Why ESPN’s Nine for IX Series Matters

Last Tuesday, ESPN aired a groundbreaking documentary – in prime time – on why women deserve equal pay for equal work. Really.

The world’s most valuable cable network, and the one most popular amongst American men, spent an hour on Venus Williams’ fight for equality at Wimbledon. Venus Vs., part of the channel’s new Nine for IX series, reminded ESPN viewers that even though they are not adequately covered by the media, women are capable of being awe-inspiring athletes and they can influence our larger culture just as much as their male counterparts.

The fact that it was a film about a woman of color, directed by a woman of color (Ava Duvernay, Middle of Nowhere), was an even rarer pleasure (side note: it was a powerful week for black women on TV, as BET aired the premiere of Becoming Mary Jane to big ratings and Vanity Fair revealed their August cover featuring Scandal‘s Kerry Washington – the first black woman to appear there in years).

Meanwhile, on Wednesday morning, a far less inspiring video for Roxy Pro Biarritz – an upcoming women’s surfing competition sponsored by the popular clothing brand – made it onto the Miss Representation Facebook page. Rather than focusing on the abilities or personalities of female surfers, Roxy decided to advertise an upcoming professional tournament by focusing exclusively on the body of a female athlete. The woman who stars in the ad isn’t shown surfing at all. In fact, they don’t even show us her face.

When the ad was posted to Facebook, as part of our #NotBuyingIt campaign, one user commented:

“This is why I quit playing sports in my teens, and didn’t realize it at the time. The constant message that I was more valuable looking pretty than being active. Girl athletes in my school were criticized for acting too ‘boyish’ and being unfeminine. How the hell am I supposed to focus on kicking the ball in the corner of the net when I’m also supposed to make sure I don’t get sweaty, my hair stays perfect, and I look ‘pretty’?”

Good question.

Users sent additional examples of how “fitness” and “athletics,” when marketed to women, are too often framed around how bodies look and not around what they can achieve. Meaning, ads directed at women are almost always closer to the Roxy surfing video than to the Venus Williams movie.

For example, in Bethesda, Maryland, over 900 people have signed a Change.org petition to bring down the billboard below, which – believe it or not – is an ad for a gym (like a place where you exercise and stuff):

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, another fitness center – which is actually run by and for women – has a series of billboards up around town today that aim to exploit insecurities in order to attract women to the gym:

The problem spreads way beyond billboards though, or even MSN.com, where articles like “how to look effortlessly hot at the gym” are regularly posted. On Saturday, Marion Bartoli won Wimbledon, the premiere event in tennis, and BBC Radio 5’s commentator felt the need to almost immediately point out that she wasn’t a “looker” like Maria Sharapova.

We seem to only have one lens with which to view and value women – one that wants to turn them all into sexualized objects. Even when that woman becomes known to us because of her athletic ability, we quickly discover ways to see her through that lens.

Britney Griner rose to fame last year because she may very well be the best female basketball player we’ve ever seen at that age. And yet, almost instantly, the story shifted to her appearance – to her gender. (Which, of course, never happened to LeBron James as a young star.)

Which brings us back to Nine for IX. Watching the epic story of Venus Williams’ battle for equal prize money (framed by previous battles won by Billie Jean King and Althea Gibson), I found myself thinking about 42 and Ken Burns’ Baseball, or shows like Friday Night Lights which depict men’s football as the epitome of American culture, or the many films made about Muhammed Ali’s role in the civil rights movement. Do female athletes get this same kind of lionization? How many of them are allowed to become larger-than-life legends in the vein of Joe Namath or Babe Ruth? Michael Jordan or Pele? (On Bleacher Reports’ list of the 200 “Most Important Events in Sports History,” only 18 moments belong to female athletes. Title IX is #178.).

When Andy Murray won Wimbledon this weekend, USA Today ran a story titled “Andy Murray wins Wimbledon, ends 77-year British drought,” forgetting the four British women who have won the title during that so-called “drought.” CNN and others did the same thing – once again placing the men’s game in a historical and cultural context that seems bigger and more important than the women’s.

Thus Venus Vs. is perhaps most significant for depicting Williams as a bona fide sports legend, and for being aired on the network that specializes in the canonization of male athletes. Storytelling is a large part of why we watch sports on TV – with commentators and analysts – and why such figures as Charles Barkley and ESPN’s Bill Simmons are so popular. They give us the context – the larger meaning – behind the games we love to watch. Like those tear-inducing vignettes during the Olympics, it’s the surrounding drama which makes athletics into something more than entertainment.

Now we (and by “we” I mean the millions of people ESPN reaches) have that bigger picture around Venus Williams’ career. We can begin to see her as a truly historic figure – not just a great tennis player.

This is the power and beauty of storytelling.

Too often we write and receive these stories only about men, which creates a perception that they are the only great stories that exist. On IGN‘s, San Francisco Chronicle‘s and Complex Magazine‘s lists of the greatest sports documentaries of all-time, a total of zero are about female athletes.

Now ESPN is giving us 9 prime time documentaries about women, directed by women, aimed at the general public. It’s a monumental media moment, and more than enough reason to tune in Tuesday nights for the next 8 weeks.

Nine for IX continues at 8 ET on ESPN tonight with Pat XO – exploring the career of the most successful NCAA basketball coach of all-time, Pat Summitt

Written by Imran Siddiquee at MissRepresentation.org. Follow him on Twitter @imransiddiquee