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Women in sport and social media: Empowering and oppressive

It’s a topic that regularly rises back to the surface, returning contributor Emily Patterson details the complex relationship women in sport have with social media.

Monique Conti is one of many dual-code athletes competing in elite women's sports in Australia. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line
Monique Conti is one of many dual-code athletes competing in elite women’s sports in Australia. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line

Social media provides an opportunity for sportswomen to engage in self-representation, by presenting images and narratives of their choosing. However, this same exposure also allows members of the public to critique and ridicule sporting women online with little consequence.

Be it female athletes, coaches, umpires or sports journalists, women in sport are subjected to far more discriminatory and abusive comments online than their male counterparts.

From tweets that focus on the way a female competitor looks rather than her athletic ability to Facebook discussions that rubbish women’s sport, women in the industry have seen it all.

According to Dr Chelsea Litchfield, Senior Lecturer and Associate Head of Charles Sturt University’s School of Exercise Science, Sport and Health, some social media users still expect female athletes to look a certain way.

“I recently saw an image of Melbourne [AFL Women’s] player Karen Paxman posted on the AFLW Facebook page,” she said. Due to her hair cut—she was sporting a mullet—her gender identity was questioned, and she was accused of being a ‘bloke’ or imposter in women’s sports.”

This example, along with the countless others available on the internet, puts needless pressure on sportswomen to conform to traditional ideas around feminine body image. This can be extremely damaging as it “doesn’t allow for diverse looks and characters in sporting competitions,” said Litchfield. 

Related—Criticism is important, but only the right kind

However, there has been a shift in social commentary and fan interaction around women’s sport of late. It appears sportswomen are finding their voices, resulting in more pushback against critique and abuse directed at themselves, their sport and their peers.

“Some female athletes are calling this behaviour out and similarly, other sports fans appear to also call out more regularly those who abuse others,” said Litchfield.

As the profiles of sportswomen continue to rise online, fans too are increasingly providing greater levels of protection against internet trolls. This is apparent as the followings of social media accounts managed by sporting women grow strong enough to self-moderate posts and champion women’s sport if provoked.

Sam Kerr celebrates a teammates' goal. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line
Sam Kerr celebrates a teammates’ goal. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line

Utilising bystander interaction to address and respond to negative gendered comments was similarly highlighted in Plan International Australia’s snapshot analysis of social media commentary of sportswomen and sportsmen.  

In the study, social media users were observed correcting inaccurate negative comments, banding together in the face of trolls, reporting offenders to page owners and disregarding negative comments to diminish their public attention. 

Former campaigns manager at Plan International Australia (at the time when the 2019 report was being compiled), Holly Crocket, said that while sexist and horrible comments still eventuate and have an effect today, there has been a significant improvement on some sports media sites. 

“Particularly on some of the AFLW pages where you get the same kind of trolling in 2021 [as we saw back in 2019] around ‘oh this is so boring’ or ‘women’s football is so shit’, or any of those kinds of comments that we referenced in the paper. You now see a lot of other people defending [sporting] women and not only that, but you also see a lot of comments that are really just talking about the game,” she said. 

This is a direct result of people becoming “less tolerant” of these sorts of negative comments, said Crocket. As well as growing, more galvanised women’s sport communities. An example of such was recently seen as the online netball community flocked to support English international and GIANTS Netball captain Jo Harten, after she revealed that her Instagram account was besieged with vile messages following her side’s Round 5 after the siren loss to the West Coast Fever.

“It’s all about shutting down spaces,” Crocket believes. “I find it’s about telling women they don’t belong and excluding them or making them feel like if they want to participate [on social media] then they should expect that this is the kind of ridicule that they are going to get,” she said. “That then leads to women and girls self-selecting out of putting themselves in those public positions because they don’t want to attract that trolling.”

The research conducted by Plan International Australia was inspired by public reaction to the infamous Tayla Harris ‘The Kick’ photo and the subsequent vitriol Harris received.

In 2019, an image of professional boxer and former Carlton AFL Women’s star, Tayla Harris, pictured outstretched, kicking for goal, went viral after it was posted to the Seven Network’s 7AFL social media accounts. The posts immediately snowballed with online abuse and physical threats, causing the Seven Network to controversially remove the photo from their platforms. 

Marni Olsson-Young, Digital Marketing Coordinator at the Carlton Football Club, said that the biggest issue at the time was 7AFL’s response. 

“Once they started receiving those [abusive] comments, they took the photo down and that was the overwhelmingly negative thing because it then became ‘well it’s not Tayla Harris’ fault’ and ‘it’s not the photographer’s fault’ because this is a great photo, it’s the way it’s been viewed by this select group of people,” she said. 

Tayla Harris kicks for goal in her signature style. Image: She Scores
Tayla Harris kicks for goal in her signature style. Image: She Scores

“At the club, the overwhelming sense of it was, we need to still promote this photo and promote Tayla Harris to pushback against deleting the photo and show that we as a club think this photo’s incredible and we think Tayla Harris is incredible and we’re going to continue sharing her widely and supporting her.”

Olsson-Young also spoke of how Carlton transitioned from conjoined to separate social media accounts to better serve both their men’s and women’s football teams.

“There’s not a lot of benefit in pushing out AFLW content to your existing audience, even if it’s massive, because if the vast majority of those people aren’t interested in women’s sport it’s going to get torn to shreds,” she said. “You’re better off growing an audience that could one day be at that same size of people [as your existing men’s team audience], who are genuinely seeking out that content.” 

The movement since the Tayla Harris ‘The Kick’ photo shows just how far women in sport, fans and sports organisations have come in calling attention to negative gendered comments, but the ongoing issue of inconsequential online abuse continues to plague women’s sport. We need more research, action and governance to continue to drive this change, so the responsibility doesn’t continue to fall to those at the receiving end of this horrific trend in targeting women online.

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