The “Selling of Candace Parker”and the Diminishment of Women’s Sports
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan
Breaking News: The WNBA is about to complete its 14th season. If you watched ESPN regularly, read a myriad of sports pages, or surfed the virtual sport world, the fact that the WNBA season was actually going on might be breaking news. In what could have been an exciting season—given the parity between teams and the influx of new talent, which could have resulted in increased cultural and sporting significance—the WNBA experienced yet another summer of alienation.
In a recently published piece in The Nation, entitled “Sex sells Sex, Not Women’s Sports,” Mary Jo Kane explains this marginalization, debunking the idea that sex is able to sell women’s sports. Rather, she notes that, “Sex sells sex, not women’s sports” leaving little doubt why women’s sports continues to struggle within the marketplace. “Millions of fans around the globe just witnessed such media images and narratives during coverage of the Women’s World Cup in Germany. Perhaps such coverage will start a trend whereby those who cover women’s sports will simply turn on the camera and let us see the reality—not the sexualized caricature—of today’s female athletes. If and when that happens, sportswomen will receive the respect and admiration they so richly deserve.” To reflect on these dynamics and the continued struggles of the WNBA to transcend (or even undermine) the sexist grips of American sports, I want to discuss an almost three-old year feature on Candace Parker.
In 2009, ESPN: The Magazine, as part of its women in sports issue, featured an article on Candace Parker. This one story encapsulates the persistent sexism that detracts from and inhibits the development of women’s sports within American culture. Reducing women athletes to sexual objects and potentially profitable spokeswomen, the article, entitled “The Selling of Candace Parker” does little to introduce and celebrate the contributions of women’s sports, but rather elucidates the systemic problems of American sports culture.
The emphasis on selling sex, rather than athletics and sport, is evident from moment one of the piece. “Candace Parker is beautiful. Breathtaking, really, with flawless skin, endless legs and a C cup she is proud of but never flaunts,” writes Alison Glock. “She is also the best at what she does, a record-setter, a rule-breaker, a redefiner.” Eliciting some criticism about the references to her body, and the reduction of her body to its sexualized parts, ESPN: The Magazine brushed off accusations of sexism, identifying the article as sensible given the demographics of the magazine. According to Gary Belsky, editor-in-chief, “It’s not the worst thing in the world in a men’s magazine to talk about things like that.”
The sexualization of Parker and the focus on her body, at the expense of a narrative highlighting her athletic talents, doesn’t end with this initial introduction of readers to her physical attributes. Glock continues this treatise on Parker’s body before moving to a discussion of her “feminine charm”:
She is a woman who plays like a man, one of the boys, if the boys had C cups and flawless skin. She’s nice, too. Sweet, even. Kind to animals and children, she is the sort of woman who worries about others more than about herself, a saint in high-tops.
It is this unprecedented combination of game, generosity and gorgeous that has Team Parker seeing miracles. They believe with all their collective heart that their 22-year-old, 6’4″ stunner with the easy smile and perfect, white teeth will soon be the most recognized woman in American sports.
In other words, Parker represents an ideal femininity – nurturing, sexy, and heterosexual (the article make this clear though various rhetorical phrases, references to her husband, basketball player Sheldon Williams, and of course its discussion/visual presentation of Parker’s pregnancy); she is the perfect woman who happens to play basketball. In this regard, ESPN is selling Parker as a sexy and attractive woman whose job is to play basketball, a professional choice that in no way comprises her role as mother, wife, and sexual object to be consumed by male fans.
Yet, Glock doesn’t seem to limit Parker’s immense potential as the Michael Jordan of women’s sports because of her “flawless skin” and breast size (despite multiple references to her bust size), rather arguing that Parker can transcend women’s sports, breaking down commercial barriers to become “a one namer” because she isn’t like so many of today’s (black) athletes, whose brash and hyper-masculine demeanor alienates fans. She is “nice,” humble, and likable. She “is the total package, an advertiser’s dream: attractive yet benign enough to reflect any fantasy projected upon her. Like Jordan before her, Parker is a cipher of sorts, nothing outsize or off-putting. Nothing edgy. Nothing Iverson. Aside from being an athletic freak, she’s normal. You could imagine her hanging out at your family barbecue. This matters; if Parker seems like a down-home gal, a possible friend, then it’s a short step to trust, and with trust comes a willingness to buy what Team Parker is selling.”
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