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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.

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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.

However, the way the fact was delivered – as though it is clearly scandalous for there to be so many ESPN channels, implying that sports must only be the domain of men and inherently not a part of women’s stories – was still problematic. As a woman, I am not expected or assumed to be a sports fan; when people find out that I am, it is received well, but often with a clear tinge of surprise. Moreover, I am the type of woman which makes this interest of mine seem even more awkward – when it comes to how my personality has been perceived by others, the terms “eccentric,” “nerdy,” and “cynical” come to mind. However described, one persistent characteristic is that I am not received as being terribly compelled by popular culture; I am not “of this world,” in that sense. And I have no history of serious athletic pursuit; I played sports here and there as a kid, including two years of gymnastics in middle school, but always ended up quitting when I found that the anxiety of competition overwhelmed the pleasure of occasional victory. From college on, I was all about my books; and still today, the life of the mind is still where I spend the majority of my time.

But almost two years ago, I discovered baseball. And then I discovered tennis. And basketball. And despite it being an absurd, ridiculous sport, I also have to admit that I really enjoy football.[1] So I’m hopeless. The reasons for this sudden conversion, and why it failed to materialize in the past but is oh-so-appropriate for me now, constitute a story and a post in itself. But sitting on my couch wondering why ESPN was assumed to be an entirely masculine space, I found myself realizing how useful sports are as a way to think about gender assumptions and the temptations of essentializing ideas.

First, there is the odd incongruity that despite stereotypes about the “man cave” plastered with football jerseys on the wall and occupied exclusively – as the title would suggest – by men, women actually constitute huge numbers of sports fans and viewers in the United States. The sport with the largest percentage of women fans is baseball, where women compose 45-47 percent of the fan base. 43 percent of the audience for professional football – presumably the most manly of manly sports – are women, and about a third of those the NFL categorizes as “avid” fans are women.  Women also compose about 40 percent of both NBA and NASCAR fans. So: we are in the stands, in the sports bars, and at home screaming at the TV at rates not terribly lower than that of men.

Of course, ESPN – and the sports media in general – participate plenty in the disconnect between the representation of sports as an overwhelmingly male space and the reality that it is a very mixed-gender space. Moreover, the sports media often highlights and encourages the objectification of women – the websites for the cheerleaders and dancers in the NBA, for example, appear to differ little from a Playboy bunny layout. I have nothing but respect for the talent and skill involved in cheerleading – indeed, I was a cheerleader for one year of high school, as I’ve always loved both dance and gymnastics – but unfortunately society currently packages that skill in layers of sexism. In fact, one of the many reasons I prefer baseball to any other sport is precisely because, due in part to the lack of cheerleaders, the sexualization of female fans seems greatly reduced.[2] However, this does not stop some ball clubs from exclusively hiring young, attractive women as “ball girls,” and it does not stop ESPN sports casters from making thinly veiled dumb blonde jokes at their expense when said ball girls fail to perform their job perfectly.[3] Even the otherwise amazing television commentators for my own home team, Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow of the San Francisco Giants, insist on referring to women fans as “Gamer Babes.” Complaining about this to my mother one day – while we sat at a Giants game, actually – I said, “Everyone else is just a fucking Gamer; if they ever zoom up on me at a Giants game for some charming banter, they better not refer to me as a Gamer Babe.” Uncomfortable with the conversation, she responded, “Well I’m sure some other women would be offended and want to be referred to that way. You can’t make everyone happy.”

Although my mother simplified a complex problem, she nonetheless had a point. For me, watching sports is not something that relates to my identity as a woman; I do not conceive of it in gendered terms, nor do I want to. However, not everyone feels this way. A few years back, EPSN actually launched a website, which they hope they will be able to grow into a network, called espnW, which is designed explicitly to appeal to the female fan base.[4] The vice president for the project, Laura Gentile, explained that “Girls and women don’t feel like they have a platform that speaks to them. They recognize ESPN as a brand. It’s their husband’s brand and their boyfriend’s brand and their brother’s brand.”

Yet, this is not my experience at all. I don’t experience ESPN as my boyfriend’s “brand”; it is as much mine as it is his, and often, ours. So, what does that mean? Am I suffering under some kind of false consciousness? Am I letting the male gaze wash over me uncritically, with all of my ESPN consumption? I would like to think not, especially since I recognize when the sports media engages in sexism, and I get angry about it when I see it. But by the same token, I do not feel that creating a separate ESPN channel “for women” is how we go about addressing the problem. Indeed, in certain ways it seems to make it worse.

Because if we create a separate sports venue for women, what are we saying about women sports fans, and indeed women in general? That a platform that “speaks to us” will speak with one voice? That our experiences are of a piece?, and can all be represented through the lens of “for women”? What does that even mean? If we are talking about the sociological facts about the experiences women undergo precisely because of stereotypes about women – sexual objectification, sexual abuse, assumptions about our intellectual capacities and interests, and so on and so forth – then I have no problem talking about “the experience of women” in a more general sense. But what is the experience of a “female sports fan” versus a “male sports fan”? How on earth can we assume that all women experience sports fandom in ways monolithic enough to all be grouped under the category of “female sports fandom”?

For all these reasons, I actually find the idea of a separate ESPN channel for women fans offensive. I understand that others do not feel this way; that there are many that find great comfort in mediums designed by women and intended to speak to the experience of being a woman. But here again we come back to the pickle that such a framing doesn’t necessarily speak to me – because most of what I build my identity around is not particularly gendered. Some of it is, of course, but very few of the fundamentals. And here we are, back to one of the original problems of second and third wave feminism, which is simply that in attempting to build some kind of resistance to sexism, we can end up rarifying what the “experience of women” is, and what the identity of women ought to be. Ironically, then, in struggling to resist the hegemonic influence of the male gaze and the disproportionate amount of cultural and political power men hold in this society, we sometimes end up embracing a set of essentializing categories. Why didn’t the researchers for Miss Representation know that nearly half of ESPN viewers are women? Or are we assuming that this number exists only because their husbands and boyfriends are watching? And why would we assume that? Because most women are not “naturally” going to be interested in sports? It seems hard to explain the fuzzy logic of either the passing comment in Miss Representation or the existence of a separate sports channel for women without falling back on some very problematic assumptions.

My solution for this is to challenge sexism by insisting on a space welcoming to and inclusive of all people, rather than imagining that only separate networks can satisfy the needs of “male” and “female” fans. For example, I could see the argument that espnW could be very valuable because it could show the leagues and sports where women are playing on TV more often, and that is certainly a good thing. But why not also apply at least as much energy to putting pressure on ESPN, to, say, put a WNBA game on their primary station for once?, rather than just accepting its banishment to a separate station? By creating a separate station – supposedly the mirror image of the original but altered and directed towards women by attaching the signifier of “espnW” to it – the idea that gender is something that can be contained, categorized, and controlled through concepts of absolute difference is reinforced. However, when pressure is applied to start considering all realms of experience – including sports – outside of gendered expectations and limits, then we start working towards something that recognizes people first and foremost as people, and does not assume certain boundaries and qualities to their passions and interests based on their gender.

And at the same time it participates in sexism, there are also aspects of the sports media which press against it. Jemele Hill, of the show “Numbers Never Lie,” for example, is on ESPN2 every day delivering sharp and informed sports analysis. The show treats her as an equal to her male counterpart and does not linger on her as a sexualized object, either. Moreover, ESPN provides the forum for some of the best discussions on serious social problems that you will find anywhere on cable TV. I know that sounds bizarre, but it is true. The recent controversy over the emotional response of Richard Sherman to making the game-winning play in the NFC Championship, for example, has nowhere been discussed on cable TV with more clarity, honesty, and intelligence than on ESPN. Of course, the capacity of sports journalists to grapple with race has a lot to do with the high numbers of black players, journalists, and coaches involved in major league sports – but, there also seems to be a weird openness to seriously considering the way the media packages narratives of athletes along constructed stereotypes of race and gender. Just the other week, for example, ESPN aired an excellent documentary on the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan clusterfuck – the documentary was directed by a woman, and the argument which structured the entire film was that the tomboyish, athletic but unfeminine Tonya Harding, despite all of her talent, never received the support, either financial or cultural, that the elegant, conventionally attractive “ice princess” Nancy Kerrigan did. This tells a very important story, and it was not aired on a separate channel intended to address the “female” sports fan, but on the sports channel that Americans of all gender identifications watch. And so it should be.

I still experience some ambiguity about my desire to be considered merely a sports fan, and not a “female sports fan” – because judging by the number of times the broadcasters for Giants games find cadres of young women proudly wearing “Gamer Babe” t-shirts (the most popular groups singled out for camera attention, not insignificantly, are bachelorette parties) clearly some women do embrace the idea of being a Gamer Babe. But what can I say?, I’m simply not one of them; all of which is a long-winded way of saying, I suppose, that my identity as a feminist is, first and foremost, rooted not in my identity as a woman, but in my identity as a human being.


[1] I say “ridiculous” not only because watching people smash into each other and even occasionally pile on top of one another like a bunch of overexcited puppies is hilarious, but also because there are a lot of weird things about football; why, for example, do you get to make one extra point in a different way after scoring the biggest type of goal you possibly can? That’s just weird. I don’t get it. But actually, football is also an extremely intelligent, complex sport, something obscured by its hyper manly-man packaging; just thinking about what is involved in composing and memorizing plays and making quick adjustments in split seconds to offensive and defensive arrangements makes my head hurt.

[2] This also has a lot to do with how much less baseball is packaged as spectacle than say, football and even basketball; there are no flashing lights and booming voices when players come out, no half time shows, and the pace and atmosphere of a baseball game is slow, soothing, and chill. Or, as those who are not baseball fans describe it, really really boring.

[3] Such as this incident. Either this incident, or one very similar to it, was covered on Sports Center that night with the “look at that stupid hot girl” sneers you would expect. I remember this clearly as I saw it; unfortunately I couldn’t find a video of the Sports Center broadcast.

[4] It is also worth noting that included in those outrageously numerous ESPN channels are channels for the Spanish speaking population.

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