Recently, I saw the documentary Miss Representation, which explores how the media portrays women. The film has many virtues, but also many problematic limitations, assumptions and contradictions, and I plan to discuss the more substantial of those in a future post. But one of the more trivial (yet nonetheless somewhat irritating) of these came during a discussion of the lack of programming depicting women of all different ages, backgrounds, and personalities; something I think we can all agree is an extremely substantial problem. But while the film explained how those attempting to create a network to tell the stories of women failed to get sufficient support or funding to get it off the ground, a caption swept across the screen contrasting this with an example of what, apparently, would be the opposite of programming for women – did you know, that meanwhile, twenty-two ESPN channels are available to cable consumers!
Cut to me, sitting on my couch, looking confused and irritated and then, a few moments later, arguing back out loud, “but what the fuck?, doesn’t that assume that women are not interested in sports?” You see, it just so happens that sports are nearly all I watch on television. Really. I watch three things on TV – sports, the Daily Show/Colbert Report, and Project Runway. That is it. And of this time I spend watching TV, sports constitute an overwhelming amount of that time. And I do this nearly every day.
Now, I do recognize the point that the writers of Miss Representation were trying to make. Regardless of how many women watch or enjoy sports, ESPN assumes a male audience and packages most of its material with the male gaze in mind. The vast majority of coverage, moreover, goes towards sports involving only men – especially, of course, professional basketball, football, and baseball. To this extent, ESPN and other sports media outlets reinforce gender assumptions and inequalities as much, or even more so, than other cultural spaces. It is hardly a bastion of gender neutrality or equality.
Moreover, Miss Representation had a very good point about the lopsidedness of network options — while sports fans make up over 60 percent of the American population, that is not terribly larger than the nearly half of the population made up of women. And when the women who were trying to create the new network went to television executives, they would often reply with the question, “but don’t women already have Lifetime?” Now, when I heard this portion of the story, I took the sly smirk on the woman’s face to mean, “how absurd to imply that Lifetime is really a station that avoids, rather than reinforces, stereotypes about women” — but a fellow DDP blogger has since pointed out to me that the following ESPN factoid could have been intended to make the point about the inconsistency of the executives’ argument, since if the category of “sports fans” can justify 22 stations (and more, really, beyond ESPN) then surely there could be more room for networks which explore the lives of women. This is a very good, and very legitimate point.