Catfights, falls, and drama: the Olympics always give us an unfortunate, if accurate, lens into the way the media and society talk about women in their moments of strength and vulnerability. Of course, there’s context. Olympic commentary is invariably inane — partly because there’s a good deal of padding around hugely exciting but very (very) brief events, like sprints, or two-minute gymnastic routines. The existence of large blocks of time to kill leads to talking heads talking far too much about too little. And those blatherings often have a gendered dimension; a laser-like focus on falling, weeping, female bodies, reflecting a general inability to fit women into a competitive mindset with the same full comfort afforded to their male counterparts.
Each day brings more groans of frustration from the more enlightened segment of the viewership. Why do people insist that athletes like Gabby Douglas seem perky and happy when, perhaps, they’re disappointed human beings, or maybe just not peppy types? Why can’t we celebrate the total dominance of a swimmer like Katie Ledecky without having to compare her to a man? Why must rivalries between women be viewed through the lens of cattiness?
The roster of Rio 2016 sexist gaffes has already been well documented in places like Cosmopolitan, Mashable and the Huffington Post; surely by the closing ceremonies, that type of list of “the most sexist moments” of coverage will have expanded to include a few more cringeworthy comments.
A week in, however, leading contenders include the post-medal marriage proposal for Chinese diver He Zi that was referred to as the real prize:
…and Corey Cogdell-Unrein, the Olympic medalist who appeared in a headline as the wife of a Chicago Bears football player rather than by her own name:
These one-offs fit in with generally awful treatment of Douglas, who has appeared slightly subdued at her final Olympics, and Ledecky, whose sheer dominance seems to create puzzlement for those who behold it.
But never fear! We’re living in the moment of Peak Internet Feminism™. Each time one of these offhand tweets or stray comments shows up on a broadcast, hundreds of amateur critics are there to correct it, demand a retraction, and/or offer a much-needed public shaming. Even the BBC is here to offer us headlines like “Rio 2016: Was Chinese proposal romantic or just a form of male control?”
Apologies are offered; offending commentators and tweeters are chagrined. This is how change happens, at least in terms of discourse and behavior. Public shaming leads to changed mores, which leads to changed behavior. People — not all people, but many people — will henceforth think twice before they credit an athlete’s win to her husband/coach, or wax on about marriage and babies instead of mile times or scores. Even Tennis champion Andy Murray got in on the action, gently reminding an interviewer about women who exist also excel at the sport he is good at:
Commentator John Inverdale [interviewing Murray after he defeated Argentina’s Juan Martin Del Potro to claim his second Olympic gold]: “You’re the first person ever to win two Olympic tennis gold medals. That’s an extraordinary feat, isn’t it?”
Murray: “Well, to defend the singles title … I think Venus and Serena [Williams] have won about four [gold medals] each…”
Part of the problem with the Olympics is that as soon as the Games are over, women’s sports in general will again take a backseat to men’s teams, and the lessons that everyone from random fans on Twitter to the tennis gold medal winner have been imparting will soon have several years to be forgotten. But this season’s election proves that a big enough backlash can make something of a difference even years down the line. Lest we forget, 2008’s presidential primary media coverage of Hillary Clinton was a sexist mess. This year, sexism is still making onlookers mad, but the guilty parties are an occasional jerk on FOX News or Twitter, not a wholesale case of “Oh my god, no one can handle a plausible female candidate.” One hopes that the largely female audience for the Olympics, who are able to call out sexism when they see it, will help influence future coverage plans.
In fact, that very audience was the subject of the first misogynist misfire of the week, when an NBC exec excused the time delay in their coverage of the opening ceremony by saying that their female viewers don’t care about scores, they care about stories. Actually, my guess is that we women also like the Olympics because they give equal weight to male and female athletes! Women are equal participants for once, and besides, it’s fun to learn about new sports (dressage! badminton! trampoline!) Both summer and winter sports in the Games also demonstrate many different modes of being female and strong, whether it’s the shot-putter who is also a makeup artist, the gymnasts in their sequins doing insane backflips and handsprings, or the broad-shouldered swimmers and sprinters mowing down their opponents.
It’s funny that the solution is so easy; focusing on the excellence of the competitors and the inherent drama of the competition instead of building up sob stories and girl-fights is one way to avoid the misogynist mess next time around. Another way is just to, you know, not be sexist.