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Sports media have been criticized for marginalizing and excluding female athletes in many sports that are traditionally considered male-appropriate. However, sports scholars have touted running as a "uniquely egalitarian" and "gender-neutral" sport, making it a candidate for better coverage of women. This research examines all editorial photo images in Runner's World during 1992, 1993, 1996, and 2001 to assess whether photographic images provided equitable coverage of women in ways that rejected sexual difference, a frame used to promote male hegemony in U.S. culture. The magazine, the leading running title in the United States, was found to provide adequate overall percentages of women in its photos but also to reinforce notions of sexual difference in the ways that it presented female runners.
High school girls' track coach Ruth Conniff, in an essay titled "Awesome women in sports," writes that she often looks for magazine photos to pin up on the bulletin board in the basement locker room at her high school (Conniff, 1999). "My hope is that it will reflect a picture to the girls who walk by it of energy and optimism and strength," she writes (p. 52).
But she continues about the photos: "They're not as easy to find as I thought" (Conniff, 1999, p. 52). Too many publications relegate women mostly to the "leotard-clad rear end," presenting them as nothing more than "faceless fragments" (p. 53). But another magazine, Runner's World, offers more, Conniff writes, "Running magazines are clearly the best place to find the pictures I want. Running is a uniquely egalitarian sport. Female runners get coverage that is almost as good as men's" (Conniff, 1999, p. 54).
What Conniff writes may be considered conventional wisdom. Women are mostly absent from newspaper sports sections (except for Olympics), general-interest sports magazines, and television sports programming (Eastman & Billings, 2000; Shugart, 2003; Pedersen, 2003). Even sport magazines aimed at women (such as Women's Sports & Fitness, published during the late 1990s) focus on traditional femininity that de-emphasizes the "athlete" in female athlete (Hardin, Lynn, & Walsdorf, 2005; Schell, 1999). The marginalization of women in mainstream media is one way to reinforce the hegemonic notion that females are "sexually different"--that is, "naturally" less interested in and suited for sport than men (Cuneen & Sidwell, 1998; Hardin, Lynn, Walsdorf, & Hardin, 2002; Hardin et al., 2005).
Even at first glance, Runner's World (hereafter referred to as RW), the largest-circulation running magazine in the U.S., looks different. A flip through the magazine's pages reveals photos of women, and in some, they run side-by-side with men. Perhaps one reason for the (presumed) egalitarian coverage is because of the nature of the sport. Running is an individual, non-contact sport that does not involve athletic qualities traditionally considered "mannish" (such as strength); running also doesn't involve the heavy "aesthetic" element of some sports associated with women, such as figure skating. Running has not been branded as a "gendered" sport as have other activities such as football, baseball, wrestling, boxing, and hockey (male), or synchronized swimming, figure skating, gymnastics, or cheerleading (female), but instead as a "neutral" sport (Pedersen, 2003).
Runner's World, launched during the late 1960s, has a circulation of about 500,000 each month ("Revamped," 2004). RW claims a total readership of more than two million: 57.7 percent male, 42.3 percent female, mostly married and with a median age of 36 years old (RW media kit, 2002). That compares to a general running population that is 53 percent male, 47 percent female, with an average age of 27 (Demographics, 2001). According to research by American Sports Data, the percentage of women runners was 45 percent during the late 1990s (Demographics, 2001). According to USA Track & Field Chief Executive Officer Craig Masback, women compose 50 percent of the 39 million runners in the United States today (Masback, 2005).
Runner's World often runs features and special sections aimed at its female audience and touts running as a sport that has been "fair" to women (Editors, 2002, p. 74). In an interview during 2002, RW senior editor Eileen Portz-Shovlin said the magazine's editors were aware that women's running was growing and wanted to cater to that audience (Portz-Shovlin, 2002). A 2002 editorial in the magazine encouraged women to run because "Oprah runs" (Editors, 2002, p. 73). The editorial, with a tone that could be interpreted as sexist, went on to frame running as an egalitarian sport for women: "[Running] embraced them long before Title IX came on the scene ... Heck, the guys were happy to be surrounded by women in shorts. This receptiveness has encouraged tens of millions of women to begin running" (Editors, 2002, p. 74).
Self-promotion aside, the true receptiveness of RW to the role of women as equals to men in terms of their running potential has not been adequately explored. Formal research involving media coverage of running, a gender-neutral, participatory sport, is scant. Just one study that examines RW content exists; that research, an analysis of two issues of the magazine, was published almost 25 years ago (Bryant, 1980).
Hegemony, the Sports/Media Complex, and Sexual Difference
Hegemony is the idea that a capitalist culture's most powerful economic groups retain their leadership through the use of ideological and political "norms" (Condit, 1994; Croteau & Hoynes, 2000; Holtzman, 2000). Social structures and relationships that help the powerful and disadvantage others are presented as "natural." Mass media are key to cultural hegemony in the United States (Croteau & Hoynes, 2000; Holtzman, 2000).
Mass media and sport are linked in what has been characterized as a "symbiotic relationship. These two institutions rely on each other--mass media sell sport and sport sells the mass media" (Pedersen, 2002, p. 304). The relationship is so interdependent that Jhally labeled it the "sports/media complex" (Jhally, 1989). Media reinforce cultural hegemony in depiction of sport by promoting cultural ideals about supremacy of the (White) male body as natural. Through sport, individuals …