Deakin intern Felicity Smith takes a closer look at the gendered framing of women’s sport after Austrian rock climber Johanna Färber was shot inappropriately, again.
While competing at the Women’s semi-final in Moscow this year, a lingering shot of Austrian rock climber Johanna Färber’s behind was broadcast live across the world, as well as in slow motion. Färber, an accomplished athlete, has been competing ever since the 2014 World Youth Championships and is a seasoned sport climbing competitor. She’s competed in 9 World Cups and 3 World Championships since 2018, but alas, there was seemingly something more important for the broadcasters to focus on.
The aim of the shot was reportedly to show the chalky handprint on the back of her climbing shorts, which still poses the question—why is a chalky handprint on shorts, a common occurrence in rock climbing, a relevant focal point for the broadcast during Färber’s precious competition time? We unfortunately know the answer. Because of where it was on a woman’s body.
Having a zoomed-in picture of your behind showcased live and in slow-motion just once is bad enough, however, and horrifyingly, this was the second time this year that Färber has undergone objectification at the hands of a broadcasting team. The first instance of this happened in June in Innsbruck, Austria while Färber was competing in the Sport Climbing World Cup.
Färber has expressed her discomfort, stating she was both embarrassed and disheartened at the thought of competing again. After this statement, Färber deactivated her social media accounts, and is yet to make further comment. It’s heartbreaking to see the impacts of this kind of objectification and think that Färber might be driven from competing in the sport she loves.
The International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) has, once again, issued an apology to Färber. The IFSC stated it, ‘condemns the objectification of the human body and will take further action in order to stop, and to protect the athletes’. Although this is a strong statement and it’s pleasing to see the sport acknowledge the serious nature of this issue, there is still ambiguity over the actions needed to prevent broadcasters and photographers, who are often independent contractors, from making their own creative and editorial choices that sexualise athletes. Who will hold them accountable if this happens again?
The IFSC’s President, Marco Scolaris, also shared his thoughts saying, ‘how many times will things have to be done wrong, before we learn how to do them right?’. How Scolaris references this moment however, makes it come across as if it were the repetition of a bumbling mistake. It is a mistake, but it goes beyond that, this is an ingrained action in the overall media representation of women. It is not an outlier, it is damaging and learned behaviour that frequently occurs when it comes to framing women.
We have seen sporting organisations begin to address the power and responsibility they have as part of the conversation around media coverage. The International Olympic Committee released Portrayal Guidelines for Gender Balanced Representation in an effort to combat sexism within the media. The guidelines were created as a direct result of Recommendation 12 of the 2018 IOC Gender Equality Review Project – to provide balanced media portrayal of both genders. These guidelines work as a loose and overt guide by including [hopefully] obvious advice such as ‘do not focus on crotch shots’, and encouraging screen time to be based on athletic performance, and not physical appearance. This is a start, but it fails to elaborate on the need to unlearn ingrained and sexist media techniques that are often used when the camera is pointed towards women.
The way athletes are framed in the media sets up how the viewer will engage with them and can drive long standing perceptions of the value of women. A study of the camera angles used to show the women’s volleyball at the 2004 summer Olympics found significantly more tight shots of the players chests and buttocks. It was argued by the researcher that this technique gave viewers more memory of the players’ bodies, rather than their athleticism.
And this framing goes beyond sport. Film director Nina Menkes says that framing a body part as a specific focal point is a camera shot often used to objectify women. It is included in ‘The Menkes List’— a collection of repeated film techniques that appear consistently and all promote the visual disempowerment of women on screen. Menkes created this list by studying films from A-list directors, starting at the 1940’s, building on the work done by Laura Mulvey on the role of the male gaze in film, and continuing on to modern day, the Menkes List’s aim is to communicate how shots are gendered.
This work shows us that these perceptions of women are already ingrained in how films are shot and are pervasive in popular culture, so it creates another level of objectification and sexualisation when they’re mirrored on professional athletes who are not only performing, but performing in live action competition. Especially when there are stark creative differences when filming different genders—which also creates arbitrary categories and subtly enforces gender binaries.
What are we there to watch?
In the 2018 World Athletics Championships in Doha, women sprinters were outraged when starting block cameras were introduced. The intention behind the cameras was to provide a ‘unique insight’ into the beginning of a race. However, having athletes stand over an upwards pointing camera was rightfully criticised for being invasive and uncomfortable. German sprinter, Gina Luckenkemper, shared her opinion on the cameras.
“As a woman, I find that quite stupid… I would doubt that a woman was part of the development of that [the cameras].”
Luckenkemper raises an important point. Just exactly who is making these decisions? And would there be more accurate representation if media teams were more diverse?
Sports photographer and skateboarder Alana Paterson thinks so. In this Wired article detailing her work photographing college hockey players, Paterson expresses the need to give more accurate visibility to women in sport. In another article addressing the underrepresentation of women in sports media teams, Paterson shares how she represents the whole story when capturing women athletes.
“I remove the idea that their body serves anyone other than themselves and their goals”, stating that after this it becomes “pretty straightforward.”
Related: We have created a survey to help us determine the specific needs of emerging women and non-binary sports photographers who are looking to progress their career. Fill it in here.
It is the role of a broadcaster to create and sustain interest through creative choices, but it is also their job to sustain a narrative. If there is an insistence on focusing on not just the aesthetics of a body, but actively sexualising them, rather than focussing on the athleticism produced, that detracts from the overall competitive and fast paced narrative of sport.
A study comparing the broadcasts of women’s and men’s championship basketball games concluded that the women’s games included less graphics, longer camera shots, and less overall variation in the types of camera shots. In conclusion, the women’s games lacked a richness of media choice, causing them to come across as more ‘slow paced’. The media choice in the men’s games prioritised action, with quicker cuts, more replays, and a greater focus on tracking game play, rather than specific players.
Another visual analysis of media techniques found that men’s track and field coverage during the 2004 Olympics was more ‘visually exciting’. The analysis hypothesised that the quick more action-style nature of the coverage reinforced men as a ‘symbolic authority in sport’ and questioned whether these differences in coverage enforced the idea that women’s sport was ‘naturally less exciting’.
The common rebuttal here is that an athlete’s performance is the focus, and therefore the level of engagement comes from them. But if that is true, imagine watching a badly-cut action movie. What if the camera shots chosen to represent a fight scene were just zoomed in pictures of a character’s legs or arms? If instead of showing the action, the camera focused on the intricacies of a character’s outfit? Or if the soundtrack had nothing to do with the scene that was playing out?
Menkes expands on her ideas in an interview titled ‘Visual Pleasure for Whom?’ around how women are often relegated to ‘the object’ that they’re “primarily seen for existing for the gratification of others, who are men, and their/our physical attributes are the key qualities of interest”.
Simply being seen isn’t progress. Women in sport deserve to have their performances cut together like a good action movie. They need to be granted the depth and celebration they deserve through a diverse and understanding media that won’t just zoom in on a chalky handprint.