating in the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics” published in the Journal of Mass Communication and Journalism last month, Frisby and lead author Kara Allen, an undergraduate student at Missouri, analyzed 723 newspaper and magazine articles covering the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. In 2012, she found 69 cases of microaggressions, compared to 96 in 2016.
When broken down by category, the biggest increases came when referring to women as second-class citizens or projecting restrictive gender roles. Examples include NBC commentator Dan Hicks referring to Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu’s husband as “the man responsible” for her world record performance; and three-time U.S. Olympian and 2016 trap shooter bronze medalist Corey Cogdell-Unrein being identified solely as “wife of a Bears’ lineman” in a Chicago Tribune headline.
Frisby also found a significant difference when the data was broken down racially, finding that “female athletes of color were more likely than white female athletes to receive microaggressions related to objectification, second-class citizenship (inferiority), restrictive gender roles, and commentary that relates to their body shape and body image.”
She authored a more thorough examination of the racial difference in sports coverage in “A Content Analysis of Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber’s Racial and Sexist Microaggressions,” which was published in May in the Open Journal of Social Sciences.
For that study, Frisby analyzed 643 news stories about tennis players Williams and Kerber (who, at the time, was the № 1 ranked women’s tennis player in the world) from 2011–2016. Overall, she found 758 instances of microaggressions against Williams, compared to just 18 against Kerber, a German player who is white.
While some of that discrepancy can certainly be tied to their popularity — Kerber was a relatively unknown player on the national, mainstream media stage until she beat Williams in the Australian Open final at the start of 2016 — the racially-charged way in which the media covered Williams was still remarkable. As a whole, “mediated messages in news centered around Serena’s body, her blackness, and clothing.”
Additionally, Frisby notes, Serena is often referred to as “pummeling,” “overwhelming,” and “overpowering” her opponents — most of whom are white, and described as relatively frail and powerless in comparison.
While violent imagery is common in sports media, Frisby says that “descriptions of Serena’s power and the strength behind her victories have taken this type of hyperbole to another level — one that suggests she’s absolutely unparalleled in her strength and capacity for violence, especially as compared with her white opponents.”
Kerber was also subjected to sexist microaggressions —she was described as a “blonde lefty” in headlines — though more often than not her accomplishments were ignored by the news media altogether, which is of course an offshoot of sexism in itself.
Frisby researched these topics in order to collect data that will help the media understand the power and consequences of their words when covering women— especially women of color—in sports. But since publishing the studies earlier this year, she’s received a lot of criticism from male sports journalists, some of whom have questioned the validity of her studies.
“I think the larger issue is how complex this topic is, and how hard this research is for so many male journalists to accept,” she said.
According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, sports journalism is overwhelmingly male and white — less than 10 percent of Associated Press sports editors are women or people of color. That in no way excuses the sexist and racist coverage, but it certainly compounds the problem.
Female athletes have come a long way, but sports media still has a long way to go in order to fairly cover these achievements.
“In many cases, these hidden and subtle microaggression messages not only demean the accomplishments of female athletes, they seem to communicate the idea that these women do not deserve to have news stories that are similar or even better than the stories written about male athletes,” Frisby wrote.
“It’s hard for female athletes to break through these barriers.”