Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: A Feminist Look at the Olympics (So Far)

With all of the TV coverage, print and digital news, Facebook updates, Twitter hashtags and blog posts about what’s happening in London, we’ve gathered our favorite (and not so favorite) feminist moments and commentaries from the 2012 Summer Games. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

 for British weightlifter Zoe Smith, who spoke out in a blog post against sexist criticism that she and her teammates shouldn’t have big muscles because they’re women. Here are a few of her best quotes:

The obvious choice of slander when talking about female weightlifting is ‘how unfeminine, girls shouldn’t be strong or have muscles, this is wrong’. And maybe they’re right … in the Victorian era. To think people still think like this is laughable, we’re in 2012!

What makes them think that we even WANT them to find us attractive?

[One man who made a hateful remark] came up with the original comeback that I should get back in the kitchen. I laughed.

 For the record number of openly gay and lesbian athletes at the Olympics! Karen Hultzer’s self-outing brings the number to 22, twice as many as the 11 in Athens and the 10 in Beijing.

 For U.S. beach volleyball stars Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings. But …


 For media couture coverage. Despite their huge successes on the court, May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings just can’t seem to win when it comes to what they’re wearing. When the two declared their intentions to compete in bikinis (which, as U.S. teammate Jen Kessy insists, is what the women feel most comfortable in), they were called cheeky. Then, when the duo pulled on long-sleeved T-shirts to stay warm in the mid-60-degree London weather, they were criticized for not showing enough skin. To maker matters worse, photographers on the sidelines seem to have wandering eyes, as photos of the backsides of bikini-clad women volleyball players have been cluttering stock photo websites such as Getty Images. In a response to the degrading images—which often leave out the heads of the volleyball players— suggestively cropped photos of male athletes to show what it would be like if all Olympic sports were captured in this objectifying way.

 For the coverage of the women gymnasts. Here are some ways these awesome athletes’ accomplishments have been trivialized:

  • Gabby Douglas’ Hair: Even though 16-year-old gymnast Gabby Douglas has qualified for the all-around competition and had an outstanding performance that helped the U.S. women’s team win the gold medal, some on the Internet criticized her hair rather than celebrating her achievements. Fortunately, bloggers such as Monisha Randolph on Sporty Afros responded  to Douglas’ critics by reminding them what’s really important about a woman athlete.
  • “Divas” and “Girls”: In an attempt to dramatize the Olympics further (as if the athletic performances weren’t enough!), NBC has taken to calling the Russian women gymnasts “divas.” The commentators also call the women gymnasts “girls” and emphasize their “girlish” behavior. These terms diminish and infantilize the young women’s strength and skills.
  • Team Rivalry: Throughout its coverage of women’s gymnastics, NBC has stuck with a narrative stressing the U.S. women’s “rivalry.” During the competition to earn one of two slots in the individual all-around finals, in which Jordyn Wieber was beaten out by her teammate Aly Raisman, NBC’s often showed the women in the same frame with Raisman grinning and Wieber crying, thus pitting them against each other (rather than against there own individual aspirations). There seems to be a disturbing trend of drama-centered Olympic coverage.

 For Michelle Obama, delegate for the U.S., who has been spotted at various Olympic events in support of the American athletes. But we want to especially thumbs-up the love she’s been showing to the female Olympians: This past Saturday the First Lady cheered on Serena Williams in her opening match against Jelena Jankovic and, when she met wrestler Elena Pirozhkova, allowed the athlete to show off her strength by picking the First Lady up.

 For Ye Shiwen’s gold medal finishes in the 200m and 400m individual medley. But …


 For the immediate accusations that her accomplishments were the result of doping. After the 16-year-old swimmer beat Ryan Lochte’s time in her last 50-meter freestyle split during the 400m individual medley on Saturday, U.S. swimmers, coaches and commentators alike hinted that her success may not be built on sweat and blood alone. Yes, the Chinese had a history of doping in the 1990s, but Shiwen trains with coaches in Australia. Unless tests prove otherwise, she should be celebrated for her prowess. The Olympic authorities defend Shiwen here.

 For Missy Franklin’s gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke Monday. Incredibly, she had less than 15 minutes  between the 200-meter freestyle semi-final and her gold medal swim.

Finally, we’re still in awe of the U.S. Women’s gymnastics team’s gold medal performance Tuesday night in the team final, and  *SPOILER ALERT* Gabby Douglas’ gold medal win in the all-around competition. Douglas is the first black woman to win the all-around title. You go, young women!

Compiled and written by Dana Shaker, Anna Diamond and Christine Parker.

Photo of U.S. beach volleyball players Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor under Wikimedia Commons.


  1. I’m glad you covered this from a feminist perspective.

    Might I also add that I’ve noticed commentators on NBC mostly refer to the Women’s US Gymnastic team by their first names, as opposed to their last names. I don’t know if this is because of their age, teenagers most under 18, or because they are female. It also happens to other female athletes in other sports, although less so than gymnastics. Every male competitor in the Olympics I’ve seen, regardless of age or sport, has been referred to by their full name or just their last name. So I think there is something going on with the amount of respect the commentators are giving young females as opposed to males.

  2. Also, thumbs up to the Olympics for accepting intersex athletes and others who don’t fall into the gender binary who have been challenged about their gender in the past (please correct me if there have been some challenges this year). The Olympics isn’t perfect, but it has come a long way since “nude parades” in the 60s, where women had to undress for judges. Now it just needs to work on its racism (and sexism still of course).

  3. Great roundup!

    Thought the inclusion of the suffragettes in the opening ceremony was an important gesture.

  4. Another addition: The media coverage by both social media users, bloggers, and MSM, of the Dutch women’s field hockey team is almost entirely about their looks. The problem isn’t that people are expressing their attraction to athletes, many do it with swimmers like Phelps and Lochte, but that the women are still judged based on their looks first, before or even instead of their athleticism (much like Gabby Douglas has been, although in that case a negative way). Another big issue is the “lesbian fantasy” that many males are projecting onto this team, fetishizing and sexualizing them, which is ultimately degrading.

  5. Red Cedar Cat says:

    I just don’t get why the female beach volleyball players have to wear bikinis, while the men wear long shorts. I think the boys should wear little speedos, so we can see their stuff, too!

  6. Been noting that for years. Bikinis Ball. The coverage and the “coverage” are as telling as the defensive responses from male viewers when it is noted. Players can wear what they want, and granted, you are going hear about it one way or the other. Women are just always going to be considered in the light of Men’s desires and preferences when men are present….Ignoring them and legislating things is about all you can do. But I like the idea of showing how it would look if men were held to the same standards as women. No it wouldn’t help per say, or would it?, but it does point out serious bias and inconsistencies. No wonder men get so pissed when you treat them the way most men treat women.

  7. Well said!

  8. You forgot to mention Nike’s failed attempt at being ironic with their “Gold Digging” shirt, available ONLY in women’s sizes, as a “celebration” of our female Olympians.

    Which, my biggest complaint, so far in the Olympics, is that, it’s like we went 1 step forward, 1 step back in Women’s Rights. First, with the requirements of women, but unfair judging on how a woman’s suppose to look like and now stereotyping only women as “Gold Diggers,” when that word has a negative meaning to it and just after Nike’s put out this nice video of female athletes:

    …Not to mention, by reading the comments in that article, people fail to comprehend the ‘bigger picture.’ It’s not just about the shirt, but how it reflects society’s bad attitude of women, in general. *Shrugs*

  9. Marjorie Osborne says:

    It seems clear that men who insist upon calling ‘Women’ ‘Girls’ are afrid THEY might be forced to act like ‘Grown Men’. Imagine THAT!

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