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    Athletics and aesthetics – how the media is sexualising athletes

    Maddie Hooper reflects on the sometimes voyeuristic nature of the filming of the Olympics and how the camera can objectify the subject.

    In 2018, the International Olympic Committee published a set of guidelines addressing the media coverage of the competitors, with the end goal of ‘setting the  tone as to how women and girls in sports…can and should be…portrayed’ – in other words, attempting to knock back the sleaze that hangs around media coverage of elite athletes like a bad smell . It’s well known that sexism in media sports coverage is rife – during the 2012 London Olympics, for example, our own dear Prime Minister (then Mayor) wrote of the female volleyball players ‘glistening like wet otters’ in his Telegraph column and during the Games the same athletes often appear in multi-page tabloid spreads that usually fail to feature a single wide-shot set or spike, focusing instead on close-up shots of the female athletes’ bodies.

    So how did they try to tackle the problem ?  In amongst the standard stipulation of clunkily squeaky-clean terms like ‘sportsperson’, and advice not to ask female athletes if their husband is proud of them came the section that seemed designed to tackle the more overt manifestations of sexism head-on, largely by advising ‘camera operators’ against certain angles. Specifically : the crotch shot’, ‘tight facial framing’ and ‘the ‘reveal’ shot from foot to head to depict aesthetics rather than athleticism ’. Whilst you might think we ought to give the IOC credit for trying to take action against the problem of athlete sexualisation – though, as the IOC has no actual control over the media outlets responsible for the filming/photographing of its events, recommendations, rather than rules, are about as much as it can do – the filming rules in particular are ones which made me wonder about the assumed link between aesthetics and sexualisation. That sexualisation is an unfortunate fate of many Olympic athletes, particularly in media coverage, seems somewhat inevitable– but how do aesthetics play into that? Ought we to blame viewers, or the camera operators ? And what really is the best way to ensure coverage that shows the competitors as athletes rather than objects ?

    Take two of the three types of shot the guidelines advise against, which – crotch shot self-explanatorily to the side – you could easily argue to not really be all that inherently sexualising. Varied camera angles and the usage of both close-up and wide shots is a crucial part of the camera-crew and editors’ roles, as it helps add interest to whatever’s being filmed, heightening emotion and building tension. The pan-up could simply emphasize the sheer physical athleticism of the Olympian shown ; the facial close-up might be used to show concentration or to emphasize the pre-event tension between competing athletes. Whilst the IOC obviously has a responsibility to ensure respectful representation of the athletes performing under its umbrella, it’s not hard to wonder whether the blame for the sexualisation of athletes ought really to be placed upon the spectators themselves. In an ideal world, the Olympians themselves would not be inherently sexual objects, and film-crews would be able to do their jobs safe in the knowledge that audiences would merely admire the athletes as examples of peak sporting physicality.

    Sadly, we live in a society that has a tendency to portray both muscularity and tight clothing (almost ubiquitous at the Olympics) as sexual so often that the qualities have almost become embedded within each other, which can make it alarmingly easy to objectify athletes – even unconsciously. So, is it really fair to put the blame on the camera-crews?  Wouldn’t it just be easier to allow them to use their own judgment when certain angles or shots are appropriate for the atmosphere they’re trying to build ?

    Trouble is, the device of the camera itself is one which creates an uneven power dynamic between the viewer and the camera’s subject. In her 1975 essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, the British film theorist Laura Mulvey argued that the dynamic created by a film camera between its object and the spectator is one based upon scopophilia, a Freudian concept referring to the pleasure to be gained by watching someone and by being watched. While the underpinning Freudian theoryis typically convoluted, the basic idea that film engenders a voyeuristic, unequal ‘gaze’ due to the fact that the subject cannot engage with the viewer is one that highlights the vulnerability of the athlete facing a lens, as they become an object to be viewed. Not an inherently sexual one, to be sure, but perhaps one that is easier to sexualise than they would be if seen in person. The objectifying role of the camera is also increased by the long tradition of its use specifically to sexualise its subject, and camera angles are a major part of this. Take the angles mentioned by the IOC – whilst non-sexual in themselves, the pan-up and the facial framing are so often used within everyday television and cinema to create or emphasize the audience’s perception of a character as a sexual object that their usage might easily trigger the viewer to sexualise an athlete upon which they were used (think Pavlov).

    In light of this, it’s quite interesting to note that the guidelines only specifically address the ‘crotch shot’, making no mention at all of other such angles which focus on a specific area of an athlete’s body. In a way, it’s sad that  the IOC even had to address it at all, as it’s hard to think of any conceivable way anyone would think a ‘crotch shot’ would be appropriate in their coverage of an event, and yet there is clearly some sort of precedent the committee felt the need to address. More cynically, I wonder if the reason it was included was because it’s the easiest close-up type shot to blanket ban – exactly because it’s so completely unjustifiable. Coverage of women’s beach volleyball, for example, typically features close-up shots of the players from behind – to allow the viewers to see the hand-signals players use to signal strategy to their team. If you’ve ever watched one of the matches, though, there is definitely something uncomfortable about these shots, even if the camera never lingers longer than it ought – when all is said and done, they’re essentially extended close-ups of the player’s backsides, especially because your average viewer definitely isn’t going to understand the hand-signals.

    Through the lens of Mulvey’s theory, such angles are objectifying above all others, as they reduce the subject to a body part in a way that is quite uniquely dehumanising, as the subject more or less becomes the body part – a physical object. They also stand as proof of the power the camera can hold as a tool of objectification and sexualisation. Sure, you (and I mean ‘you’ in the more general sense) as a live spectator could choose to zero in on an athlete’s bum, but it wouldn’t be as total as the image you’d see on a screen created by a camera-person doing the same thing. Human eyes don’t have a zoom function, so the athlete would still be wholly within your field of vision, whilst through a camera the athlete can be totally (if only briefly) reduced to the body part the camera zooms in on, as it’s all that can be seen on the screen for however long the shot is shown . Whilst, at the end of the day, it may really be the viewer’s prerogative to then sexualise the athlete shown, it’s clear that not only the simple act of filming but the way it’s undertaken play a massive role in this process – so, really, the guidelines are a good start. They may only scratch the surface of the issue of the sexualisation of athletes on camera, but, by acknowledging the issue highlight it in a way that ought to help the camera-crews be more aware of the implications of certain choices.

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