Beyond the Field: Decoding Language Differences in Men’s and Women’s Sports

14 February 2024

Throughout the past century, women in sports have faced an uphill battle trying to prove themselves as strong and successful athletes. The stereotype that females are “weak” and “unathletic” has plagued public perception of female athletes.  The media has perpetuated this narrative by focusing on women’s appearance, rather than their physical abilities in their respective sports. It has become commonplace for the main focus of a reporter’s questions to be on a woman’s body. On the contrary, male athletes are given the respect of only being asked about their professional careers in interviews. Why do we as a society respect men’s boundaries but not women? 

In the 2015 Australian Open, moments after Canadian tennis star Eugenie Bouchard advanced to the third round of the tournament, reporter Ian Cohen asked her if she could “twirl” to show off her outfit. In 2017 after a performance on the American dance competition series, “Dancing With the Stars” ” Olympic gymnast Simone Biles was asked why she didn’t “smile at the compliments” she received from judges. She responded firmly, “Smiling doesn’t win you gold medals.” After the Brazil women’s football team beat Cameroon in the 2012 London Olympics, Cameroon coach Enow Ngach said that the Brazilian players “look a bit heavy” and “that might be a problem” for them in the future.

These are just a few instances of thousands where people have thought that it is ok to focus on women’s bodies, outfits, or personalities instead of their athletic abilities. Comments like these perpetuate this idea that women’s sports aren’t serious and discount an athlete’s achievements. A male athlete would never be subjected to questions and comments like this, because why would they? How an athlete looks has virtually nothing to do with their athletic ability, yet we allow women to be subjected to the idea that their body is the only thing that matters. When the first question being asked after a massive victory is about a woman’s body, it further supports the narrative that women’s sports are insignificant and superficial. After Bouchard was asked to twirl, she said she was fine with being asked questions like these, as long as commentators treated men and women like equals. 

Women across the world are not only criticized for their bodies but also for their personalities. Society expects women to behave like the “perfect woman”. Society defines a perfect woman as someone who puts others’ needs above her own, is always pleased, and takes what comes her way without complaint. When a woman acts out and expresses different emotions than the ones society has deemed fit, they are unfairly chastised. 

In the 2018 U.S. Open Final, Serena Williams received three code violations after she was accused of cheating in her match. She was later fined €16,000 for breaking her racket and “verbally abusing” the umpire after expressing her frustration with the calls. In a post-match interview, Williams expressed her frustration with the call when she said: 

“I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and that wants to express themselves and they want to be a strong woman and they’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s gonna work out for the next person.” 

Williams felt she was being penalized for standing up for herself, while men routinely get vocal and advocate for themselves, yet are rarely punished. A prime example of this was in 2016 when British tennis player Andy Murray kicked a ball at an umpire out of frustration during the Western and Southern Open and was never penalized. In the 2009 U.S. Open, Roger Federer berated his umpire by repeatedly yelling at him “Don’t [expletive] talk to me, don’t tell me when to be quiet, okay? When I want to talk, I’ll talk.” Federer was only fined €1400. When men express their feelings, they are seen as strong and ambitious. When a woman expresses hers, she is seen as spiteful. As Taylor Swift said in a 2019 interview,  “A man is allowed to react, a woman can only overreact.”

When reporters only ask women about their bodies, they miss the bigger stories of triumphs, tribulations, and every other topic that society grants men the privilege to talk about. For women to feel valued as hard-working athletes, we must stop tying athletes’ performances to their physical appearance.