CASE STUDY: Sexualized Portrayals of Female Athletes in Sports Journalism
It is difficult to argue with the claim that female athletes receive less coverage than their male counterparts. In addition to considering how often female athletes are covered, journalists must also consider how they are portrayed when they are covered. Sports Illustrated, for example, is known for rarely portraying female athletes on its cover, but, on February 8th, 2010, Olympic skier Lyndsey Vonn was featured with the caption “America’s Best Woman Skier Ever.” Although this can be seen as a great moment for Vonn, and for female athletes in general, there were also those who took offense to the skier’s positioning in what some have called “a sexually provocative pose.”
The controversy surrounding the picture is two-fold. First, there is disagreement over whether the picture is or is not sexually suggestive. On the cover, Vonn is pictured on a mountain in a tuck position. As multiple commentators noted, male skier, A. J. Kitt, was featured on a 1992 Sports Illustrated cover in a similar pose. However, according to Nicole LaVoi, an expert on women in sports, the images of the two skiers differ in that Kitt is portrayed “in action,” looking forward down the hill, and wearing his helmet. Vonn, however, is clearly posed. She is obviously not moving down the hill. She is also facing the camera and is not wearing her helmet.
Those who find the picture to be offensive argue that it is just another of many examples of the journalistic tendency to portray female athletes as sex objects. Because women athletes receive less coverage, the instances where they are prominently featured are more significant. Portrayals that sexualize female athletes reinforce traditional gender norms and downplay female athletic ability. Photos like Vonn’s, they argue, may sell magazines, but they only work to increase interest in her body, not her athleticism.
Those who are not offended by the image either do not see any sexual connotations, or do not find the combination of sex and women’s sports to be problematic. Wendy Parker, a sports journalist, does not see anything provocative in the Sport Illustrated image, and she even points out that Vonn is fully clothed “from head to toe.” Then there are those who argue that it doesn’t matter even if it is a “sexy” picture. Sports Illustrated has a predominately male readership, so it may be a business-boosting ploy to promote reader interest in female competitive skiing. Additionally, female athletes have a right to celebrate their bodies without being told how to “behave.” As sports blogger Chris Chase asks, “Why can’t she be both the best skier in the world and really, really attractive too?”
- Did Sports Illustrated do something ethically wrong in running the Vonn picture as they did? If they did, would it matter what their actual intentions behind running the photo were? If this cover actually increased interest in female competitive skiing, would that make an ethical difference?
- What reasons would you give to defend the decision to run the Vonn photo?
- Is the selection of cover photos, such as the Vonn shot, an important activity of sports journalists? Or are these purely business decisions? Are there more ethical issues than simply covering sports once sports journalists become part of a business such as Sports Illustrated?
- How would you have handled the selection of the Vonn photo for the cover if you ran Sports Illustrated? What values would guide your decisions?
Austin Knoblauch, “Lindsey Vonn’s Sports Illustrated cover shot skis into controversy.” Available at: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/sports_blog/2010/02/lindsey-vonn-sex-sexual-pose-provocative-skier-olympics-winter-sexually-suggestive.html
Chris Chase, “Let the Lindsey Vonn Hype Begin: Vonn is Sports Illustrated Cover Girl.” Available at: http://sports.yahoo.com/olympics/blog/fourth_place_medal/post/Let-the-Lindsey-hype-begin-Vonn-is-Sports-Illus?urn=oly-217525
Mary Jo Kane, “Sex sells Sex, not Women’s Sports.” The Nation, August 15-22, 2011. Available at: http://www.thenation.com/article/162390/sex-sells-sex-not-womens-sports
Wendy Parker, “A Truly Warped Way of seeing Women Athletes,” Available at: http://www.wendyparker.org/2011/08/a-truly-warped-way-of-seeing-women-athletes/
Danee Pye, Ph.D., & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational use. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.
By Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
[PDF] Case studies are a common way of introducing or reinforcing themes in a range of classes, including those on communication and media. They also are an engaging way to build skills of respectful disagreement over important issues. They can serve as follow-ups to other materials on ethical theory or they can be used on their own to bring up overlooked ethical implications. They can be used in a course entirely focused on the ethics of media or communication, or they can be used to add a partial focus on ethics to a range of communication, journalism, or media courses. For instance, one may lecture on the ethics of trust in the news media, and then use a case study on sports blogging and trust. Alternatively, one might lecture on the various types of sports blogging and use a case study as a focus for discussion over the ethical issues concerning sports blogging. Either way, case studies are great ways to evoke discussion over difficult ethical issues.
What are case studies? Case studies are typically narrative accounts that involve characters (or parties) and at least one decision to be made that will significantly affect multiple parties. Typically, there are competing interests on each side of this decision—reasons for taking that action, and reasons against doing that action. If a case study is about forcibly revealing anonymous sources to safeguard national security, the interests are clearly oppositional: journalistic integrity (promises of confidentiality to one’s sources) and the interests of preserving our nation’s security (perhaps in times of war). The actions or decisions that serve as the focus of case studies are typically of two kinds: either they have already been made or they are yet to be made. The former type of cases will get students discussing the action a specified agent did in the case study, whereas the latter type ends with an unfinished situation—the students must then decide what an agent’s next move will be. Both types of case studies can be hypothetical or based on real occurrences.
How might one use case studies in their class? Some teachers use case studies to do two things. First, students can be tasked with identifying the ethical interests at conflict in the decision made or to be made in the case study at hand. What is the decision that is ethically problematic here? What reasons or interests do you immediately see for both sides of this controversy? Cultivating sensitivity to the various sides to an ethical issue develops the sort of charity and sympathy many see as vital features to an ethical decision-maker. And often, our first reaction is not our most justified or defendable reaction after we think about our reasons for a bit. Second, students can be asked to develop a position on the decision made or to be made—what should the agent do (or what should they have done)? More importantly, why is that the right action to take? This part goes deeper than merely noting interests on both sides of this controversy, as students are asked to argue for why one interest or value takes priority over another interest or value. Sometimes, there are creative solutions that can be envisioned to address all the concerns in the case study.
The fundamental point to the use of case studies in teaching ethics is to provoke discussion, questioning, and argument. They are not primarily used to solve problems, convey settled principles, prove certain theories, and so forth. Many instructors use them in the following way. Students are put into small groups and asked to read the case study. Each group talks over the case, directed by instructor prompts or the “discussion” questions listed at the end of many case studies. Following this, the instructor brings the entire class together and discusses what each group thought about each starting question. Students might then be encouraged to engage in reason-based discussion and debate about the case decisions in question. Disagreement, when it leads to the comparison and analysis of justifying reasons and values, is a welcome sign in using case studies to teach ethics. The instructor may conclude discussion with a summary of the interests and positions debated by students, but rarely is there one right answer (and set of reasons) that gains reasoned acceptance by all. Learning the process of critical ethical thinking and reasoned disagreement is one of the main ends of using case studies.
Dr. Scott R. Stroud is the founding director of the Media Ethics Initiative. Dr. Stroud has training as a philosopher and as a communication scholar, and he researches a range of topics at the intersection of media and ethics. He is an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of the books John Dewey and the Artful Life (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011) and Kant and the Promise of Rhetoric (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014), as well as the co-author of A Practical Guide to Ethics: Living and Leading with Integrity (Westview, 2007). He has written extensively on many topics in communication and media ethics, rhetoric, and philosophy. His CV and his scholarly articles can be found at his academia.edu page. You can contact Dr. Stroud and the Media Ethics Initiative here.
Rachel Weisenthal is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin majoring in communication studies with a focus on the entertainment industry. With the ultimate goal of working in the music business, Rachel took any and every class available to her regarding the role of mass media and brand development on interpersonal communication and American culture. She spent the fall of 2017 participating in the UT in Los Angeles program, working full time for credit and taking industry-specific classes at night. Having always been fascinated by the role ethics plays in media, both digital and traditional, Rachel is excited to explore these issues through her work with the Media Ethics Initiative.
Media Ethics Initiative Research Scholars earn credits and research experience by working with the Media Ethics Initiative to promote reflection on media ethics among students and faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. They gain valuable skills by assisting the organizing and promotion of Media Ethics Initiative events, as well as by researching and writing case studies in media ethics. Interested UT Austin students can sign up for a 1, 2, or 3 credit internship for the fall or spring semester. For more information on the Media Ethics Initiative Research Scholar program, visit here.
CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Digital Real-Person Fan Fiction
In the world of fan fiction, there is a thin line between creative works by fans who admire and take inspiration from their favorite celebrities and stories that might be harmful to that person’s identity and reputation. A popular subgenre within the fanfiction world is called “real-person fanfiction” or RPF. This subgenre of fanfiction occurs when fans write their favorite public figures—including actors, athletes, and musicians—into fictional stories. These realities are created, owned, and controlled by fans, leading to a wide array of creative and sometimes disturbing storylines. For instance, one story depicts an adulterous affairs between Joe Biden and Barack Obama, whereas another story is titled “Jesus and Hitler: A Romance.” The latter story is controversial precisely because of narrative events such as the following: “‘I’ve never been with a man, either, Jesus. I’m scared, just like you are, but we can’t let our fears rule us! I love you, Jesus. Do you love me?’ Hitler’s eyes had tears in them. Jesus smiles. ‘Yes, Hitler. I love you.’ They embraced. Again, they kissed passionately” (Angkras, 2010). Beyond the offense given to religious communities in this story, other real-person fanfiction narratives range from wholesome but mundane stories to hardcore explicit erotica. There are also hundreds of thousands of fanfictions tagged as “incest,” “rape/non-con[sensual],” ”domestic violence,” and ”underage sex,” a range of often-forbidden topics enabled by the freedom of expression and creativity afforded in the often-anonymous world of fanfiction writing.
Controversy over the ethics of fanfiction gets even more intense when its subjects are contemporary real individuals such as celebrities. Fans have used the abilities to create and quickly share content in digital form to write their favorite public figures into scenarios the fan may have fantasized about, but which may be taboo in real life and shocking to the actor or celebrity depicted. In most communities, sexual relationships between siblings is generally stigmatized; in the digital arena of fanfiction, amateur authors can safely “publish” narratives such as “Taken,” written by “Missbeizy,” which depicts a fictional sexual relationship between the actor Elijah Wood and his sister in its made-up story line. Siblings such as James and Oliver Phelps, the actors who played the Weasley twins in the Harry Potter series, as well as the actors Liam and Chris Hemsworth, have also been the protagonists in such lurid fan-written creations. While many RPF creations function as satire or as simply bad story-telling, other fan creations feature well-known actors or celebrities being brutally raped or in scenarios involving underage sexual encounters. All of these raise the question of how much control a real but public person has over his or her image in fictional creations.
Fans of fanfiction have debated such controversial extremes. Celebrities have taken to social media to air their personal opinions about fanfictions and real-person fanfiction narratives. For instance, Lynn Flewelling, author of The Nightrunner Series, has not been shy about her feelings: “That being said, here’s my opinion on people writing sexually oriented fanfiction about real people. It’s WRONG, CREEPY, VERY EXTREMELY ICKY, and should be ILLEGAL. Anyone still unclear on my feelings should read the previous sentence again.” Celebrities such as Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender have encountered their own fanfiction echoes and seem to be amused by them. On The Graham Norton Show, Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender were read the synopses of multiple fanfictions about themselves; Fassbender called them “amazing” and McAvoy joked after reading one about him having Fassbender’s baby, “IVF can do incredible things these days” (BBC, 2014).
Fans also have been divided in their opinions of real-person fanfiction. Some argue that it is their right to creative expression and that this a way for them to put their admiration and love for these celebrities into words. They claim that it does no harm as long as it is respectful, described appropriately as “fiction,” and published on the right websites. A now-defunct Reddit user defended real-person fanfiction by stating that “celebrities do have a right to privacy, but most RPF writers aren’t engaging in behavior that the celebrity should find troubling. We don’t stalk them, we don’t approach them in real life and we don’t actually believe that our made-up stories are real” ([deleted], 2018). Other fans who oppose these creations also publicly worry about the potential harms that such stories might spawn: “I’m sure there are quality stories out there, but I think the fact fanfiction deals with real people and, from what I’ve seen around, can also feed delusions about these real people which creeps me out to some extent” (Andy, 2015).
Given that “real” art is often transgressive and offensive, and that it often uses or targets real people, the question becomes: How should we think about the ethics of fan-created expressive works that center on and feature real people who may not agree with such a usage? What are the limits to our thoughts and expressions involving celebrities and public figures? When does fan fiction become a real ethical problem?
- What are the ethical concerns and problems with real-person fanfiction (RPF)?
- What ethical values are in conflict when fans create RPF works and celebrities attempt to control their public image?
- What are the ethical lines that RPF should not cross? Would these limits apply to professional artists who often base fictional stories on real-life events and figures?
- Some art is specifically designed to lampoon, criticize, or embarrass its real-life subjects. Might RPF serve this critical function? If so, how does this impact your judgments of the ethics of RPF works?
Andy. “Roundtable: Let’s Talk About Fanfiction” Seoulbeats, August 14, 2015, http://seoulbeats.com/2015/08/roundtable-lets-talk-about-fanfiction/
Angkras. “Jesus and Hitler: A Romance.” Fanfiction.net, July 10, 2010, https://www.fanfiction.net/s/6130321/1/Jesus-and-Hitler-A-Romance
Anonymous. “Ms. Brie.” Archive of Our Own, August 19, 2016, https://archiveofourown.org/works/2775158/chapters/6223796
BBC. “Michael Fassbender & James McAvoy’s fan art romance – The Graham Norton Show – BBC”. YouTube, May 2, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrwnzT8vK0w
[deleted]. “RE: Is writing RPF fanfiction really a bad thing?”August 2018, https://www.reddit.com/r/FanFiction/comments/94dn8j/is_writing_rpf_fanfiction_really_a_bad_thing/
Flewelling, Lynn. “Lynn Speaks Re: Fanfiction.” December 11, 2004, https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/Flewelling/conversations/messages/17267
Missbeizy. “Taken.” Archive of Our Own, December 12, 2014, https://archiveofourown.org/works/14587089
SapphicAndSarcastic. “The Rape of Jensen.” Archive of Our Own, March 6, 2017, https://archiveofourown.org/works/10120133
Oluwasemilore Adeoluwa & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
November 26, 2018
Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational use. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.