Literature Review Regarding Macro-/Micronarratives in Women’s Sport

AN: This lit review was written in fall 2009 as part of a research proposal that “looks at the need and potential for counternarratives in women’s sports—narratives that are often severely limited by traditional and mainstream media.  This research seeks to understand how social media creates greater potential for counternarratives to be voiced and accessed.” The proposal was written for a rhet/comp concentration and should probably be read with that in mind. Full citations can be found in the bibliography.

In American culture, media giants such as ESPN control and limit mainstream coverage of less-lucrative sports and leagues—particularly women’s teams—and therefore control the associated narratives. These mainstream narratives generally uphold the gender ideologies related to sport and society: “sport is… a key avenue for the transmission of dominant cultural values and bodily expectations” (Cooky and McDonald 165). Because competing in sports is traditionally a masculine pursuit, sportswomen are “othered” through “exclusion or symbolic erasure… within mediated re/productions of sport” (Kane and Lenskyj qtd. in Meân 69). Where women are not erased from the sports scene, emphasis is shifted from their performance on the field to their performance of the feminine ideal: Brandi Chastain’s goal celebration on the cover of Newsweek becomes an iconic image not because her team won the World Cup on home soil, but because of its sexualization and safety in depicting non-competitive action. Elizabeth Lambert’s highlight reel of fouls goes from national broadcast to viral status as a warning—not of the need for fair play and better referees, but of “unladylike” behavior in women’s sports, even at the college level.

Scholarship that addresses the depiction of women in sports criticizes the predominantly gendered approach even as sports media takes steps towards improvement. Although mainstream media is more widely studied and commented upon, studies have also analyzed “internally”-produced media, such as that generated by leagues, universities, conferences, and international ruling organizations. A longitudinal analysis might reflect more equitable depictions of male and female athletes in university publications (Buysse and Embser-Herbert; Buysse and Kane) but by and large, sports media has been found to follow mainstream outlets’ leads. This is particularly concerning in the case of larger organizations such as the International Olympic Committee or the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), which governs the highly popular sport of soccer worldwide. In “Making Masculinity and Framing Femininity,” Meân summarizes FIFA’s role in influencing in the sport/culture through its website:

[As] the Web site of the organization that is synonymous with and central to the practice of soccer, provides a powerful site for the re/production of the discourses and meanings that define soccer, its identity categories, and discursive practices… the users are self-selected and therefore likely to strongly identify as proper members of the soccer community. (69)

A critical discourse analysis conducted on during the summer of 2007—in the months just prior to the Women’s World Cup—indicated that “the women’s game [was] effectively invisible and [excluded] from routine membership in the [‘News’] category” (Meân 73). Meân asserts that “Linking the news [about the women’s game in general] to the Women’s World Cup can be viewed as promoting the tournament, but it also frames the action as special, or nonroutine, rather than about everyday category membership” (73).

Shifting emphasis from the macrolevel (institutions) to the microlevel (individuals), studies conducted by Cooky and McDonald (2005) and Hardin and Whiteside (2009) address the problematic narratives surrounding contemporary women in sports. Cooky and McDonald specifically focus on the young female athletes targeted by Nike “girl power” ads and suggest that these girls “[construct] an idea of athleticism echoing elements of middle-class achievement ideology” and that their sports experiences “[place] limitations on the experiences and the possible narratives girls could co-create to understand their experiences within the institution of sport” (166). Hardin and Whiteside delve into narratives surrounding Title IX, where “emphasis on equality presupposes sameness as the ultimate goal, but the law’s enforcement has reinforced the ideology of difference… [and] allowed for forced segregation in sport participation—through separate-but-equal opportunities” (260). Drawing on the work of Georgakopoulou, they maintain that “such stories… are rich sources for discovery of identity formation and the relationship between storytellers and cultural ideologies” (Hardin and Whiteside 257). In their study of focus groups, Hardin and Whiteside found a limited range of narratives, mostly in support of the dominant ideology—like Cooky and McDonald—but also identified a minority of counternarratives, both of which were told in focus groups comprised of female athletes.

Most studies that examine the relationship between women’s sports, media coverage, and the gendered, mainstream narrative focus on traditional outlets for sports media. Currently, the use of new media for marketing and connection with consumers is on the rise; social media is a hot topic in the sports world. Men’s leagues such as the NFL and NBA have set restrictions and policies regarding players’ use of new media. Women’s leagues, particularly those that receive little to no mainstream coverage, have embraced social media as a low-cost solution to the lack of exposure. With the rise of social media usage in women’s sports, the potential for more widely accessible counternarratives has increased, especially from the athletes themselves. But relatively few studies have been conducted regarding social media in sports, and despite how important social media is becoming as a communication practice, the research surrounding it in rhetoric and composition is not extensive. The Distinguished Lecture Series hosted by the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport featured the topic of athlete-produced new media as recently as October 2009. Although experts voice skepticism over social media’s ability to change the mainstream narrative, they acknowledge that new media will impact sports coverage and requires further study.

The culture of soccer already relies on its online presence to re/produce its values, which are very much in line with the traditional mainstream. Women’s soccer has long held a grassroots approach to its fanbase and marketing, and the integration of social media has not been contrary to the established subculture. Given that women’s soccer in America relies on a deeply embedded mainstream narrative but has allowed its professional league to set a social media precedent, I believe that women’s soccer (across all levels of the sport) is a significant site for giving voice to and observing the impact of diverse narratives.

Having followed women’s soccer closely across various levels of the sport, I have had the opportunity as a fan, writer, and academic to observe the re/produced narratives and recognize their sources. I take particular interest in the interaction between the narratives and the media coverage, whether the media is mainstream, traditional, institutional, new, or social.

In 2007, when the highly touted US Women’s National Team (USWNT) crumbled at the Women’s World Cup, the leading narrative in women’s soccer in the US came under fire: starting goalkeeper Hope Solo publicly criticized then-Head Coach Greg Ryan and fellow goalkeeper Brianna Scurry in the middle of the tournament and was ostracized by the team. The USWNT’s carefully maintained tradition as a successful, loyal, unified team of “the girls next door” did not leave room for the kind of individualized commentary that is acceptable in men’s sports. Critics either turned on Solo for straying from the narrative or on the USWNT for perpetuating that narrative in the first place. And regardless of whether Solo should have given that interview, the fact remains that the mainstream narrative was weakened by the counternarrative voiced by the individual athlete.

In 2008, the Women’s Professional Soccer league (WPS) began to establish its fanbase and culture through new and social media. Youtube, Ning, Facebook, Vimeo, MySpace, Delicious, Twitter, and other online platforms became the standard for interaction, connection, and up-to-date information regarding the league. Current and potential players joined the average fan in these spaces, and most of the athletes who participate are clearly generating their own, amateur content beyond the control of agents who could enforce the mainstream narrative. Although the inaugural season saw few individual counternarratives surface, the WPS has set a social media standard that other levels of the sport (including the USWNT level) will be forced to accommodate.

One Response to Literature Review Regarding Macro-/Micronarratives in Women’s Sport

  1. Pingback: In which we have excitement, excuses, and exposition. « The Cross-Conference Collector

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