Sara Gross discusses how women’s sports media can transform culture
I fell in love with swimming while watching the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. For weeks afterward, I would get up early and do laps of our backyard pool. Looking back, I realize that I loved watching the Olympics for one reason – because women played. My 8-year-old self could watch women run and jump and dive, and they were like me and one day, if I worked hard enough and was tough enough, I could be like them.
| As an adult I believe that sports media has the power to change our culture.
Sport is the place where bodies in action live. The place where dreams take form and we find out what humans are capable of. The media brings these images to us, but it also controls the story. Where else are women’s bodies portrayed in a strong, active, non-sexualized way?
Because the media controls the way the story is told, we need to be constantly vigilant; What is the story we are telling? Whose story are we telling? Why? Who benefits from the telling of this story?
In her 1949 work “The Second Sex” Simone de Beauvoir shows how the social construction of “Woman” as the quintessential “other” is the foundation of patriarchal society. De Beauvoir’s observation is that men and masculinity are the dominant cultural norm, and female and femininity are different, and inferior. Men are active, women passive.
Overcoming this cultural inequality has been slow going. If we look at the last 60 years, how much has changed? Some things certainly have. My mother felt she had two career choices: teaching and nursing. Thirty years later, I feel like the world is my oyster.
Yet some things still lag behind. Consider the monopoly that men’s sports has on main stream media, the infamous glass ceiling in business and the lack of women in leadership positions from sports federations to heads of state.
Sport, by its very nature, turns the tables on patriarchy’s ongoing stranglehold by presenting women as active, aggressive and successful. Sport has the power to shift the paradigm in multiple arenas; para-athletes are transformed into heroes, class boundaries are broken, sexual orientation is unimportant, and women and girls from countries that normally restrict their movements have a chance to play, be heard and push boundaries.
My five-year-old daughter has two friends in our neighborhood, Tamar and Zahor. Tamar is from Israel and Zahor Saudi Arabia and the three of them play unaware of the cultural barriers they are collapsing. Many adults would not be comfortable in the same situation. I keep expecting my daughter to ask why Zahor’s mom wears a scarf on her head, but she never does.
| Sport is the place where grown men and women play and work together.
And we need to work together to challenge the dominant cultural norms, to make sure that women are not portrayed as “other” but as active, strong and powerful. Let’s listen and learn and be grateful for diversity. Let’s empower and inspire and lead by example. One athlete can change the cultural landscape forever. Just think of what Ronda Rousey has done for women who fight.
Changing our culture for the better will happen, one story, one moving picture, one image at a time.