There’s been a lot of sexism involved in the coverage of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Women’s athletic accomplishments have been attributed to their husbands; some commentators seem to have a bad habit of trying to praise women athletes by comparing them to men; and NBC’s chief marketing officer condescended to women viewers by suggesting that they don’t actually care about sports.
So it’s no wonder that this unfortunate Olympics headline from the Bryan-College Station Eagle* caught fire on social media this week. It seemed to be the perfect encapsulation of exactly how the coverage of this year’s games is going when it comes to women — and the way women are treated in society more generally:
This headline is a metaphor for basically the entire world. pic.twitter.com/5WpQa04N0o— Nancy Leong (@nancyleong) August 14, 2016
Not only did Katie Ledecky set a new world record in the women’s 800-meter freestyle, she also became the first woman to win gold in the 200-, 400-, and 800-meter freestyle races since Debbie Meyer in 1968.
But by putting the news of Ledecky’s major record in much smaller font than Phelps’s tie for a silver medal, the paper made it seem like even the most historic achievements of a woman are less important than a pretty good performance from a man.
There may be a perfectly reasonable explanation for this. That’s also not really the point.
Sure, Phelps is a lot more famous than Ledecky, and that’s how some observers tried to justify the disparity.
@nancyleong I’m not saying you’re wrong, but that’s a newspaper built to sell headlines. Phelps is a household name and sells papers.— Colin Mansfield (@ColinMansfield) August 14, 2016
It’s also worth noting that the original Associated Press story by Paul Newberry didn’t have the awkward headline. That story focused on the shocking upset that led to Phelps’s silver medal (and also mentioned Ledecky’s victory), while a separate story by Newberry focused solely on Ledecky’s achievement.
But this newspaper’s front page illustrates how one of the most frustrating things about sexism is both how insidious it can be and how that very quality makes it so easy for some people to deny that sexism is really a problem. Just as it’s possible for a person to say something sexist without intending to demean women, it’s also possible for a "reasonable" explanation — like, say, Phelps being more famous than Ledecky — to either not be the whole story or to be beside the point.
For instance, the headline could have been influenced both by basic news judgment and by latent sexist assumptions about how important women athletes are or aren’t. At the very least, it showed some blind spots about how sexism works and is perceived.
And that’s the other thing: Fighting sexism is about recognizing and correcting disparate impacts on women, not just trying to judge whether a particular person or entity has sexist intentions. There may be a reasonable explanation for this or that seemingly sexist incident, but that doesn’t make the big picture any less tiresome, or any less worth speaking out about.
*Correction: This article originally attributed the headline to the Greeley Tribune. It was from the Bryan-College Station Eagle; the Greeley Tribune's version of the story led with Ledecky. We regret the error.