Monday, November 02, 2009

Media coverage of Serena Williams' outburst emphasizes gender norms

Serena Williams, in her outburst at the U.S. Open, stepped outside the box of what is considered acceptable behavior for female athletes, according to the most recent report from the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism. We analyzed articles from both traditional and new media sources to answer questions about the way Williams was portrayed in coverage of her outburst. The most interesting findings concerned comparisons between Williams and other male and female athletes. We found that although Williams was more often compared to male athletes, comparisons between her and other female athletes were more likely to be negative. Further, in articles that did compare Williams negatively to other female athletes, Kim Clijsters' (her opponent in the match who went on to win the Open) motherhood was more likely to be mentioned. One Yahoo! Sports article went as far as to call Clijsters the Open's "silver lining" after the "stain" left by Williams' outburst.

This finding is, sadly, unsurprising. Gender norms are valued in our society, and while we might be able to stomach a male behaving “violently” during a sports match, females, even female athletes, are “supposed” to be -- above all -- women. Society needed a Kim Clijsters, a mother and wife who exemplifies our ideals of femininity, to put us at ease after the Williams outburst.

This is not to argue that Williams’ behavior was acceptable or undeserving of punishment. Any athlete who threatens an official should be rebuked. However, if it had been a male athlete, perhaps an opponent of Roger Federer (who recently become a dad), would the media be mentioning Federer’s fatherhood in negative commentary about the male offender?

Posted by Erin Ash

1 comment:

Colleen said...

I certainly agree that there are many unjustified gender life, not just sports. The media is always looking for an angle to make their story stick out among the millions of other stories with which they are competing.

I think, at least from my perspective, the reason a story like Serena's outburst captures our attention isn't really because it wasn't a feminine response. I don't hold female athletes to a higher standard on account of their femininity. I hold them to a higher standard on account of their humanity. I don't think there is any reason to expect a female athlete to be any less competitive than a male athlete. I do tend to expect them to behave better, though. I just do. I think we are somewhat used to seeing male athletes behaving badly; perhaps because we get to see male athletes more often. I don't care for that either. Perhaps we don't react similarly to men's outbursts because we have been exposed to them all too often.

Serena's reaction was inexcusable; not unforgivable, but inexcusable. The right thing to do would have been to accept it, own it and admit that it was wrong right from the start. The story would have gone away at that point.