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Serving Equality

Feminism, Media, and Women’s Sports

by Cheryl Cooky (Author) Dunja Antunovic (Author)
Textbook XX, 240 Pages

Summary

Serving Equality: Feminism, Media, and Women’s Sports offers a much-needed methodological innovation to sports media research by expanding the focus beyond traditional sports media outlets to examine the diversity of media outlets writing about sports. In doing so, Serving Equality draws analytical attention to the ways in which feminism and feminist principles such as equality, progress, empowerment, and intersectionality shape media narratives of women’s sports. With a focus on networked sports media spaces, including news coverage, promotional cultures, and sports films, chapters examine narratives of Title IX, the Olympics, the treatment of women sports journalists, the activism of women athletes, the routine coverage of the sports world, as well as the COVID-19 global pandemic. Serving Equality illustrates how feminism informs not only the media narratives of women’s sports, but how women’s sports contribute to and mobilize feminism in networked media spaces. Serving Equality ultimately encourages students, instructors, researchers, athletes, sport media content producers, and those in the sports industry to consider the ways we can tell stories differently about sportswomen and women’s sports.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Advance Praise
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the authors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • 1 “Despite Title IX … ” and “No one is watching”: Articulations of feminism in sports media and sports media research
  • 2 “Ceiling-breaker” and “Sexist backlash”: Articulations of feminism in narratives of women in sports broadcasting
  • 3 “The Year of the Woman” and “The Olympics are chock full of sexist bullshit … ”: Articulations of feminism in narratives of the Olympics
  • 4 “This isn’t just about us”: Articulations of feminism in media narratives of athlete activism
  • 5 “Take a Stand” and “Kick Inequality”: Articulations of feminism in promotional cultures of women’s sports
  • 6 “Feminist blockbuster” and “Feminist revisionism”: Articulations of feminism in narratives of women’s sports films
  • 7 “A disaster for women’s sport” and “A master class in resilience”: Articulations of feminism in narratives of COVID-19’s impact on women’s sport
  • Conclusion
  • Index
  • Series index

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Preface

At a tennis tournament held in May 2021 in Parma, Italy, Venus Williams received a time violation for taking too long to serve. A referee imposes a time violation when the player goes above the allowed number of seconds to prepare for the next point. It can occur when serving, returning, or even standing up after a changeover. Time limits have existed for a while, but the use of the highly visible countdown clock is a fairly new technology. Some players often take up the full 25 seconds, while others are well under the limit. In this unusual instance, Williams took longer than allowed because the wind was too strong to toss the ball precisely. In the case of strong winds, players might wait a few seconds and try the toss multiple times before ultimately deciding to hit the ball. When Williams waited, however the referee warned her about a time violation. Williams responded, “I can’t control God. I can’t control the wind.” When the referee did not accept Williams’ explanation, she continued, “if the wind blows, then I can’t hit the ball.” The referee offered, “it’s a risk you are taking.” Williams replied, “I’m just saying that if the wind blows, there is nothing I can do about that” (Grez, 2021).

In tennis, the serve begins a point between the opponents, who then each strive to win the point, the game, the set, and ultimately the match. The language of the sport of tennis assumes that the server is at an advantage. The player ←ix | x→“holds” the serve, while the person returning “breaks” when winning the game. The serve is highly calculated and strategic. Each player has a particular skillset and the type of serve depends on a wide range of factors: the server’s strengths, the opponent’s weaknesses, the side of the court, the level of fatigue, the willingness to take a risk, and even external factors such as the position of the sun and—yes—the strength of the wind.

For instance, one might try a powerful serve, at 80% strength, wide, to push the opponent off the court and run to the net. Or, one might use a safer topspin serve to the opponent’s body to get the ball in play and build the point from then on, but risk that in the case of poor placement, the opponent might hit a return winner. The strategies are well-established, the returns can be anticipated, and yet each point requires the players to start all over again. There is no clock to indicate that the match is over. At any point, even when one only needs one more point to win, the tides can turn, and one can lose.

The title of our book, Serving Equality, draws on a sport metaphor to illustrate the media narratives of women’s sports and the range of possible responses and outcomes. We argue that various stakeholders participating in the networked media of the 2010s were “serving” a particular version of liberal feminism that rendered gender equality in women’s sports particularly visible. As with a serve in tennis, narratives of feminism in media can begin the process of a proverbial win toward a more equitable sporting space. We illustrate the ways in which some media narratives hit an “ace” (a serve winner) to sexism by calling it out over and over again to finally eliminate it from that “tournament.” We also know, however that sexism and misogyny return with new strategies and new tools in response to feminist efforts towards social change (Banet-Weiser, 2018). As in a tennis match, winning once against an opponent does not mean that the same game plan will work again. And yet with each point, players envision the game plan, make decisions based on their strengths, their level of comfort, skillset, which is to a great extent based on the structures within which the sport and athletes reside. Similarly, in networked media spaces we find articulations of feminism that in many ways resemble game plans of the past, yet shift or emerge in distinct forms within the contemporary socio-cultural environment.

In the previous section, we use the sport metaphor in a way that places feminism as the “opponent” of sports media. Indeed, sports media has confronted women’s increased participation in sport and the efforts toward a more equitable playing field with resistance. This resistance manifests in the trivialization, marginalization, and objectification of sportswomen and women’s sports (Bruce, 2016). For much of legacy sports media, gender equality is understood as ←x | xi→a “zero-sum” game which perpetuates oppositional, masculinist notions of sport. Indeed, feminist scholars have identified hegemonic masculinity in the media as an ideology that has persisted over decades in production practices, cultural norms, and representations across multiple media platforms (Bruce, 2016). From this perspective, feminism has been positioned in opposition to sports media cultures. Here, the purpose of the serve is to ultimately “defeat” sports media cultures with feminism.

While hegemonic masculinity undoubtedly prevails in sports media, Bruce (2016) argued that feminist sports media scholars ought to be “expanding their interpretive frameworks for making sense of media coverage” (p. 361). Similarly, in Serving Equality we argue that viewing sports media through the lens of hegemonic masculinity misses the important ways in which feminism shapes media narratives of women’s sport. Notably, positioning feminism in opposition to sports media reinforces the masculinist notions of sports and of sports media in ways that further marginalizes feminism.

Our intent in this book is to tell stories differently.

To return to our metaphor, “serving” in tennis can refer to the start of a collaborative process. In that way, the serve is an invitation to dialog and a start of a connection through which the players engage in a conversation, demonstrate the very best of their skillset, and ultimately become better players and better people as a result of the match. The possibility of articulating feminism within sports media holds the potential of envisioning ways to tell stories about women’s sports differently.

Our use of the metaphor of “serving” is informed by feminist philosophical approaches that disrupt the competition/cooperation dichotomy—and by Dunja’s lived experience competing in the sport for decades and struggling with the hegemonic views of competition and the opponent. Using tennis as an example, a sport where one needs a partner to play, Davion (1987) argued “certain kinds of competition, particularly the type that encourages people to be partners and opponents at the same time, are not at all incompatible with caring a great deal for others” (p. 57). While players are competing to win, the game must also have a component of cooperation to play. This “involves trust, a sense of fairness, and even a friendly attitude among the players” (Davion, 1987, p. 57). We can think of the serve then as initiating the interaction between feminism and sports media in a way that might result in cooperative solutions, and even care for the other. Extending the metaphor of serving, we might suggest feminism needs sports media—and sports media need feminism. Through this lens, we envision the action of serving equality to and in sports media not as a zero-sum game of ←xi | xii→feminism versus sports media, but as a possibility of feminism’s articulation with and through sports media.

Articulations of feminism exist alongside sexism and misogyny, which are systemically supported through the legal, political, and social structures (Banet-Weiser, 2018). Sexism and misogyny, as they intersect with racism, ethnocentrism, homophobia, and ablism, are in the rules, the organizational structures, and the cultural norms that cultivate an environment in which feminism’s—and women’s sport’s—presence on the court is automatically perceived to be an “opponent,” an intruder. To use an example, which we discuss later in the book, when women win medals at the Olympics or get hired for a broadcasting position that was previously White male-dominated, the immediate reaction from the misogynist space of sport is to demean and undermine them simply because they dared to enter into that space, dared to step on the court.

How might we tell stories differently if an interaction between feminism and sports media was considered a collaborative process, one in which sports and media—as institutions—can advance, become better, become more inclusive, and ultimately become more just? And how might stories be told if the rules (i.e., laws), organizational structures (i.e., hiring practices), and referees (e.g., editors, producers, decision-makers) specifically centered women’s sport?

Our epistemological and methodological approach leads us to intentionally focus on networked media spaces that create visibility of feminism. We disrupt research (or academic) conceptualizations of “sports media” to look beyond the spaces that are typically centered in sports communication and sociology of sport research (including in our own previous work) to answer one central question: What does feminism in sports media look like?

Serving Equality documents the ways in which articulations of feminism in academic and media narratives converge, intersect, and circulate across stakeholders and networked media spaces to serve equality through news media coverage, athlete activism, sports organization’s initiatives, social media posts, ticket sales promotions, advertising campaigns, and film. We examine the relationship between academic feminist narratives, feminist advocacy and activism, and media narratives within the context of women’s sports.

Our use of the verb “serving” in the title is intentional. Serving indicates the start of the point, or the production of the narrative, but does not promise a particular outcome. In the 2010s, networked media did not serve “equality” comprehensively; rather, it served a version of equality through particular articulations of feminism. Furthermore, the serve did not automatically result in a win for feminism, or more specifically a more equitable environment for women’s ←xii | xiii→sports. Sports media did not suddenly transform into a space free from sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, ableism, and so on. As indicated by the title, our analysis documents that the serve occurred; in other words, that feminism informed networked media discourses.

While tennis is a game typically played between two individuals, the strategies are even more complicated in doubles, when the server has to take into account both their partner’s skills, position, and perspectives along with their opponents. A serve that might put the baseline player in an advantageous position, might make the doubles-partner at the net especially vulnerable. A well-planned out, coordinated strategy, on the other hand, can complement each players’ strengths and weaknesses in a way that results in a more comprehensive, more attentive, way of playing.

In Serving Equality, we illustrate the ways in which the equality-focused liberal feminist narratives of the 2010s failed to adjust from singles to doubles. In many cases, the sole focus on “equality” completely disregarded how intersecting forms of oppression are maintained. Drawing on Banet-Weiser (2018), we refer to this phenomenon as the asymmetrical visibility of feminisms whereby narratives of progress and narratives of failure rooted in liberal feminist goals became highly visible, while racial justice, LGBTQ rights, and especially disability rights were omitted. To disrupt the asymmetrical visibilities of feminisms, we also sought out spaces and particularly marginalized spaces that introduced a wider range of feminist critique.

We conclude the book with critical reflections on how a project that focuses on visibility inadvertently contributes to the further marginalization of feminisms that are not popular. We recognize that serving might take a different meaning in the context of volleyball, or in a newly emerging sport of teqball. We also recognize that serving is irrelevant in sports that do not require that step in order to start the game. Similarly, visibility might look differently in various contexts (see, for example, McClearen, 2021). In fact, our book examines media narratives in relation to a select few sports, mainly because these sports were most visible in the 2010s in the U.S. The analysis of our book is thus limited to the specific contexts in the purview of our framework.

Our title is an invitation to industry professionals, scholars, students, athletes, fans, and to you, the readers to “play tennis” with us, to engage in feminist theorizing about sport media with us—regardless of whether you have ever picked up the racket before, regardless of whether you have engaged with feminism before. We hope that this book is a valuable resource for cultivating a more just space for women’s sport.

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We can’t control the wind, much like Venus Williams, but we can change the system. Venus Williams changed the system when she advocated for equal pay at Wimbledon (DuVernay, 2013)—an effort that often was lost or rendered invisible in media narratives about equal pay in tennis. Our book documents the many ways in which research, advocacy, and storytelling brought visibility to issues of gender equality in sports media. In documenting and critiquing visibilities, the book also sheds light on the possibility of telling stories about feminism and sports media differently.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank the series editors Lawrence A. Wenner, Andrew C. Billings and Marie C. Hardin for their support for this project, constructive feedback during the writing and editing process, and thoughtful guidance. We are deeply appreciative of the mentorship they provided throughout our academic careers and are grateful to have our work as a part of this collection.

Thank you to the editorial team at Peter Lang. We appreciate your assistance in seeing this book through production to publication.

We wish to give a special thank you to our colleagues who provided suggestions and feedback on earlier versions of this book. We appreciate the insights and are grateful for the time you’ve invested in this project.

We have presented versions of this work at the annual meetings of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, the International Association for Intercultural Communication Studies, the International Communication Association, the International Sociology of Sport Association, and the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport. Chapter 4 was previously published in Communication & Sport. A grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reproduce copyrighted material: Cooky, C. & Antunovic, D. (2020). “This isn’t just about us”: Articulations ←xv | xvi→of feminism in media narratives of athlete activism. Communication & Sport, 692–711. Reprinted by permission of SAGE Publications. All rights reserved.

Biographical notes

Cheryl Cooky (Author) Dunja Antunovic (Author)

Cheryl Cooky is Professor in American Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Purdue University. She is co-author of No Slam Dunk: Gender, Sport and the Unevenness of Social Change and serves as the editor of the Sociology of Sport Journal. Dunja Antunovic is Assistant Professor of Sport Sociology in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota. She has published over 30 journal articles and book chapters on gender, sport, and media and serves on the editorial board of Communication & Sport.

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