The De-Feminization of Professional Female Athletes in Pop Culture

Women’s sports are already not taken seriously in comparison to men’s, so how does pop culture media take part in this situation? By adding fuel to the fire. Pop culture attempts to de-feminize female athletes by honing in on their “masculine” traits as they break away from societal ideals of femininity. Pop culture heavily supports emphasized femininity by standardizing beauty to a certain type of woman. Emphasized femininity means that women exist to please men, and their desires, therefore, should form around how they please men. Many professional female athletes turn away from emphasized femininity and thus are not seen as feminine as other famous people, such as models or actresses. 


Female athletes are often not perceived as feminine in popular culture. In society, you cannot be athletic, strong, and feminine/beautiful in the way that, for example, supermodels are advertised to be. Pop culture portrays women as being hyper-feminine, and if someone does not meet that standard, their womanhood is brought into question. It is rare to see women portrayed as both athletic and feminine. “Media portrayals of female athletes reinforce the status given to feminine athletes as they highlight appearance over athletic ability, thereby reinforcing the social expectation that athletic female bodies should be feminine,” (Krane, 2011). In this Golf Digest cover, golfer Lexi Thompson is shown topless with a golf towel wrapped around her shoulders. As Krane states above, the cover doesn’t focus on Thompson’s athletic ability, but rather focuses on sexualizing her. This sexualization shows that even though Thompson is a successful golfer, what is of greater significance is her womanhood. Clearly, the way to show someone is feminine and a woman in society is to have them take their shirt off. 

Teen Vogue

In this magazine cover of Serena Williams, the cover reads “Strong is Sexy,”. While this magazine does not indicate that Serena is not feminine, the incessant need to clarify that being strong is sexy is inherently a problem. While being strong does not mean you’re not sexy, this emphasis on Williams being sexy shows the desire in society for women to be perceived as such. This statement, potentially unknowingly, supports the idea that being sexy is what makes someone feminine. If being strong or muscular were not perceived as sexy then, would Serena’s femininity be lesser than other women who have fronted this magazine cover?

Discover Magazine

This is Caster Semenya, a female- track star from South Africa. Semenya brought attention to the media when her standardized drug test results, that are taken prior to a race, were released. This test showed that her natural levels of testosterone were on the same level as that of male track stars. This raised many eyebrows, and some people began to argue that Semanya should compete against men because otherwise, critics argued, she would have an unfair advantage over women competitors. Not only does Semenya have to deal with criticism based on her hormone levels, but there are unverified claims that Semenya has the intersex trait. This came into question when Semenya improved her time rapidly on a race within a few months. Not only are female athletes criticized for their looks and not being women enough, but they are also questioned when they are good at their sport. The criticism Semenya faced only illuminates the pressure female athletes face to be feminine and athletic. This magazine cover says “We turned SA’s Power Girl into a Glamour Girl and She Loves It!” This statement implies that all women are aspiring to be glamorous and fit into societal norms about gender and identity.


Tennis player by day, a mother all the time. Serena Williams embraces her womanhood as she takes on the role of a mother to her daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. She has the strength on and off the court to be both an athlete and a mother. Her muscles may intimidate people who are ignorant to the fact that women can be “strong” too, but she shows how gentle and feminine she is with her daughter. Pop culture media changes the narrative of Serena Williams just being a mother to unnecessarily enhancing her role as a female. “Much of the sports media scholarship has examined the overabundance of media images and narratives that impose traditional notions of femininity and sex appeal as normative expectations for female athletes”.(Kane & Lenskyj 1998) This demonstrates how the tennis player can be seen in a dress and be sexualized or be seen with her daughter and be considered a super mom instead of just a mother. 

Danny Boy’s Sport and Pop Culture

Candace Parker honing her femininity by showing off her muscles and her baby bump challenges the idea of muscular women not being considered women enough. She demonstrates emphasized femininity through the use of her body language, clothing choices, and hair. The cover reads, “How big can Candace Parker get?”. This questions her body mass due to the fact that she is both muscular and pregnant. Her bump is a normal size, which refers back to the fact that pop culture media dehumanizes female athletes based on their physical appearance. Her muscles stand out, so they bring more attention to them without really acknowledging that she is embracing motherhood. The word “big” in itself is used on purpose. “It is interesting that the descriptor “big” seems to symbolically defuse the threat that female athletes pose to male athletes.” (Kane & Lenskyj 1998) The threat of female athletes being more superior, or dominant in the sport of their male counterparts. 


Some athletes, like female bodybuilders, battle how to be both feminine and muscular. “The relationship between femininity and muscularity has been the central problem of the sport,”(Boyle, 2015). The toggling between masculine and feminine is a qualm that many female athletes deal with. In this photo, the bodybuilder is showing off how large her muscles are, something typically associated with masculinity. Yet, at the same time, she is wearing a bikini to show off her figure. Argumentatively, of course, the bodybuilder would need to wear very little to show off her muscles which she has worked very hard for. But, if that was the only purpose, why not wear spandex and a sports bra? There is a need for female athletes to prove themselves on both sides of the spectrum. Paradoxically, if a female athlete is too feminine, she may not be considered serious about her sport, but if a female athlete is so serious and performs well in her sport, then maybe she really isn’t a female. 


Male domination in sports leads to dominant women in sports being considered as less than a woman in the media. The De-feminization of female athletes in the media stems from them being considered a threat to their male counterparts as mentioned before. Ronda Roussey is a perfect example of a female athlete deemed less than a woman due to her body mass. “Roussey expressed her blunt disdain for women who craft their bodies simply to attract “millionaires” and declared that her fighter’s body was “built for a purpose”.” (McClearen 2018) She empowers herself because the media sure will not do it for her. “UFC President Dana White once called Rousey the “biggest star” his organization has ever had.” (Simon 2015) There is that “big” word again. Her own organization, whom she works for, sees her as more muscular than female. Why separate the two? Female athletes are more than capable of being muscular, beautiful, feminine beings all at the same time. 

Nice Kicks

Ultimately, pop culture plays a hand in how female athletes are perceived in society, as more muscular and less feminine. Diana Taurasi is a very competitive WNBA player. She is not acknowledged in the media for her feminine ways. Instead, they put labels on her as they would an NBA player in order to take away her feminine attributes. The lack of acknowledgement of her female traits not only shines a light on her athletic ability, it also adds some masculine traits to justify her greatness. This is the underlying issue. Why can’t women just be great without any reference to men? It is time for pop culture media to take off the mask that “empowers” female athletes and to fix the areas that they are lacking. It is time for female athletes to be actually uplifted for their gifts, womanhood, and bodies in the media.

Works Cited

Boyle, L. (2005). Flexing the Tensions of Female Muscularity: How Female Bodybuilders Negotiate Normative Femininity in Competitive Bodybuilding. Women’s Studies Quarterly, 33(1/2), 134–149.

Kane, M. J., & Lenskyj, H. J. (1998). Media treatment of female athletes: Issues of gender and sexualities. MediaSport, 186-201.

Krane, V., Ross, S. R., Miller, M., Ganoe, K., Lucas-Carr, C., & Barak, K. S. (2011). “It’s cheesy when they smile:” what girl athletes prefer in images of female college athletes. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 82(4), 755-68. doi:

McClearen, J. (2018). [Introduction]. In 1064478561 810894430 K. Toffoletti, 1064478562 810894430 J. Francombe-Webb, & 1064478563 810894430 H. Thorpe (Authors), New Sporting Femininities: Embodied Politics in Postfeminist Times (pp. 43-62). Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Simon, Y. (2015, February 15). The Best Latina Athletes [Web log post]. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from

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