Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Gender and Media Talk Podcast: Athlete or Sex Symbol and The Price of Sexy 

Today on Gender and Media Talk we’re talking with Dr. Elizabeth Daniels, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. Dr. Daniels is a developmental psychologist who studies gender, media, body image, and positive youth development. I became aware of her work as I was working on my own research on sexualized media.

In media, women are often presented as objects rather than as agents. What do I mean by that? Objects are things that serve the purposes of others, while agents are active participants who advance their own agendas. The view of women as objects is very passive and doesn’t have anything to do with what the woman herself wants or needs. The view of women as agents is active and focuses on her own goals.

In two studies, Dr. Daniels has investigated how boys and girls respond to sexualized images of female athletes compared to athletes pictured performing in their chosen sport.

Dr. Daniels wanted to see if adolescent girls and college women would tend to look at themselves first as objects of desire after viewing the sexualized pictures of female athletes as compared to viewing a female athlete playing a sport.

In another study, she wanted to see if adolescent boys focused on different qualities of female athletes depending on if they were viewing sexualized, objectifying or performance-oriented photos.

There has been some hope expressed by many that the depiction of female athletes in popular media can help girls and boys see female bodies from a different perspective, less objectification and more agency.  Meaning, instead of viewing girls and women primarily as objects of desire, we can see them as has having strong, healthy bodies that are used to accomplish a goal for themselves, such as playing a sport.

Research has shown that girls who are actively involved athletes tend to be less likely to engage in risk sexual behaviors. In my own work, I’ve found that adolescent girls who play sports do tend to have more body confidence and express a stronger ability to see themselves as agents in their physical relationships.

But, a lot of female athletes are also highly sexualized in the media, from the Sports Illustrated’s “International Athletes” section of their swimsuit addition to Danica Patrick’s Go Daddy images. Dr. Daniels says in her 2009 article,

“ there is reason to believe sexualized images may be problematic because these representations excise women athletes’ highly fit bodies from an athletic context and repackage them as desirable objects. (pg. 403).”

In other words, they take great examples of women who are acting as agents, and objectify them.

In both of the studies I mentioned above, it was found that adolescent girls and boys who view sexualized images of female athletes are more likely to then reflect objectified views of women. For the girls, this meant that they viewed themselves as objects of another’s desire. For boys, this meant that instead of focusing on the athlete’s abilities and strength, they focused on her as a sexual object.

I asked Dr. Daniels for her thoughts on how we can help kids respond to sexualized media, and she gave some very specific ideas. Below I’ll list a few that we discussed:

  • Expose both boys and girls to those images and stories of women that focus on their agency, or ability to make decisions and take actions that are responsible and self-affirming. Recently, watching the Women’s World Cup or Wimbledon with your kids would have given them great examples of strong, agentic women.  For older kids, The Hunger Games Trilogy provides a heroine who, even in the midst of very controlled circumstances, strives to act as an agent in her own life.
  1. The key to media literacy is teaching kids to critique media rather than just accepting the images. When you see women depicted as agents or objects, point it out to the children and adolescents that are around you. For example, when my daughter asked me why women’s bodies were used to “sell stuff, “ we started talking about how that makes her, as a girl, feel.  We also looked for other examples of women acting as agents in ads and talked about which were more realistic.
  1. Use real life examples of people who you and your child know to contrast the ideas of females as objects vs agents. Is it the goal of most women you know to sit around looking sexy? Probably not, most of us have work to do and things to accomplish. Teaching kids to see the absurdity of certain media depictions can help them learn to recognize and critique them.
  1. With adolescents and pre-adolescents, you can use this conversation as an opportunity to talk about feelings of objectification. How would it feel to be a person who was valued only for the beauty of their body? What about what’s inside those women who are pictured in the ad? What are their goals in life? This is an especially useful process for boys, as they can often be led by the objectified portrayal of girls and women to view them as objects.

What I’m advocating is a kind of media “show and tell” with both younger children and adolescents. Find age appropriate ways to open up the conversation about what it means to be treated as an object and an agent. As we work to increase the media literacy of children and adolescents, these kinds of conversations are vital.

Daniels, E.A. & Wartena, H. (2011). Athlete or Sex Symbol: What Boys Think of Media Representations of Female Athletes. Sex Roles, DOI 10.1007/s11199-011-9959-7

Daniels, E.A. (2009). Sex Objects, Athletes, and Sexy Athletes : How Media Representations of Women Athletes Can Impact Adolescent Girls and College Women. Journal of Adolescent Research 24: 399 DOI: 10.1177/0743558409336748

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