Co-authored by Brett Pardy and Courtney Szto
I (Courtney) was looking for a picture of Hilary Knight to include in my lecture slides and this is what I found when I went to Google images:
These are all perfectly fine photos but I wanted one of Knight playing hockey because the other photos on the slide were of Zdeno Chara and Johnny Gaudreau…playing hockey. I’m quite selective about the images that I use in lecture slides because it’s one way to challenge assumptions and teach things without actually saying the words. My slides could definitely use more diversity with respect to ability and body size but one thing that my students are guaranteed to get are images of a variety of badass women and girls doing badass things. I texted Brett my surprise at how far down I had to scroll to find a picture of Knight actually playing hockey:
There is a plethora of research conducted on how women athletes are portrayed in comparison to men athletes. Men are overwhelmingly depicted in action performing their sport. Women, on the other hand, are shown off the field of play, not in uniform, and/or in sexualized images. The dominant narrative of “sports cuties” contributes to the ongoing marginalization of women as athletes (Bishop, 2003; Griffin, 1998; Hardin, Lynn, & Walsdorf, 2005; Hargreaves, 1994; Schell, 1999; Walsdorf, 2000). The state of women’s sport has improved since many of these studies were conducted, but there are some habits that seem harder to break than others. The woman first, athlete second trope remains a persistent problem.
Asking students to do a Google image search for certain words/phrases can be a useful pedagogical tool to help explain things visually. For example, if you look up “environmental sustainability,” you’ll likely turn up a lot of ClipArt type images, a lot of green, some hands, and some circles. However, if you type “environmental activism” into Google image search, you’ll generally see people at protests. The imagery speaks to algorithms that are out of our control (which we’ll get into later) but also the cultural connotations attached to the search term(s). So, what connotations are attached to women hockey players? To put it simply, they may be hockey players, but they don’t appear to play much hockey.
We took screen shots of the first three rows of images for each player because that is what fits on the screen, but we counted the first five rows of images. Google results do vary by individual based on your own search history, but both of us found similar results. We wanted to know: How many images show the player actually playing in a game? Photos that showed full gear with helmet on were considered “playing” hockey.
For example, for Hilary Knight, out of the 27 images that appeared in the first five rows of images, only one image shows her playing in a game (4%). To see Knight with her Olympic gold medal, you have to scroll down to row 7. For Marie-Philip Poulin, the very first image that appeared was of her playing in a game. Still, of the first 28 photos that appear, she is only actively playing in eight of them (29%).
Enter Sidney Crosby, the men’s version of Marie-Philip Poulin. Of his first 28 photos, he is playing in 22 of them (79%).
Shannon Szabados is playing in 12 of her first 31 photos (39%), and 5 of the 31 are of her competing in men’s hockey.
Nathan MacKinnon, is all business, with 86% of the pictures in his first five rows showing game action.
For Sarah Nurse, four of 29 photos showed her playing (13.8%). Drake appears once…
Natalie Spooner is playing in 16% of her first 30 photos and figure skating on Battle of the Blades in 13% of them. For comparison, recent Battle of the Blades champion, Wojtek Wolski, is not seen figure skating until row 14 of his Google images. When you search Akim Aliu’s photos, there is one photo from Battle of the Blades in the first 24 rows (appears in row 6).
Toronto Maple Leafs captain, John Tavares, on the other hand, is playing in 72% of his opening results.
Similar to Hilary Knight, Kendall Coyne-Schofield can be seen playing hockey in one of her first 25 images (4%). One! There are a number of images from her participation in the 2019 NHL All-Star weekend’s fastest skater competition. That’s cool but she can skate with a puck too. You want to see that Olympic Gold medal of hers? You’ll have to scroll down to about row 9 and in row 6 she can be seen playing for the NWHL’s Minnesota Whitecaps. In row 18, you might be able to spot her playing in a PWHPA jersey. Her husband, NFL offensive guard, Michael Schofield, appears in 5 of her first 25 photos. To be fair, Coyne-Schofield also appears in 4 of her husband’s first 32 photos. But his results are further complicated by the fact that Michael Scofield (with no ‘h’), the character played by actor Wentworth Miller in the tv series Prison Break, appears in 15 of those 32 photos. Do what you will with that information.
Conversely, of Kelly Babstock’s first 30 images, she is playing in 20 of them. Babstock had the highest percentage of playing photos for our random selection of women at 67%.
Henrik Lundqvist, with his beautiful hair, may be the outlier for the men with 15 of his first 27 photos not in full gear.
Roberto Luongo has his helmet on for 21 of his first 27 photos and Cam Talbot is playing in 23 of 28 images. However, Talbot is also fighting in two of the photos we didn’t count as “helmet on,” so really, 25 of 28 images for Talbot are in-game images. Talbot had the highest percentage of playing photos at 89%.
It’s not that male players don’t do photoshoots because Henrik Lundqvist did an underwear ad campaign. Yet, you have to scroll down 26 rows of photos on Google to see this:
There are a couple of issues at play here. The first is that technology is not neutral. In addition to simply having more hockey-related photographs of men to overshadow their modelling photos, gender disparity is also influenced by Google’s algorithm. Safiya Umoja Noble (2018) outlines that Google search results do not simply return the most clicked images at the top (which is already problematic because popularity can override quality, accuracy etc.), but it also involves an algorithmic process heavily influenced by paid advertisers. In her book, Algorithms of Oppression, Noble charts how Google’s algorithm, learns through advertiser’s search engine optimizations, and acquires a tendency to display women as objects rather than as active agents. The prevalence of the “sports cutie” photo further supports her analysis.
The second issue relates to the lack of media coverage for women’s hockey in general. With a lot less money involved in women’s hockey, there are fewer media positions available to cover games. If there are fewer photographers covering women’s hockey, there are fewer photos that can be taken. Even a search of Sidney Crosby photos on Flickr turns up 982 photos with a Creative Commons license. The same Flickr search for Marie-Philip Poulin returns 67 photos…14 of which have been taken by Courtney. Fewer games and community rinks that are not set up for media presence further compound the issue. Photography is as important as television/video coverage for enhancing the visibility of women’s sports. This is why in 2016 Getty Images partnered with the Women’s Sports Trust to “redefine the imagery of female athletes in commercial and editorial storytelling.” The goal of the partnership is to (1) increase the visibility of female athletes and (2) challenge the “way in which female athletes are portrayed.” The guidelines provided to photographers came in 6 points:
- Sport appeal not sex appeal. Focus on the skill, strength, speed, passion and drama of the sport instead of how the athletes look
- Mix it up. Capture a diverse mix of athletes participating in a wide range of sports
- Keep it real. Authentic, credible imagery that represents the athlete as she’d want to be seen
- Play your part. Everyone involved in the production, reporting and consumption of sporting imagery to take responsibility for the changes they can make
- More is more. Increase the number of images taken and seen
- Be bold. Be creative and push the boundaries, seek out new talent and new audiences
A lot of the discussion around women’s sports these days is about making it possible for little girls to see all of their life options but we also need to question how these possibilities are made visible.
Bishop, R. (2003). Missing in action: Feature coverage of women’s sports in Sports Illustrated. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 27, 184-194.
Griffin, P. (1998). Strong women, deep closets. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Hardin, M., Lynn, S., & Walsdorf, K. (2005). Challenge and conformity on “contested terrain”: Images of women in four women’s sport/fitness magazines. Sex Roles, 53, 1/2, 105-117.
Hargreaves, J. (1994). Sporting women. London: Routledge.
Schell, L.A. (1999). Socially constructing the female athlete: A monolithic media representation of active women. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Texas Women’s University, Denton, TX.
Walsdorf, K. (2000). In search of post-Olympic gender equity: An examination of photographic images in Sports Illustrated for Kids. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL.