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Language, gender, and sport

Language, Gender, and Sport: A Review
of the Research Literature
Jeffrey O. Segrave, Katherine L. McDowell,
and James G. King III
One of the recent successes of the feminist agenda has been to show
that organized sport serves as a powerful cultural arena for constructing
and perpetuating the ideology and practice of male privilege and
dominance, sport assuming a profound role in the production and
maintenance of male hegemony, contributing to historical patterns of
male empowerment and female disadvantage. Women’s sport is often
trivialized and marginalized, and female athletes themselves frequently
stereotyped as feminized women rather than competitive athletes.
One of the mechanisms that tends to inferiorize women in general
is language, a critical component of the social scaffolding upon which
unequal gender relations are erected and perpetuated. The language
of sport in particular can contribute to their cultural devaluation. The
purpose of this paper is to review and categorize research on the
language of sport and gender, offering a sociolinguistics describing
differences in the ways in which many different people speak differently
about men’s and women’s sport and male and female athletes, and the
ways in which all sorts of people differentially use the language of sport
in a wide variety of social contexts.
The Language of Sport
Among the many linguistic conventions contributing to the cultural
devaluation of women in sport may be included masculine generics,
L. K. Fuller (ed.), Sport, Rhetoric, and Gender
© Linda K. Fuller 2006
gender marking, naming practices, descriptive linguistics, the metaphorical language of sport, the language of sport in cultural discourses, and
subcultural language.
Masculine Generics
The use of the masculine generic involves the linguistic presumption
of maleness, a referent both to males and, generically, to all human
beings. In their content analysis of 16 televised men’s and women’s
college basketball games, Blinde, Greendorfer, and Shanker (1991,
p.105), for example, found that one of the major differences in the
verbal commentaries that accompanied the games was the constant
use of male terminology inappropriately applied to the women’s games:
“Women athletes were called ‘defensemen,’ and well-coordinated
teams possessed a ‘workmanlike’ orientation.”
Gender Marking
Another way in which women’s sport is linguistically minimized and
inferiorized is through the process of asymmetrical gender marking, a
process in linguistic terms whereby the male is characterized as an
unmarked category and the female as a marked one. By consistently
defining and identifying women’s athletic events as “women’s” athletic
events while men’s athletic events are defined as simply athletic events,
women are marked and identified as “other” and men as the norm, the
universal. As Messner, Duncan, and Jensen (1993, p.127) note, gender
marking women’s athletics renders the women’s game as “the other,
derivative, and by implication, inferior to the men’s.”
Several studies have identified asymmetrical gender marking as a
commonplace component of the gendered language of mass-mediated
sport (Blinde, Greendofer and Shankar, 1991; Cohen, 1993; Fishwick
and Leach, 1998; Halbert and Latimer, 1994; Higgs and Weiller,
1994; Koivolu, 1999; Messner, Duncan and Jensen, 1993). Whether
referring to the women’s Wimbleton final as the “Ladies Final,”
whereas the men’s is simply “The Final,” or labeling women’s teams
names such as Lady Friars, Lady Rams, or Lady Gamecocks, women’s
inferiority is implicated and intensified.
Naming Conventions
Names, as linguists have demonstrated, are critical in the construction
of social reality. By assigning names to things, we impose a pattern and