While sexism – and sexism in the media – is not a new phenomenon, sexist language has been a particularly troubling trend in media coverage of the Rio Olympics thus far. When a man is successful in his event, he is portrayed as “dominating” and “masterful.” When a woman is successful, her success is all too often attributed to a man, or discounted to being “pretty good for a girl.”
For example, Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszú recently won a gold medal and destroyed the current world record for the 400-metre individual medley – a feat she worked unbelievably hard for. Yet, in NBC’s coverage of the event, Hosszú’s husband and coach was praised as “the man responsible.”
Trapshooter for the U.S., Corey Cogdell-Urein, recently won her second bronze medal for her event. In their coverage of the event, however, the Chicago Tribune ran with the headline: “Corey Cogdell, wife of Bears lineman Mitch Unrein, wins bronze in Rio.” The article in the Tribune includes discussion of her husband’s career with the Bears and even goes on to talk about how they started dating – a tangent that would most definitely be excluded from a male counterpart’s write-up.
U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky has had a fantastic run thus far in the Olympics. The 19-year-old won gold in the 400-metre freestyle event, winning by a massive margin of nearly five seconds and breaking the world record. Ledecky now holds the world record for the 400-, 800-, and 1,500-metre freestyle. Her performance has many media outlets calling her “the female Michael Phelps” – sometimes not even using her name. Moreover, fellow American swimmer and 11-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte said, “This girl is doing respectable times for men.” Olympic silver medalist Conner Jaeger said, “Her stroke is like a man’s stroke. I mean that in a positive way. She swims like a man.”
In the media, it is never enough to be an incredibly accomplished woman. Rather, women are still defined by their relationship to well-known men they bear relation to, are married to or sleeping with – as though they have nothing else to offer apart from their arm-candy status.
When Amal Alamuddin, an esteemed human rights lawyer and activist, married George Clooney, she was quickly reduced to “Mrs. George Clooney.” More recently, Hillary Clinton made history by being the first woman to be nominated as the presidential candidate for a major political party. The morning after her win over Bernie Sanders to become the Democratic candidate, her husband Bill Clinton graced the cover numerous major newspapers across the country.
A woman is more than someone’s wife, mother, sister, or daughter. A woman is a person in her own right and until we as a society are able to recognize and accept this fact, no progress can be made. Reducing a woman to her relationship to a man not only undermines her worth, but it is also incredibly insulting.
Katie Ledecky does not swim like Michael Phelps; she swims like Katie Ledecky. She is not “pretty good for a girl,” she is an elite athlete and referring to her as anything but is condescending and simply incorrect. Further, reducing her worth by saying she is almost as good as a man is indicative of how being a man is considered the norm while being a woman is a disadvantage to be overcome.
But being a woman is not a disadvantage, nor should it be made out to be. In fact, at the time of this publication, all of Canada’s medals in the Rio Olympics have been won by women.