Irrational. Hormonal. Not feminine enough. These phrases, demeaning and close-minded, are oftentimes used in the media to describe the athletic feats many female athletes accomplish within their careers. Where men are described as passionate and fierce, women are oftentimes boiled down to a simplistic, dramatized stereotype. The discriminatory double standards that female athletes face are pervasive from a high-school to a professional level.
May 18, 2020
One of the most memorable tennis matches in recent history, Serena Williams’ 2018 Open Match against Naomi Osaka, wasn’t the subject of mainstream media attention because the two women involved are some of the most talented and impressive women to ever play the sport. Nor was it heavily reported on because of the dramatic implications involved, the potential storyline behind William’s long-held crown being seized.
Instead, the New York Times published nearly a dozen different articles covering the penalties that Williams was awarded by umpire Carlos Ramos during the match. Many of the penalties seemed to be outrageous, or at the very least undeserved, and appeared to echo something Williams has fought back against throughout her entire career as a professional tennis player.
As a black woman who has seen immense success in her sport, whose prowess intimidates her opponents, she’s been typecast as an “angry black woman” whenever she shows anger on the court. Compare this to Steph Curry’s outburst in Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals when he hurled his mouthguard into the stands after fouling out of the game on a call he considered suspect. While criticism of Curry abounded — he was called unprofessional and a sore loser — no personal attacks on his character were made. He wasn’t subject to a barrage of criticism that was based squarely in gender roles, though Williams was.
For centuries, men and women have been prescribed a set of unspoken rules that they are intended to strictly adhere to. Society has created an expectation of what is allowed for each gender, giving women the short end of the stick in the realm of sports. Whether it’s regarding the uniforms, emotions, or even ideal body types, differing standards between genders continue to exist.
The differing public reactions towards athletes’ behaviors poses many questions. Why is it that if a woman cries she is considered irrational, hormonal, overreacting, or any number of disparaging remarks? Why does criticism lodged against the clothing of female athletes fall in one of two extremes? Either they should be skimpier, sexier, more womanly, or they should cover up. Men, conversely, are allowed to simply be athletes without being critiqued like fashion models or eye candy.
When a man shows his emotion on the court or field, he’s seen as powerful or passionate. Women, on the other hand, seem to be subject to incredible scrutiny. Nearly any expression of emotion from a female athlete is psychoanalyzed by media and fans alike.
Gabby Douglas has received criticism for everything from her hair not being straight enough to her perceived lack of sufficient enthusiasm when cheering on her teammates. When Megan Rapinoe became a vocal activist for equal pay for the US women’s soccer team, it wasn’t her argument that received attacks, it was her looks or sexuality — comments centered on how she doesn’t look enough “like a girl.” Because surely, a world champion should be focused on growing her hair out and painting her nails.
And the disparity is not something faced exclusively by professional female athletes. Aishvarya Bedi, a Saint Francis High School senior, started playing golf when she was five years old after taking inspiration from her father and older brother. The more she played, the more passionate she became, and found herself intensely loving the sport.
“It’s the way they talk to me,” Bedi said. “They don’t treat me as a golfer. They treat me as a female.”
At her country club, Bedi isn’t taken as seriously as she would like. She has even been stopped in the middle of her practice so that the boys have more room. She recounts the backhanded remarks she receives from people congratulating her on staying active instead of commenting on her formidable golf skills.
Her brother Rajvir Bedi, however, receives an entirely different reaction while playing the same sport. He has an easier time gaining respect from people and is never questioned on his decision to play.
Not only are they often questioned for wanting to compete, but women are usually discouraged from voicing their opinions in fear that they will be taken the wrong way and out of context.
“I do want to make a name for myself in golf, but I’m afraid if I talk back to these people they’re gonna take it as disrespect,” Bedi said. “I hate being scared to voice my opinions.”
Bedi has noticed this double standard prominently in the way that society responds to emotional outbursts from athletes of each sex. Where strong emotional reactions from men are seen as passionate outbursts, they are considered dramatic and unprofessional for women.
“I am 100 percent confident that if I were to voice my opinions on these matters everyone would take me as this emotional and overbearing person who loves to argue and [start] problems,” Bedi said. “If a male golfer was angry and hit his golf club on the ground, he is just trying to show his frustration. It’s OK. When a female golfer hits their club on the side of the putt it’s like we are too emotional.”
Annika Shah, a junior who has played basketball since kindergarten, agrees with Bedi’s statement, saying that she has directly experienced instances of gender discrimination as a female athlete. With experience playing on both male and female teams, it was not long before she could recognize the stark difference in treatment towards male and female athletes.
“Male athletes are often seen losing their temper and swearing and showing attitude towards the referee, and most of the time they get left with a warning,” Shah said. “Though, if a female were to show these expressions, it is more likely for them to receive a penalty.”
In Shah’s many years of playing basketball, she has noticed how the response given by referees to athletes varies. “My sophomore year of high school basketball, I went up for a layup and got hit in the head,” Shah said. “The referee seemed to have not seen it, so I decided to let them know after I attempted the layup, so they could be more aware of the fouls.”
Simply because she stood up for herself and explained her situation to the referees, Shah was given a technical foul which allowed the opposing team to obtain the ball, resulting in free throws.
“I do agree that I raised my voice, but it was almost ten times less than what some of the boys do during their games when they disagree with a call,” Shah said. “I was furious because it felt unfair.”
Shah continues to advocate for equality in sports and to redefine what it means to be a female athlete. Throughout her basketball journey, she has not let society influence her decision to play traditionally masculine sports like basketball.
“Most sports played are male dominated due to the history of the sport, and yes, we can’t change history, but we can change the present,” Shah said. “I think people just need to understand that women are competitors like men. We are passionate about our sport and we should be allowed to show our emotions just like men.”
At the end of the day, female athletes seek the same amount of respect, gratitude and forgiveness men get on their fields.
“It’s OK if you are not a fan of women’s sports, but [it’s not OK] to be blatantly disrespectful to those that sacrifice their body and time to go professional, or even if they aren’t, it’s something they put their heart and soul into,” said Aurea Gingras, a D1 basketball player at George Washington University.
Serena Williams throwing her racket on the floor was just an introduction. It’s time the media delves deeper and realizes that the problem is much bigger than the unfair treatment seen in that match. No longer can we hide behind the excuse that “boys will be boys,” while holding women — just as passionate, just as competitive, just as spirited — to different standards.
“I don’t want to be seen through a gender perspective,” Bedi said. “I want to be seen as an athlete.”