Women in Sports Are Literally Changing the Game. This Book Takes a Look at How—And Why

Macaela MacKenzie’s ‘Money, Power, Respect’ is our July Book Club pick. 
Women in Sports Are Literally Changing the Game. This Book Takes a Look at How—And Why

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Each month, the SELF Well-Read Book Club highlights a timely, delightful, and crucial book on a subject that helps readers live better lives. So far, we’ve covered everything from the politics of running to the state of modern motherhood.  

Sports are more than just a game—they both reflect and influence the culture at large. This creates fertile ground for changemakers (think Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King…shall I go on?), and the last decade or so of women’s professional sports, specifically, is no exception. When the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) was denied equal pay to their male counterparts—even after their 2019 World Cup win— they filed a class action lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation; in February 2022, they settled for $24 million. It’s a shame that such a decorated team was not compensated fairly from the start—after all, 14.3 million US viewers watched the team’s winning match, 22% more than the 11.4 million who tuned in for the Men’s World Cup final the previous year, according to data from Nielsen—but it made equal pay a front-page issue.

This example of the power and influence of women’s sports is just one of many that journalist and SELF contributor Macaela MacKenzie explores in her new book, Money, Power, Respect: How Women in Sports Are Shaping the Future of Feminism. In chapters that cover everything from the “pregnancy penalty” to transphobia to the myth that women are second-class athletes, MacKenzie does more than recount the deep and meaningful history of women in sports: She also shows how they are the future. Just in time for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, we’re thrilled to select Money, Power, Respect as our July SELF Well-Read Book Club Pick, and hope you’ll read along with us.

Below, get a short preview with an excerpt from chapter eight: “Sex Sells, Women Pay,” where MacKenzie talks with Olympic great Lindsey Vonn about the skier’s viral 2010 Sports Illustrated cover—a prime example of how women athletes are objectified and pushed to give up control of their own narratives. “In this rare moment when a woman in sports got a big spotlight to show off her accomplishments,” MacKenzie writes, “all anyone wanted to talk about was her ass.”

Lindsey Vonn built a career rocketing down a mountain at speeds up to 95 miles an hour, smashing the records of all but one other person to ever strap on skis, with nothing but spandex and two small pieces of fiberglass between her and the icy slopes. She was a supernova of skill, a once-in-a-generation athlete who left jaws on the floor every time she competed. But with every medal came cringe-worthy comments, “praise” that undermined her competence as an athlete. “She is without question one of the most famous athletes in the world. Part of that is her unparalleled success on the mountain,” read a 2018 ESPN profile of Vonn. “Part of that is her runway model looks.”

Vonn was the best woman in the history of an entire sport, but comments about her appearance followed her throughout her career: “I felt like more people thought I was good-looking than thought I was a great ski racer,” she tells me. It should go without saying that ski racing is a profession in which looks are irrelevant, but that never stopped commenters from picking over Vonn’s body, questioning her legacy, or attributing her success to her sex appeal rather than her hard-earned skill. In 2010, Vonn landed the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Winter Olympics issue—a big deal considering fewer than 5% of SI covers at the time featured women. She was at the peak of her game, and this was the moment for an icon-status shoot—the kind SI is so good at. For men, at least. The previous Winter Olympics issue featured four male members of the US Ski Team standing like mountain gods, skis jammed dominantly in the snow. Bode Miller and company looked as epic and towering as the menacing peak rising behind them. “FEARLESS” appeared in big bold letters above their names.

When Vonn’s Olympic cover dropped, it elicited a very different word: sexist. In the image, Vonn is in a downhill tuck—which, for non-ski fans roughly translates to bent over with her butt in the air. It created an immediate controversy, dividing the internet into two camps arguing over whether the image was overtly sexist—the result of a misogynistic magazine deliberately creating a provocative image to sell issues—or simply an accurate representation of a skier, who also happened to be an attractive woman, in an authentic ski pose. In this rare moment when a woman in sports got a big spotlight to show off her accomplishments, all anyone wanted to talk about was her ass.

The way we talk about women in sports matters. Even with equal pay and equal opportunity, equality you can sink your teeth into doesn’t exist without equal respect. This is why Vonn’s Sports Illustrated cover touched a nerve. Here was a chance to talk about the raw power and skill of one of the most competent sportswomen in history—to respect her game—and instead people were objectifying her.

Perhaps the pose was the problem: “If you only see women in sports in sexualized poses,” says Mary Jo Kane, the director emerita of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, “it doesn’t in any way upend, challenge, undermine, or destabilize all of the ways in which we think about women and their physical, biological and emotional capacities.” There is a vast body of research that supports this idea. “Sexualized women are viewed as lacking in both mental and moral capacity,” found one analysis published in the prestigious journal PLoS One in 2019. “As a result, they are seen as less competent and less human.” When the conversation became about Vonn’s sex appeal, it meant it wasn’t about her strength or speed or dominance or control. It wasn’t about her competence; it was about her body.

This is often the narrative that follows women in the public eye. From 2012 to 2016 women appeared on only 10% of Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine covers, according to a 2017 study—spicily titled “Sacrificing Dignity for Publicity”—conducted by Cynthia Frisby, professor emerita at the University of Missouri, who researches bias in media coverage. When women athletes did get the spotlight, the images featured “sexually objectifying poses, seductive eye gazes, scantily clad clothing, and sexy/inviting body poses,” Frisby found. Male athletes, unsurprisingly, “are often seen in their team uniforms depicted in active, game playing athletic motions associated or related to his sport.”

Vonn’s controversial cover straddles the line between those two categories. It was meant to be a re-creation of a famous Sports Illustrated cover from 1992, in which US Ski and Snowboard Hall of Famer A. J. Kitt also appeared in a downhill tuck with his spandex-clad butt in the air. There are a lot of similarities between the two images: same magazine, same sport, same downhill tuck. But there are also many subtle but powerful differences: Kitt’s cover feels much more like an action shot, his helmet is on, his focus is on the slopes. He is presented, unambiguously, as a competitor, a faceless master of the mountain. On Vonn’s cover, she’s clearly posed in a studio, rocking a smokey eye and glossy blonde hair, and staring straight at the viewer with a smile. Those differences are important. But so is this: We have a tendency to view women as sex objects no matter what they’re doing, or wearing, or how their hair is styled. “That never crossed my mind when I saw the image, but because I am a woman, it was somehow sexualized,” Vonn says now. “It was like this obscene thing. All of a sudden everyone was talking about it—I was like, ‘Why is Bill O’Reilly commenting on my downhill position?’ Why is it even a conversation?”

Women athletes can’t avoid their bodies being subjects of conversation. Actions and poses that make men seem respected, brave, and competent often translate to slutty, dramatic, and incompetent when they’re done by a woman. “Male athletes get to just be the athlete, and they can portray themselves however they wish to portray themselves,” says David Berri, the sports economist. Case in point: When Tom Brady made his Sports Illustrated cover debut posed coyly without a shirt in 2002 (it’s worth a google), no one let his sex appeal distract from talking about his competence as an athlete. When people discuss LeBron James’s legacy, no one presumes his “runway model looks” have anything to do with it. But for women, the scrutiny of the male gaze is constant and strategic: When the conversation is about whether a magazine cover is sexual, it’s not about the skill of the woman on it.

'Money, Power, Respect: How Women in Sports Are Shaping the Future of Feminism' by Macaela MacKenzie