Women are depicted in the Super Bowl and other televised mega-sports in ways that proclaim, “This world is for men, about men, and because of men. You women may participate, but only in forms that are pleasing to men.”
Keep reading and you’ll understand why sociologists aren’t invited to many parties. I’m a sociologist—we’re the ones who go to football games and watch the crowd. We’re the ones who manage to make a living by complaining about pretty normal stuff. But, we’re also the ones who point out that the so-called “normal” is sometimes pretty sinister. We take a certain delight in pointing out that our significant idols are frequently disguised by social forms that that render them opaque. A football game is never just a football game, the World Cup is always more than it appears, and the Olympics represent more than morally driven dedication. No, you don’t want to invite us to parties. You don’t want us…but you do need us, and we need the work! Pass the Doritos and read on.
I’m not a huge televised sports fan—something of an oddity in the social circles in which I run. During March Madness, the World Cup, or the World Series, my bandwidth usage at work doesn’t increase much (although I must admit to checking the Tour de France statistics—who’s winning, who’s hurt, who’s dosing—with more than disinterest). Nonetheless, teaching both Sociology of Religion and the Sociology of Sport, my attention is piqued when these two subjects intersect—when sport and religion combine in an almost seamless garment of praise. Putting on the full armour of Christ seems to include a helmet, shoulder pads, and a fierce sense of team loyalty during the early part of February—Super Bowl season. So, although I’m a fair-weather fan at best, I dutifully tune into that bastion of righteousness—network television—and prepare to live out the motto of the college where I work, “In all things Christ pre-eminent.”
Except if I was with Jesus…I’d be more than a little embarrassed to be watching the Super Bowl—even if there were a little Tebowing in his honour.
My concern with the Super Bowl—where do I start?—derives from the depictions of women it offers. In the conservative Presbyterian denomination in which I serve as elder, there is ongoing concern about the “proper” roles of women, accompanied by a fear of encroaching liberalism perceived as enmeshed with feminist ideals, and so on. Presbytery meetings and General Assemblies host passionate debates devoted to the topic, and speakers at men’s retreats implore us (speaking as a man here) to take back our households for God. My sociological instincts prime me to agree we should think carefully about the conceptualization and presentation of women’s statuses and their related roles—I’m just not convinced that we’ve adequately framed the parameters of this debate.
I have two daughters (eleven and seven years old) and am ever aware that their understanding of their worth as young women is structured more by our televised sports, mass entertainment, and the plastic surgery billboards placed at eye level on the way to their Christian elementary school (really!) than by much of what we try to teach in Church and Sunday school.
And so, I watched the Super Bowl with an eye on the questions framed in the feminist chapter of my sociological theory text—”Where are the women in any situation being investigated? If they are not present, why? If they are present, what exactly are they doing? How do they experience the situation? What do they contribute to it? What does it mean to them?”—I also asked myself how the scriptures depict women, and how our arena sports influence my efforts to raise my daughters in ways critically illuminated by scriptural texts.
I contend that the way we consume iconic national events like the Super Bowl better depicts what we really believe about women and their so-called roles than do our formal theological statements, denominational position papers, teachings about the spiritual disciplines, and admonitions toward modesty and fidelity. For in the invisibility of normality, there we find our idolatry. And in my experience, theology can’t touch the Super Bowl.
Churches near where I live cancel evening services for it, and some even project the festivities on sanctuary screens. We’re a far cry from theological forbears like Calvin, who, according to author Shirl James Hoffman, made quite a stir after soberly reflecting on what sort of recreations one might participate in on Sunday, and indulged in a game resembling bowling in his after-worship time on the Lord’s day.
Getting turned on by a Kia Optima ad (or did you miss this commercial?) would likely not fit with his notion of doing all for the glory of God. Or, perhaps we can just ignore these contradictions to our faith. Why not? But, while you, my brothers and sisters in the faith, are watching the Super Bowl, what will you tell my daughters? And at least as important, what have your sons learned about my daughters? For until we suspend our mantra that all of life is a sacred calling unto the Lord, a game is never just a game. And so here are my ponderings about Super Bowl XLVI—with an eye on the women.
First, women play minor roles in most parts of the Super Bowl, and when they are present and featured, they are usually eroticized. Their agency is not chiefly linked to their minds or the wholeness of their persons, but is unmistakably connected to their bodies. There are a few female reporters present, but the play-by-play commentary is wholly delivered by men. This is not unintentional.
Well-known Sport sociologist Jay Coakley explains that most sports coverage prioritizes the interests and concerns of male athletes in ways that reaffirm traditional gender ideologies—ideologies glamourizing violence, dominance, aggression, and social distance from women, that we Christians should probably be careful about endorsing. Coakley cites Kelly White who writes, “Although women in the print media regularly cover men’s sports, very few women have done regular commentary for men’s sports in the electronic media apart from occasional ‘sideline reporters’ who often are expected to look cute and talk to the guys as if they were at a ‘frat house’ with no other women around.” Coakley concludes, “Women are seldom seen except when portrayed in sexual terms, or as cheerleaders, spectators, and supportive spouses and mothers on the sidelines.”