Olympic fans have bemoaned NBC's coverage of the 2012 Games, lamenting the fact that the network saves the day's most exciting events to air during primetime, leaving plenty of time for the event outcomes to be spoiled. Beside NBC's handling of the time delay between London and the United States, there have also been accusations that the Olympic coverage is sexist.
U.S. Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas helped the Americans take home a team gold medal and won the women's individual all-around gold. Yet despite the fact that the 16-year-old is the first African-American woman to win the all-around, people are talking not about her athletic achievement, but her hair. Across the Internet, people have been criticizing the way Douglas wears her hair, saying that she needs a perm and should groom her ponytail better. U.S. male gymnast Danell Leyva also medaled in the all-around, winning the men's bronze, but unsurprisingly no one is talking about his hair.
U.S. News's Susan Milligan says women shouldn't be treated like sweet little girls, but respected for their talents: "Women like sports, both as viewers and participants, and they aren't going to allow their competitions to be reduced to a glorified runway walk."
Women on the U.S. Olympic team outnumber men for the first year in history, 268 to 261. For the first time ever, every nation competing in the games has sent both male and female athletes. But as with the coverage of Douglas, coverage of women athletes continues to center on their appearances, not their athletic feats.
For the first year, women beach volleyball players didn't have to wear bikinis in their competitions. Women boxers also successfully stopped the Amateur International Boxing Association from requiring them to wear skirts in the ring. Milligan says such uniform rules would completely defeat the purpose of women's athletics:
More disturbing is the fact that the eroding rules appear aimed more at getting men to watch women's sports, when what's needed is to encourage more young girls to participate in sports. Athletic competition makes girls more confident, better able to win and lose gracefully in all areas of life, and healthier. Sending a signal that the primary reason women should compete in sports is to look sexy for men is counterproductive.
The objectification and sexism faced by women in the media, and particularly powerful women and women in leadership—like those competing in the Olympics—has serious implications. Focusing on the supposed "diva" behavior, outfits, hair and parenting of women athletes trivializes their accomplishments and makes them seem less powerful—and ultimately less valuable.
British weightlifting champion Zoe Smith was criticized for looking like a man because of her muscles, and thus being unattractive. The 18-year-old Smith personally responded to the negative comments on her blog:
The obvious choice of slander when talking about female weightlifting is "how unfeminine, girls shouldn't be strong or have muscles, this is wrong". And maybe they're right… in the Victorian era. To think people still think like this is laughable, we're in 2012!
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