Kendra Smith recently received her Masters degree from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
The passing of Title IX, which mandated equal funding for girls' and women's programs and sports helped encourage women's participation in athletics, complimenting the growing number of women seeking higher education. The creation of the Lingerie Football League, a professional women's football league in which women play tackle football in lingerie apparel, led me to examine how this league fits into the paradigm of today's sports culture. Are women still battling to define themselves as legitimate athletes? Do or should women exhibit femininity and/or sexuality in their image in order for their athletic ability to be recognized? My study focuses on how women audience members respond to media images, specifically sexualized images of women athletes, using the LFL as a case study.
I used focus groups to survey female students to discuss how they felt about women's sports and to gauge their reactions to the Lingerie Football League.
My results suggest that women audience members view athletes as positive role models, mainly because of their athletic accomplishments and the ability to fulfill multiple roles in their lives, i.e., successful athlete, mother of two, etc. Words such as "graceful" and "girly" were used to describe femininity, while "aggressive" and "confident" were applied to their sexuality. One interesting point I found was that most participants felt they liked a female athlete to display some level of femininity, depending upon the sport played.
Finally, the results suggest that participants reacted negatively towards the LFL for three reasons: the level of aggression, the lack of safety, and the high level of objectification of players. When compared to women in other forms of popular entertainment, however, such as those in fashion or music, the participants' views of the LFL players became more moderate.
So what does this all mean? Women make up the majority of buying power for athletic consumer goods. The results of this study can help brands create material that appeals to female consumers, without offending them. For communicators and journalists, these results can instigate a dialogue for women within sports that does not currently exist to discover ways to positively frame female athletes in the media without sexualizing them and diminishing their athletic abilities.