By Paige Gadsby, Guest Contributor
Since Congress instituted Title IX as part of the Education Amendments of 1972 and banned discrimination based on sex in educational programs and activities, there has been a tremendous increase of female athletes and women’s sports on all levels. In 1972, roughly 300,000 females competed in high school athletics. That figure skyrocketed to 3.2 million participants by 2010-2011 . While the increased presence of women in sports illustrates a positive social change, research demonstrates that sportswomen are displayed in the media more for their conventional hetero-femininity than their athleticism.
Scholars Gaye Tuchman, Arlene Kaplan Daniels, and James Benet argue that the mass media is a powerful force that shapes values and displays dominant images of American society. Positive response rates towards specific promotions reveal the ideals and traits consumers find most important and worthy of their purchase. Wheaties cereal, for example, the esteemed “Breakfast of Champions,” has had a successful marketing approach that famously uses athletes. Since 1934, Wheaties placed athletes on its cereal box to appeal to various buyers. Athlete testimonials and endorsements are a large part of the package and include: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe Dimaggio, Jackie Robinson, Yogi Berra, and Jessie Owens among numerous others, including many women athletes. The incorporation of athletes as endorsement figures for Wheaties demonstrates the influence professional athletes impose on consumption. Many American consumers place professional athletes in high regard and this, along with their overall popularity, helps to explain the profitable relationship between Wheaties and athletes.
In this post, I will illustrate the different methods Wheaties uses to depict their cover athletes and how it upholds gender norms. I performed a content analysis of the Wheaties’ cereal covers, from 1934 to 2012, because Wheaties is a significant contributor in the realm of athlete media. While the involvement of female athletes in sport has tremendously increased due to Title IX, overall achievement and success is limited due to the gender norms that continue to be reinforced through mass media and advertisement strategies.
Intertwining of Sport and Societal Values
Organized sports emerged in the 19th century as an effort to masculinize young boys . Sport was seen as a social sphere that demonstrated the natural physical characteristics that separated men from women. Eventually, females began their involvement in athletics and threatened the masculine ideals of sport, as the initial values of sport inherently linked superior athleticism with masculine capabilities. In an effort to maintain the male dominance, the media often attempt to reinforce traditional stereotypes. This is often done through condescending descriptors and presenting female athletes as cooperative and passive rather than competitive and active .
Many researchers conclude that the physical strength of male athletes is a crucial component to the dominance they maintain in the media and society. Taking this a step further, society has deemed certain sports appropriate for each gender. Gender-appropriate sports emphasize femininity for females and muscularity and strength for males. Not only are female athletes conscious of the perceptions regarding their sport, they are aware of the perceived masculinity that accompanies their athleticism. Female athletes in gender-inappropriate sports are under this pressure to appear feminine in order to be appreciated and recognized as an athlete. Clearly, sexualized athletes are viewed as more attractive, respectable, and more similar to the ideal man or woman.
When looking through sporting advertisements, promotional materials, and the photos of athletes selected for Wheaties covers, it is clear that male athletes are more respected for their athletic achievements whereas female athletes are more well-known and respected for their appearance. Researchers label this hegemonic masculinity, the gender practices that reinforce male assertiveness and heterosexuality. In order for this to continue in sport specifically, there needs to be a pattern of practices to allow this dominance and an arena for its occurrence. Sports media possess the capability to represent athletes adequately, to marginalize them, and even to create varying degrees of sentiment for them. As such, sport and media coverage of females is more likely to focus on gender-appropriate sports and stereotypical gender representations.
Wheaties: the Breakfast of Champions, But Who’s Winning?
Representing the time span between 1934 and 2012, I analyzed 86 Wheaties’ covers and coded them for their depictions of athletes. Of the 86 covers analyzed, 33 depicted female athletes (38.4%), 52 depicted male athletes (60.5%), and one cover depicted a married couple (1.1%). The initial percentages suggest gender inequality, yet my research questions moved beyond the number of covers and focused on athlete positioning, appearance, and sport. Through the descriptive examination of the athletes’ poses on the covers of Wheaties, three major themes emerged in regards to the differences between the male and female athletes: focus on masculinity and femininity; active and passive; and gender-appropriate sports. These themes connect to historical gender norms and ideals held in society. In addition, the trends are supported by the frequent consistent results on the cover analysis questionnaire.
Focus on Femininity and Masculinity
First, Wheaties focuses on masculinity and femininity for male and female athletes, respectively. In these covers, masculinity is represented by active poses in which the athlete is in-motion or in the process of playing his sport. Likewise, these players are in an athletic or competition-like position, with their muscles flexed. The general connotation of these images is that the athletes are powerful and exhibit a strong demeanor. Female athletes, conversely, demonstrate a more graceful, physically attractive focus. The female athletes on the covers are more likely to have their face and body clearly visible for consumers, typically completed with a smile. Female athletes smiled in their photographs 56% of the time, while male athletes only smiled in their photographs 9% of the time.
Furthermore, male athletes have their muscles clearly visible in their photographs significantly more than their female athlete counterparts. Female athletes only displayed flexed muscles on 32% of covers overall compared to male athletes at 60%. Yet, in the 1990s, the number did dramatically increase. In that decade, female athletes displayed their muscles 63% of the time. This coincides with a decade known for the arrival of the female athlete, particularly because of the growth in participation due in part to the significance and influence of Title IX.
In general, these covers (and many other sport-focused images) pose a quandary for female athletes. Athleticism and femininity are viewed as contradictions, and thus female athletes must make an extended effort to appear feminine for general acceptance and awareness .
Passive and Active Poses
In the second major trend, a disparity existed between female and male competitors in active poses. Active poses require the athlete to exhibit motion, or be in some stance seen during competition or a game. Active poses coincide with an athletic stance, yet do not include passive or celebratory poses. Wheaties only captured 13 of the 34 female athletes actively playing their respective sport on the covers. On the contrary, 40 of the 53 male athletes were pictured actively playing their sport on their respective cover.
Moreover, male athletes were posed in an athletic stance or competition position 81% of the time, while female athletes were only athletically posed 44% of the time. For female athletes, however, there was a recognizable difference in the covers analyzed from the 1990s to the 2000s: there is an increase from 25% in the 1990s to 75% in the 2000s. This is a surprising growth given that there was a substantial escalation in muscular appearances of females in the 1990s. In general, there is a noticeable disconnect between muscularity and athletic stances for female athletes on Wheaties boxes.
Scholars Mary Jo Kane and Susan Greendorfer explain in their research that the physical superiority of males is often equated with social superiority. This leads to an increase in publicity for males, and stereotyped media attention for females. With this, female athletes are often displayed as models rather than athletes. Since the media focuses on physical attributes instead of talent and skill, female athletes are marginalized and Wheaties trivializes their athletic achievement.
The third crucial theme that arose in the analysis was the breakdown of sports portrayed by the various athletes. Females frequently represented individual sports such as figure skating and diving, while males represented team sports such as baseball and football. Team sports are frequently considered to be more masculine than individual sports, along with sports thriving on aggression, such as hockey and football. Feminine-appropriate sports involve those that allow females to demonstrate grace and beauty. There are also sports commonly referred to as neutral, and these include, but are not limited to, tennis, volleyball, and swimming.
For the covers analyzed, divisions between which sports female and male athletes represented automatically coincided with the attributes described that represent masculine and feminine sports. For athletes in more of a masculine sport, there are many options to utilize in order to focus on the femininity of the athletes rather than the masculinity of the sport. These alternatives consist of using celebratory or passive poses rather than active poses, or careful selection of uniform attire to generate sex appeal. This sex appeal, however, often overrides talent and thus hinders the growth and development of women’s sport and influence.
The success of Wheaties is indicative of the fact that their marketing campaign appealed and resonated with consumers. It is crucial to analyze the covers involving athletes to understand the values consumers found in Wheaties and the reasoning as to why they remained loyal to the company. Through my investigation and analysis, it is clear to see the double standard that is shown in the portrayal of athletes and how this represents the broader social ideas and conventional beliefs regarding gender. Overall, research uncovered that Wheaties and General Mills employ three basic methods in undermining the successes of female athletes, while also instilling male superiority: exhibits of socially accepted traits demonstrating masculinity and femininity, selective positioning, and gender-appropriate sports. For instance, four of the five female soccer players from the World Cup Championship Team displayed in 1999 were shown in a celebratory pose, smiling, while only one was pictured playing soccer.
While General Mills, the maker of Wheaties, has improved on the variety of female sports represented through track and field and soccer, the company continues to focus more on the physical appearance of the athletes rather than athletic achievements. Despite the improvements in female sport participation, the representation continues to remain marginal in comparison to male athletes. Major endorsement brands continue to encourage hegemonic media coverage through the selective appearances of athletes, thus essentially limiting the power of Title IX. Media and marketing promotions continue to place physical talent, sexuality, and gender in the same dimension, interlocking them while constructing the belief that males are dominant, strong, and heterosexual, whereas females are passive, inherently weaker than males, and will be considered perverse if they refuse to adhere to the proscriptions of compulsory heterosexuality. The supposed superiority of men will continue to exist through media unless female athletes are primarily recognized and promoted for their athletic achievement instead of physical beauty or feminine hobbies.
Paige Gadsby is a current student in the University of Central Florida’s DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program. She loves everything about Texas, coffee, and waking up at 6am to watch Jordan Spieth play golf. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on twitter at @PaigeGadsby.
 National Women’s Law Center, (accessed October 20, 2014); available from http://www.nwlc.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/nwlcathletics_titleixfactsheet.pdf
 Jay Coakley, “Sports and children: Are organized programs worth the effort?” in Sports in society: Issues and controversies (New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2009)
 Gina Daddario, “Chilly scenes of the 1992 Winter Games: The mass media and the marginalization of female athletes,” Sociology of Sport Journal 11 (1994): 275-288
 Vikki Krane, “We can be athletic and feminine, but do we want to? Challenging hegemonic femininity in women,” Quest 53, no. 1 (2001): 115-133.