Wimbledon and the Male Gaze

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The objectification of women is almost ubiquitous in sport. In the Womens’ Final, Eugenie Bouchard captured the hearts (and eyes) of the British public and acquired the title of ‘Princess Eugenie’. She has been labelled ‘the new Sharapova’, but the comparison is not so much a reference to their age (Sharapova won Wimbledon when she was 17, Bouchard is 20), as a reference to the fact that they are both ‘leggy-blondes’ with ‘marketability’ and an ice-cold exterior that betrays little emotion. But the love affair was to no avail as Kvitova thrashed Bouchard 6-3, 6-0 in a breathtaking 55 minutes. The media’s portrayal of this battle between ‘youth’ and ‘experience’ (Kvitova is 24), ‘beauty’ and ‘beast’ was not only grossly inaccurate, but symbolic of the media’s tendency to cast women according to convenient labels. ‘Princess Eugenie’ became the heroine whose Pyrrhic journey to reach the final was ended brutally by the ruthless Kvitova. The Daily Mail described Kvitova’s tennis as “terrifyingly” good, which“zapped the belief of the talented 20-year-old”; by figuring Kvitova as a ‘masculine’ player, the celebration of her dazzling success was hedged by a faintly resentful tone in the media.

It could be argued that the media’s love for Eugenie arose out of the British obsession with the underdog. But there is much more to it than that. Bouchard’s ‘marketability’ lies not only in her looks but the fact that she plays the media game. As Sasu Laaksonen powerfully puts it: “Surely I’m not the only one who’s fed up with Bouchard-fawning that is rife in the media and SW19…For all her supposed personality, she’s effectively a Nike-controlled puppet who speaks in carefully calculated marketing slogans.” A string of Daily Mail captions depict her firstly as a sex object, secondly as a rather good tennis player: ‘Stunning Eugenie Bouchard dazzles during Sportsmail photo shoot’; ‘Showing her fun side: Eugenie Bouchard shared this snap of her and her twin sister, Beatrice, in a sexy police officer outfit’. She was even asked in an interview which celebrity she would like to go on a date with, her response being ‘Justin Bieber’. Would Murray, Federer or Djokovic ever had to answer this question? Although the same forces of ‘marketability’ apply in the Mens’ Championship, they portray the players as marketable subjects rather than marketable objects.

The media gets its ‘objectification fix’ in the Mens’ Final not from the men themselves but from their girlfriends/wives. How many close-up shots of Kim Sears (Andy Murray’s girlfriend) or Mirka Federer do we really need? Lots apparently, a fact that infuriated Kim Sears so much that she threw a hat over a close-up camera at the Australian Open. By contrast, how many close-up shots of female players’ boyfriends/husbands have there been? I can’t name a single partner of any of the female tennis stars. This is the unsurprising result of the media’s assumption that it is not only legitimate, but inevitable, that women in the public eye, or even women associated with men in the public eye, must be exposed to more scrutiny and public objectification.

If you’re thinking that ‘objectification’ is too strong a word to use in relation to the idyllic courts of Wimbledon, think again. These women are not depicted by the media as subjects, but as objects – reflections of their male counterparts or reflections of an idealized paradigm of unattainable beauty. When was the last time you saw media coverage of Kate Middleton actually speaking – not smiling at her husband or cradling a baby or laughing or watching a Wimbledon final from the Royal Box, but expressing herself as an individual?

This phenomenon is not restricted to the tabloid press: a Telegraph article from 7th July criticized Victoria Beckham for her failure to smile during the Mens’ Final. The irony is that the reason posited by the article itself for Victoria’s emotionless pout was a crippling concern about her self-conscious public image, the very thing that this type of article will exacerbate.

So it appears that the media likes a woman to be calm and collected, even mute (certainly not outspoken). But failure to show sufficient emotion to warrant acknowledgement as a human being is equally subject to public condemnation. Can we ever win?

Of course we can’t. The modern ‘whore-virgin’ dichotomy permeates every aspect of the media’s portrayal of women. We are either too fat or too thin, too pale or too tanned, too emotional or too cold.

Why does this critical lens apply to centre-stage women and not to centre-stage men? The answer is as simple as it is remediable. It lies in the media’s role as director of perception. Men are viewed by the media primarily through the lens of ability as a subject. A subsidiary lens of ‘heartthrob’ may apply, but it is optional. Women are viewed primarily through the lens of eligibility as a sexual object, with ability as an optional add-on. It’s time for a change in perspective.

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