Author: Heather Van Mullem1
1Division of Movement and Sport Sciences, Lewis-Clark State College, Lewiston, ID, USA
Heather Van Mullem, PhD
500 8th Avenue
Lewiston, ID 83501
Heather Van Mullem, PhD is a Professor of Kinesiology and Health at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, ID. Her research interests focus on gender issues in sport, specifically representations of female athletes in the media.
You play like a girl? Gender and image in high school yearbooks
The purpose of this study was to explore how male and female student-athletes were portrayed in images included in two high school’s yearbooks published between 1920-2020. Photos in yearbooks, gathered from the high schools and a community library, were analyzed for their presentation of athletic competence, using presence on court, in uniform, and in action shots as indicators (2). In images of one person, males (M = 3.750, SD = 7.776) were statistically portrayed in passive shots more often than females (M = 2.030, SD = 3.724); t (2,913) = 6.335, p = .000. In comparison, females (M = 5.260, SD = 10.412) were statistically portrayed in active shots more often than males (M = 4.440, SD = 8.646); t (4,722) = -2.946, p = .003. Males (M = 7.550, SD = 11.094) were also statistically portrayed in uniform more often than females (M = 6.810, SD = 10.974); t (7,083) = 2.791, p = .005. Finally, males (M = 1.720, SD = 5.029) were statistically portrayed more often off court than females (M = 1.100, SD = 2.729); t (1,417) = 2.512, p = .012. In comparison, in images of two or more people, males (M = 6.400, SD = 9.589) were statistically portrayed in active shots more often than females (M = 4.640, SD = 7.852); t (6,190) = 7.544, p = .000. Males (M = 8.800, SD = 11.807) and were also statistically portrayed on court more often than females (M = 6.960, SD = 10.704); t (8,818) = 7.478, p = .000. In contrast, females (M = 1.350, SD = 1.989) were statistically portrayed off court more often than males (M = 1.070, SD = 1.763); t (1,329) = -2.705, p = .007. Finally, males (M = 9.570, SD = 12.410) were statistically more likely to be portrayed in uniform when compared to females (M = 8.000, SD = 11.516); t (9,814) = 6.385, p = .000. This study’s findings are, overall, consistent with previous research which indicates that male athletes, when compared to female athletes, are more commonly presented as competent athletes. Athletic and yearbook administrators should ensure the quantity, quality, and type of yearbook photos reflect both the season of competition but also the true athletic competence of the competitors.
Key Words: yearbooks, images, gender, student-athletes
It has been 48 years since the passage of Title IX, the landmark legislation which mandated gender equity in federally funded education and athletic programs (21). This law had a substantial impact on the growth of and access to participation opportunities in education and sport. In 1971, the year before Title IX was passed, approximately 1 in 27 girls played sports. In comparison, today the number has increased to approximately 2 in 5 (27). However, despite the significant increase in the number of girls and women playing sports today, the amount of coverage devoted to female athletes across different media platforms continues to lag far behind what boys and men receive (25). While approximately 40% of all sports participants are female, women’s sports receive only 4% of all sports media coverage (25). The quantity, quality, and type of coverage can have an impact on the perceived value of and respect for girls and women’s athletics (17). In addition to less coverage, the type and/or quality of coverage female athletes receive, in comparison to males, often contributes to the misperception they are less competent athletically (17).
A dearth of research has been conducted to examine how female athletes are portrayed in traditional and new media. For example, research in new media includes examination of female athlete presence on social media platforms like Facebook (14), Twitter (7, 16, 18, 24), and Instagram (4, 13). In comparison, examples of research of traditional media includes analysis of representation by gender in popular sport print media (8, 10, 12, 19), newscasts (20), televised sports (1, 15), newspapers (9, 22, 23), sports blogs (5), and collegiate media guides (2, 3, 17, 26).
In particular, media guide research has provided a salient analysis of how colleges and universities strategically and purposefully choose to present student-athletes in print media to the broader community (3). Media guides have historically been one of the primary mechanisms by which colleges and universities promote and market information about student-athletes and teams (3). A 26-year analysis of NCAA Division-I sport team media guide covers revealed that while male and female athletes were often pictured in uniform, male athletes were more often presented on the court and in action poses. These presentation choices articulate to the broader community that male athletes are perceived to be more competent athletically (3), which translates to a perceived sense of increased value in their athleticism. Media guide imagery is selected by marketing firms hired to produce this content or by members of the athletic administration and tends to follow marketing trends (3). Interestingly, when intercollegiate female athletes were presented with the opportunity to choose either an image of themselves presented as a competent athlete (i.e., on-court, in action) or in traditional feminine ways (i.e., off-court, posed) for use in endorsement campaigns, 70% of participants chose the competent image only. Comparatively, 30% of participants chose both images. Participants identified that it was important to them to be respected and valued for their athletic prowess and that they wanted to be represented in a way that showcased this idyllic image. However, study participants were also mindful of the influence of social pressures to appear feminine, especially in masculine spaces, like sports, which are often considered more appropriate for boys and men (11).
Research on the media coverage of women’s sports is almost universally focused on female athletes competing at the professional (4, 7, 16, 18), Olympic (13), or National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division-I levels (1, 2, 3, 11, 15, 17). Far less research has examined the amount and quality of media coverage of athletes competing at the NCAA Division-II, NCAA Division-III, and National Association of Interscholastic Activities (NAIA) levels (26). Additionally, minimal research has focused on the media coverage of high school athletes (22).
It is uncommon for high school athletic departments to create and disseminate media guides for marketing of their athletic programs. However, it is common to use yearbooks as a mechanism to document experiences during an academic year. As such, yearbooks are very important to secondary schools. Additionally, students themselves are responsible for the yearbook design, stories, and images included. Each school has control over how their yearbook is created and what is featured which means the content is often reflective of the broader cultural narrative in the town and region in which the school belongs. This paper explores how male and female student-athletes were portrayed in images included in two high school’s yearbooks published between 1920-2020.
Images of male and female student-athletes in yearbooks from two public high schools located in two different states in the Northwest (High School A: a student population of approximately 1,000; High School B: a student population of approximately 800) were chosen for content analysis. The high schools chosen were the only traditional high schools in their school districts, respectively.
Yearbook copies dated 1944-2020 for High School A were secured at the community library and/or borrowed from High School A. Unfortunately, not all yearbooks were accessible. As a result, the following years were not analyzed: 1945-1948, 1950-1953, 1956-1960, 1962-1967, 1973, 1975-1976, 1978, 1982, 1984, 1987, 1990-1994, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2006-2008. In total, 39 years of images in yearbooks dated over a 76-year time period were reviewed. In comparison, yearbook copies dated 1920-2020 for High School B were borrowed from High School B. Here, again, some yearbooks were not accessible for review. As a result, the following years were not analyzed: 1921-1935, 1937. In total, 84 years of images in yearbooks dated over a 100-year time period were reviewed. In total, a combined number of 123 yearbooks (High School A = 39; High School B = 84) were analyzed.
The yearbook photos were analyzed using a coding framework utilized in previous studies (2, 3, 17, 26) that examined college/university media guide covers for presentation of athlete competence by gender. Similar to media guides (3), yearbooks are the primary means by which information deemed important about athletes, teams, and seasons has been shared over time by an institution. Images were coded to assess athleticism, by gender, in three categories: 1) active poses (e.g., engaged in movement) versus passive poses (e.g., standing, sitting, or posed), 2) on court versus off court, and 3) in uniform versus out of uniform (17).
Statistical analyses were performed using SPSS version 26.0 (IBM, Armonk, NY, USA). Independent samples t-tests were performed to determine mean differences between gender on the three coding categories of active vs passive, on court vs off the court, and in uniform vs out of uniform. An alpha level of .05 was used.
In total, 17,790 yearbook photos were reviewed. 57.448% (n = 10,220) of the images were of males and 42.552% (n = 7,570) of the images were of females. 42.940% (n = 7,639; male = 4,388, female = 3,251) of the images were of one person. In comparison, 57.060% (n = 10,151; male = 5,832, female = 4,319) of images included two or more people.
In images of one person (Table 1), males (M = 3.750, SD = 7.776) were statistically portrayed in passive shots more often than females (M = 2.030, SD = 3.724); t(2,913) = 6.335, p = .000. In contrast, females (M = 5.260, SD = 10.412) were statistically portrayed in active shots more often than males (M = 4.440, SD = 8.646); t(4,722) = -2.946, p = .003. Males (M = 7.550, SD = 11.094) were also statistically portrayed in uniform more often than females (M = 6.810, SD = 10.974); t(7,083) = 2.791, p = .005. Finally, males (M = 1.720, SD = 5.029) were statistically portrayed more often off court than females (M = 1.100, SD = 2.729); t(1,417) = 2.512, p = .012.
Table 1: Images of One Person
|Measure||Gender||Number of Photos
|(n = 7,639)||M||SD|
|Out of Uniform||Female
*p < .05
In comparison, in images of two or more people (Table 2), males (M = 6.400, SD = 9.589) were statistically portrayed in active shots more often than females (M = 4.640, SD = 7.852); t(6,190) = 7.544, p = .000. Males (M = 8.800, SD = 11.807) were also statistically portrayed on court more often than females (M = 6.960, SD = 10.704); t(8,818) = 7.478, p = .000. In contrast, females (M = 1.350, SD = 1.989) were statistically portrayed off court more often than males (M = 1.070, SD = 1.763); t(1,329) = -2.705, p = .007. Finally, males (M = 9.570, SD = 12.410) were statistically more likely to be portrayed in uniform when compared to females (M = 8.000, SD = 11.516); t(9,814) = 6.385, p = .000.
Table 2: Images of Two or More People
|Measure||Gender||Number of Photos||Photo||t||p|
|(n = 10,151)||M||SD|
|Out of Uniform||Female
*p < .05
The purpose of this study was to identify how male and female student-athletes were portrayed in images included in high school yearbooks. Results are, overall, consistent with findings in previous research that analyzed presentation of athletes, by gender, on college/university sport team media guides (3, 26). Presentation of athletic competence was measured by presentation on the court, in active shots, and in uniform (2, 3, 17, 26). In group photos, males were more likely to be portrayed on the court, in uniform, and in active shots compared to female athletes. However, in single photos, male athletes were more likely to be portrayed in passive shots and off the court when compared to female athletes. Male athletic teams often used head shots of each team member on their designated team page. In comparison, this practice was less commonly used on female team pages. Additionally, fewer single shots of female athletes were included.
The concept of the “Female Apologetic” (6) was evident in images of female athletes. This concept describes a purposeful strategy employed by girls and women to choose to dress and act stereotypically in response to socially imposed pressures related to gender. While there are many ways this behavior can manifest itself, examples include, but aren’t limited to, wearing long hair down in photos, wearing make-up, and/or wearing feminine clothing (6). For example, a group photo that illustrates the “Female Apologetic” might portray team members in uniform, but posed outside, barefoot, with their hair down. If it were not for the uniform, or a ball, or some type of sport equipment, it would be difficult to know that these women were athletes and/or were representing an athletic team. Women don’t play basketball barefoot and very seldom, if ever, play with their hair down. Additionally, competent athletes are described as movers or active subjects as opposed to passive (3). The images included were chosen by members of the high school yearbook staffs, presumably composed of both male and female students and a teacher. The data indicates that, overall, differences in image choice by gender are consistent with results from previous studies which also found male athletes were more often portrayed in ways which identify them as competent athletes (3, 26).
While not having access to all of the yearbooks within the timeframe being analyzed is a limitation, the results help to better demonstrate an understanding of the presentation of images of student-athletes by gender at the high school level, an area of research not previously addressed. Complete access to all yearbooks would allow for further analysis and comparison between images published pre- and post-Title IX and by decade to determine if image choice trends varied in conjunction with changes in socio-cultural trends. It would also be interesting to compare and contrast image choices in yearbooks from high schools located in different regions of the United States to determine if image choice trends varied based upon social and/or cultural norms in the communities in which the different high schools were located. Additionally, it would be beneficial to examine the factors influencing image choice by yearbook staff members and administrators. Understanding what influenced their decision making would help to further explain the possible effect of gender, social expectations, and stereotypes.
How people are supposed to look, and act is greatly influenced by societal expectations for gender norms. Gender is argued to be socially constructed (10). How student-athletes see themselves and how they want to be represented can be influenced by social norms and expectations. This study’s findings are consistent with previous research which indicates that male athletes, when compared to female athletes, are more often commonly presented as athletically competent (3, 26).
APPLICATIONS IN SPORT
Image choice may influence perceptions of athletic competence. Perceptions of athletic competence may influence levels of respect and value, which in turn may influence equity. Therefore, to support continued efforts toward creating an equitable competitive experience, athletic and yearbook administrators should ensure the quantity, quality, and type of yearbook photos reflect both the season of competition but also the true athletic competence of the competitors.
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