THE GENDER GAMES
The revolution of breaking down stereotypes of women playing sports will be televised
Change and inclusivity are sweeping through sports codes – and fans are packing stadiums and tuning in on their televisions. Even on-field camera people are under pressure to change their shooting angles.
The tide is turning. Change is unfolding. The revolution will be televised.
For decades, women’s participation in sport was not taken seriously. Over time, this has been changing, but there have remained ingrained stereotypes that are only now being tackled and done away with.
Soccer, one of the biggest and most influential sports on the globe, is at the forefront of this revolution. For example, a Fifa report emanating from the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup estimated that a record 1.12 billion viewers tuned in to that spectacle four years ago.
Further strides were made during the 2022 European Championships as a crowd of more than 87,000 people filled Wembley Stadium to watch the final, as the hosts and eventual winners England beat Germany. That live attendance was a record for European Championships (for both men and women).
Just prior to the Euros, Spanish giants Barcelona set a new record for the largest crowd at a women’s soccer match. The 91,648 spectators who descended on the Camp Nou in March 2022, as Barca beat German side Wolfsburg in the Uefa Champions League semifinal, usurped the record 91,553 people who’d turned out to see Barcelona beat Real Madrid in the quarterfinals a month before.
Further strides were made at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, as the event became the first major multisport spectacle to have more medal events for women than men.
In 2023, the gains are set to continue as women athletes increasingly occupy spaces they could not before and stake their claim to be respected as much as their male counterparts.
A notable recent moment was the success of South African sailor Kirsten Neuschäfer in the gruelling, solo, non-stop, round-the-world Golden Globe Race, in which the Gqeberha native was the only woman in a field of 16 skippers. In clinching line honours in the almost eight-month expedition (in which the use of modern technology and external assistance is forbidden), she became the first woman and first South African to win the race.
“Women’s sport is becoming mainstream and the amount and depth of consumption is increasing rapidly,” said Tammy Parlour, chief executive of the Women’s Sport Trust, which recently conducted research into consumption trends around women’s sports.
“We identified that the next frontier to tackle is habitual consumption of sport, which was the focus of this research, as this will open up a range of revenue streams that will help women’s sport ultimately become sustainable and profitable.”
In spite of all the progress that has been made, and continues to be made, the road to ensuring that women do not feel out of place or uncomfortable while doing what they love is long and winding.
The latest turn in the road dress code. Ahead of the Fifa World Cup, which commences in July, some national teams have opted to ditch white shorts. Women athletes across codes have been vocal about their discomfort wearing white shorts during a period.
This trend can only benefit players and allow them to perform to the best of their abilities without having to worry about embarrassment in an age of social media trolls. European champions England and World Cup co-hosts New Zealand have chosen to do away with white shorts permanently.
“The blue colour is an amazing change and even better [is] the absence of white shorts,” said New Zealand striker Hannah Wilkinson. “It’s fantastic for women with any kind of period anxiety. It’s always been something that women athletes, not just footballers, have had to deal with. In the end, it just helps us focus more on performance and shows a recognition and appreciation of women’s health.”
Club teams in England, such as Manchester City and West Brom, are also abandoning white shorts for their women players. Irish Rugby has followed suit, saying it “comes as a response to players’ feedback about period anxieties”.
The hierarchy of the Wimbledon Championships announced late last year it would relax its stringent rules about white apparel for women participants.
All about the angles
While the growing global popularity of professional and amateur women’s sports is something to celebrate, there is still much work that needs to be done when it comes to what some television cameras and photographers choose to focus on when covering women athletes, with a disproportionate focus on the athletes’ anatomy rather than performance.
This assertion was tested during the Durban Open Women’s Beach Volleyball in April. The sport was chosen specifically because participants generally dress skimpily, creating more room for the stereotypical coverage.
“Women in sports are 10 times more likely to be objectified by camera angles that focus on certain body parts compared with their male counterparts. When we found out that this is also an issue for top [women] athletes … we knew we had to act,” said Severine Vauleon of Lux after the brand ran a campaign during the volleyball tournament to test this theory.
“This doesn’t only devalue the [women] athletes’ professional performance, but also perpetuates the objectification issue many women face every day.”
Women athletes sported a QR code on their briefs, an area cameras tend to focus on. When “viewers” scanned the code they were directed to a short film titled Hey Camera, which forms part of the Change the Angle campaign. The film calls for an end to the blatant objectification of women and, instead, focuses on their strengths.
Such proactive campaigns bode well for future women athletes, who won’t have to jump hurdles previous and current generations have had to. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.