Do real women play sports in their skivvies?

It’s like a headline from The Onion or some dystopian novel: “Nation to support women’s professional sports…if performed in panties.” For gosh golly sakes the league is even called the Lingerie Football League. And the team names? Temptation, Seduction, Fantasy, Desire…etc. We appear to have reached the point in which sexism is so tolerable in the sport realm that the powers that be (i.e. league/team owners and sport media) don’t even attempt to mask it anymore.

I first heard of the LFL over a year ago. I was very unimpressed but figured, wrongly, that the league would not expand further than a small handful of American teams. I thought, surely there is no substantial market of sports enthusiasts that would publicly support this porn/football hybrid.  Nearly naked women with close to model ‘perfect’ bodies playing a tackle sport on turf not only is degrading for the athletes but makes a mockery of a serious sport. It seemed too obvious to even blog about! However, the latest news is that Toronto, beloved city of my childhood, will be the first Canadian city to be “gifted” with an LFL team.  What the dealio?

Why sexual exploitation in women’s sports keeps happening:
- One of the age old power differences (perceived and real) between men and women is the superiority of physical strength in men
- Due to the above, elite female athletes consistently occupy a revolutionary space – they prove that women are strong, fast, agile and at times can match male athletes. In other words, they are constantly myth-busting the everlasting stereotype that women are the weaker sex.
- Yes, this stereotype is still wildly accepted. I could write an entire blog listing just my personal experiences on the subject and I’m an able bodied, athletic young woman.

So, in the answer to the question of why :
The easiest way to bring female athletes back to an inferior status is a big fat reminder that she’s a WOMAN before she’s an athlete. And what is a woman? someone who is emotional, a wife (of a man), a mother, a sex object.

This can manifest in subtle ways.  I did an undergraduate project on newspaper sport coverage of women’s sport a few years ago. What we discovered (besides the staggering lack of coverage of women’s sports) was that in almost every article featuring a female athlete the focus would be drawn to her “womanliness.” Examples: women athletes were far more likely to be photographed crying or have unnecessary mentions of their husbands, male coaches, or children.

Not so subtle ways would be the LFL. And, Serena Williams dressing up in a tiny leather outfit, gyrating to a moaning soundtrack, in order to sell a tennis video game (the video was actually banned from TV but you can watch it here – it’s so ridiculous).

What makes this issue so complex is the inevitable element of women “exploiting themselves.” The LFL players will argue that the league is empowering because they are real athletes that can be tough on the field – in addition to being sexy. Serena Williams, herself, chose to wear a pink lycra cat suit to tennis practice. I know that’s a favourite tennis outfit in my wardrobe.  There are countless more examples.

I just wanted to wrap this up with a note on marketing.  A good friend of mine reminded me the other day that marketers don’t just respond to the interests of the public; they create them. The most widespread argument against the development and support of women’s professional sports is that it is just not as interesting as men’s sports (unless the athletes are models in underwear).  When there is either no coverage of women’s sports or TONS of coverage of Maria Sharapova’s ass, the public will continue to not take it seriously.

Some positive movement to counterbalance the monolith of sexist sport coverage is the growing popularity of roller derby.  The best leagues (unfortunately some do have a resemblance to the LFL) encourage women of all sizes, backgrounds and ages to join. And, guess what!? The fans love it. Especially the female fans. Because most sports fans, at their core, want to see heart. Not thongs.

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