Serena Williams’ 2018 U.S. Open match against Naomi Osaka isn’t remembered for its many moments of excellent gameplay, or Osaka’s surprise win over Williams. Rather, it’s remembered as the moment when the conversation about the policing of a female athlete’s anger hit the mainstream. Almost a dozen separate New York Times articles were published about the game, specifically focusing on the three penalties Williams received from umpire Carlos Ramos, for actions ranging from allegedly receiving guidance from her coach mid-game, to calling Ramos a “thief.”
But unlike in many cases where a female athlete is accused of having a “bad attitude” or “poor sportsmanship,” this media frenzy wasn’t about criticizing Williams’ behavior. Rather, analysts and other players came out of the woodwork to defend Williams and call out the umpire for sexism.
“When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ and there are no repercussions,” tennis legend Billie Jean King tweeted. Male tennis champions, including James Blake and 2003 U.S. Open winner Andy Roddick, also shared on social media that they’d said worse in the heat of a game and never received a penalty.
Lindsay Gibbs, sports reporter for ThinkProgress and co-host of feminist sports podcast Burn It All Down, tells Bustle that Williams’ experience “resonated with female athletes and coaches that I’ve talked to over the past year [in a way that] is absolutely staggering. All of them related to that moment of being told they were being ridiculous for being angry, and having their anger policed in this really intense way.”
But few of them got the outpourings of public support that Williams received. Instead, they were likely just criticized for their “poor sportsmanship” — as U.S. Gymnastics champion Gabby Douglas was at the 2016 Rio Olympics, numerous articles lambasted her because she didn’t put her hand over her heart during the national anthem, and to some, didn’t appear to cheer "hard enough" for her teammates. You can find examples from years ago, like in a 2003 New York Times profile of early WNBA superstar Lisa Leslie, which focused on Leslie’s supposed "difficulty," noting that some fans and peers perceived her “as surly, aloof and self-absorbed.” You can also find it in internet bashing of Utah gymnast MyKayla Skinner, who has been cast by many sports fans as a villain due to her supposed “bad attitude;" actions like frowning, retweeting anyone who praises her on Twitter, and giving a “WTF?” look to judges at one competition after she received a low score. While male players get celebrated for their on-court trash-talking skills, female athletes are likely to be lambasted for even silently expressing displeasure, like McKayla Maroney’s frown after falling and losing her shot at the gold at the 2012 London Olympics.
That female athletes — especially female athletes of color — are held to different standards of behavior and “sportsmanship” is clear for anyone with an ESPN cable package to see. But the question of why this happens — and what we as fans can do to change it — is a little more complicated.
According to Gibbs, female athletes are held to seemingly impossible standards of conduct — to smile constantly, to never express frustration after a loss or argue a point with a referee — because many viewers may be “already a little bit uncomfortable to see women in the aggressive positions they are as female athletes.” Because of this bias among some viewers, Gibbs says, coverage can often focus on “female athletes who, on the court are these fierce competitors, but, always within the rules. And off the court they are just as nice and lady-like as can be.” So when athletes engage in behavior that would be viewed as totally "normal" among male athletes, like smashing a racket or shouting at a ref about their call, “people are really taken aback by that and judge it much more harshly.”
Leeja Carter, Ph.D., an assistant professor in sport and exercise psychology at Long Island University-Brooklyn and head of Diversity & Inclusion Division for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, tells Bustle that female athletes of color — particularly Black women — are held to even more pernicious standards. “A Black woman must not only perform her gender based on stereotypical gender norms, but to counter intersectional, oppressive images of Black women, like the ‘angry Black woman’” says Carter. “She must perform ‘happiness’ or ‘positivity’ to counter implicit notions of Black threat. This performance is an attempt to comfort white fragility in sport, to appear nonthreatening, not ‘angry’ or ‘unprofessional’.”
Black female athletes are judged particularly harshly for any perceived "lack of femininity." A 2018 study from Morgan State University and The Undefeated found that media coverage of Black female athletes often focuses on appearance rather than athletic performance, critiquing their looks and how "feminine" they appear.
Additionally, Carter notes, “women athletes are less likely to be displayed as heroic and inspiring, and more likely pictured outside their uniform and [as] less athletic.” This effort to focus on the personal among female athletes “separates them from their athleticism,” moving the conversation away from their athletic abilities, focusing instead on their sexuality or personal lives.
And in sports that are coded as “feminine” like ice skating and gymnastics, where female athletes are the primary stars, the standards of conduct become even more restrictive (remember, Gabby Douglas was bashed for just not looking incredibly happy).
Marjorie Snyder, Ph.D., Senior Director of Research and Programs at the nonprofit Women’s Sports Foundation, tells Bustle that though gymnasts are now more valued for their athleticism than they were in the early 1970s, public opinion demands that “they must have this appearance. They must have the glitter in their hair and on their face. They must do these things that men are just not subjected to.” These strict standards of how they must look and act, Snyder says, “limits their ability to present and sell whatever their authentic way is.”
Obviously, the pressures on women, and especially women of color, to adhere to strict and punishing standards of behavior and physical presentation come from all areas of our culture. But within the world of athletics, many feel that the way women’s sports are covered in the media plays into these standards and stereotypes about how women should act. Sports coverage “tends to perpetuate the stereotypes for both men and for women,” says Snyder. While male athletes get to have moments of anger, conflict, or showboating, female athletes are supposed to only have one story — that they’re positive, supportive, and nurturing to teammates. Snyder notes that the flip side of this is also true — male athletes are expected to be aggressively masculine, and to not express “feminine” traits like tenderness (you can see this in articles like "The 20 Biggest Criers in Sports," which lists — and at times lightly mocks — a number of male athletes known for crying in public).
Sometimes, this focus on women’s personal behavior is so intense, it actually becomes the focus of coverage, rather than the game itself. While watching women’s softball regionals on TV recently, Snyder noticed that “there is a lot of emphasis on showing the winners in the dugout doing cheers…and clapping, and jumping up and down, and hugging, and less on the great plays showing that great catch in six different ways in slow motion. Which is what they do for the men.”
Focusing on covering female athletes as exclusively sweet, polite, and upbeat keeps women’s sports coverage from being as absorbing as men’s “because it takes away the ability to have villains and to have nuance, and to look critically at players,” says Gibbs. “Everything has to always be so cheery, and so cheerful, and so perfect.” In reality, says Gibbs, plenty of female athletes play aggressively, have locker room disputes with teammates, and otherwise are part of the drama that can make men’s sports so gripping. But, says Gibbs, “for some reason, people feel like they don’t have the latitude to discuss it.” As a result, the only stories that often get written about female athletes are “either this woman is saint, and/or, women’s sport is dying.”
Some of this focus on positivity is, ironically, an attempt to do something supportive of women’s sports. Because, as the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport reported, 40% of all people playing sports identify as female, but only 4% of sports media coverage focuses on female athletes, many writers and editors “feel an overwhelming need for every bit of [women’s sports coverage] to be positive,” says Gibbs. If there are only a handful of women’s sports stories a month, it’s understandable to not want to give any space to anything negative. But unfortunately, this can contribute to making women’s sports seem one-dimensional.
But there are things that we, as fans, can do to make it clear that we’re interested in female athletes as athletes, not human interest stories.
“The first step to getting more nuanced coverage of women’s sports, is to just get more coverage of women’s sports,” says Gibbs.
Snyder agrees that changing media coverage is key. “Contact your local media, call this [kind of coverage] out and say, ‘I want to see more athletic women,’” she says. Snyder points to a Tucker Center study which debunked common myths about female athletes — like that male fans are most interested in sexualized images of female athletes. “There’s a lot of cultural misperceptions that, for example, young men just want to look at women’s bodies. It’s just not true. They appreciate the athleticism.”
Carter notes that attending and watching women’s sports events, buying merchandise celebrating female athletes, and posting on social media about female athletes helps “counter the narrative that people don’t watch women’s sports.” She also suggests that we can “support women as athletes, which includes all aspects of their athletic identity” — acknowledging them as whole beings, in possession of a full range of emotions, including frustration and anger.
So many parties put so much effort into micro-managing the "femininity" of female athletes, from restricting what they wear while playing (see: the skirts female Olympic boxers were nearly forced to wear during the 2012 Games), to how their bodies work (see: the ruling that will prevent Olympic track champion Caster Semenya from competing in the 2020 Games if she does not suppress her body’s naturally-occurring levels of testosterone), to the emotions they express.
Supporting an athlete’s right to convey rage, annoyance, or disappointment may only represent a small chip in this system. But it’s a way to show everyone, from sports publications to professional governing associations, that what we love about female athletes is what they do out on the field, court, track, pool, or anywhere else — not how they’re able to adhere to stereotypes.
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