Societies all over the world are typified by structures whose endurance may, by and large, depend upon the preservation of notions of masculinity. Upon these notions, femininity is differentiated or ‘othered’. Sport, being a microcosm of this patriarchal society, embodies these perceptions of masculinity and femininity – perceptions which are subsequently fortified by the media’s mainstream representation of sport.
The media is a crucial unit which is responsible for creating the ‘imagined communities’ of nations through the practices wherein they target the mass audience. The media has a vital role in warranting that a nation imagines itself as a lucid and harmonized community. It has been suggested that while most members of one single nation will not know each other, they are united by the aura of their communion. ‘Imagined communities’ are entities which are socially constructed. Benedict Anderson’s idea of the existence of this type of a community surfaces from how the general public identifies and understands themselves with respect to the community of their nation. This concept of imagined communities carries the idea that nations can be re-imagined and consequently changed. Nation-building occurs not only through political and economic processes, but also in cultural and symbolic contexts. In this regard, arenas such as sport, and particularly through representations of sport in the media, are key instruments for imagining and re-imagining the nation.
The Springboks’ 1995 Rugby World Cup winning team is a case in point. The squad was openly backed by President Nelson Mandela and depicted as a representation of democratic multi-racial South Africa. The political rhetoric was supposed to reinforce South African national identity and promote the country’s status of a new and stable nation.
Mainstream reporting of sport
For the purposes of this article, two themes which underpin the mainstream reporting of sport will be alluded to. Firstly, the representation of sportswomen in the media, and secondly, the amalgamation of the semantics of actual and proclaimed violence.
Firstly, the vanilla representation of female athletes in the media raises certain issues. There is a relative under representation of women in the media, and the fact remains that when females are represented, existing societal norms are highlighted through stereotypical portrayals in most cases. Further, there are myriad differences between the representation of male and female athletes, both in qualitative and quantitative terms. In a number of cases female athletes are judged primarily in terms of looks rather than sporting ability. To offer but one instance, Anna Kournikova’s media attention and her rarefied visibility were not even remotely matched by the representation of her performance as a tennis player.
In addition to the representation of female athletes, to state a blindingly obvious truth about sport is that it involves a certain level of competitiveness between the participants. But then again, competition is far from the solitary and exhaustive component element of sport. Through excessive emphasis on the level of competition between the competing international teams, the media’s depiction of international sporting events lends a hand in not only building, but also reinforcing the notion of a somewhat militaristic tinge to sporting contests.
While sports reporting is rife with examples of how the importance of the victor/vanquished binary is illuminated, probably the best renowned instances of the same were during the Cold War years. Ice hockey matches between the United States of America and the Soviet Union were played against the backdrop of an extremely hostile political atmosphere, and the victorious team’s political system was illustrated as the distinguished one.
Contemporary illustrations of the same also exist. In a Euro 2000 match between Germany and England. The Guardian reported that defeating Germany was a national event of immense pride. The Sun appealed: “Hammer those Germans tonight because we’d love it … we’d really love it”. A number of journalists observed the intense levels of nationalism which were elicited by the match. For instance, Oliver Holt stated in The Times that being an English supporter during that match was like ‘being on a march with a rampaging army as they lay waste to large tracts of other countries’. The situation, in fact, reached extreme stages, where some Germans were even attacked.
Or even the now viral poster depicting Bangladeshi pacer Taskin Ahmed holding the decapitated head of the Indian cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
The conflation of the languages of real violence and ritualized violence is seen by Feminist scholars as involving gender politics, on account of the correlation between masculinity and militarism itself. Sport and war metaphors would then be perceived as androcentric forms of discourse. From this perspective, the increase in such usages and their widespread acceptance in mainstream sports reporting are interpreted as indicators of the language, values, and practices of male dominance.
The dimension of nationalism
Practices of communication, especially one which is on as large a scale as the media is, have the ability to predetermine how people think about phenomena. They sway the habits of people, for instance by determining norms and values of what is appropriate. These mould of thought then spread through the way people interact, and ultimately inform the rationality of institutions. To reiterate an aforementioned point, the media creates the ‘imagined communities’ of nations.
When sporting images themselves are heavily gendered, what are the implications of the ways in which masculinity reinforces nationalistic ideology and concomitantly normalizes discourses around the position and practices of women in sport and society?
Does the neglect of women within theorizations of the nation then transmit itself to other spheres of life?
Or, within sport itself, do issues such as women’s participation and male/female pay differentials reflect as a consequence of traditional representation of sport?
Sport is but one area in which forms of masculinity are played out, and is evocative of discourse that normalizes traditional forms of masculinity, while excluding other forms of masculinity and femininity. Being a powerful tool in fostering nationalism, it is through the media coverage of sport that otherness is continually being created.