Caster Semenya as You Cover Girl

Date: October 1, 2009
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These articles may be used to:
– discuss how aspects of gender aware reporting can be subtle;
– indicate that headlines can perpetuate gender stereotypes in news reporting;
– highlight stereotypes about women in sport;
– debate the existence of particular stereotypes surrounding how women ought to look.

Trainers’ notes:
Women’s month is celebrated during August in South Africa, as it marks the anniversary of the great Women’s March of 1956, where women marched to the Union Buildings to protest against the carrying of pass books. However, the same month sees rights of women continue to be violated, and gender stereotypes perpetuated by media after Caster Semenya broke the world record in women’s 800m and subsequently facing accusations of being a man.

Articles analyzed look at three things; (1) Semenya’s exclusive You magazine photo shoot (2) the reports on the leaked gender tests results and public comments and views on the whole issue. To start with, the You magazine cover, “Wow look at Caster now”, serves nothing but to speed up notions that Semenya is indeed a man, and to make a point that they (You Magazine) have worked hard to change that by dressing her up with in makeup, a dress, and a new hairstyle. One can ask why did You went all out with this title (“Wow look at Caster now”), because it sounds as if they have constantly observed Semenya since birth, and all they have seen is a man dressing up in jeans and tracksuits which they think does not resemble a woman. It is a known fact that the whole world, including the media only started taking note of Semenya only during the IAAF championship competition in Berlin. That means the only picture of Semenya the world knows is the one where she is wearing athletics or running suits. This clearly means that before the competition the world did not know Semenya and do not know if she prefers wearing dresses or not? So what justifies You to come up with this type of a title for her cover? Is You saying that Semenya has never worn a dress before? If that is what they believe, do they have evidence for it? It is apparent from the article that Semenya would like to wear dresses more often but she does not get a chance due to her athletics commitment. This on its own reveals that Semenya does wear dresses but not often and sees herself as a woman. Without any doubt, despite the leaked results, this title finds itself insisting on a theory that Semenya is a man, which is wrong because the gender test results have not yet been officially released or confirmed. In this way, the article violates Semenya’s right and also infringes on her privacy. One can only say that the article is blatant stereotype.

However, one cannot entirely blame You for coming up with an idea to give Semenya a photo shoot, just in the middle of the gender controversy because it is understood that the media has power to influence public perception and what one sees is that You was trying to change a perception that Semenya is a boy. Nevertheless, the way they went about it was ill guided. It is evident in the article that before the shoot she had said she does not prefer wearing high heels but You went ahead dressing her up in them. This is an example of a society that still hold stereotypical believes that to be a woman one needs to wear a dress, hair extensions, high heels and make-up? Can’t the world and the media let Semenya be who she is?
The Star reported that Semenya went in hiding and there are concerns that she might commit suicide amid reports an Australian newspaper broke a story of how International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) tests showed that Semenya, is a hermaphrodite, or intersexed. Despite the fact that the article tries to present an overview of what took place with the You photo shoot and the leaked tests results it present Semenya as a victim not only of gender crusification but also to herself. Although it is obvious that Semenya would be sad and traumatised over reports, statements claiming she might commit suicide and that she is scared of herself just join stereotypical groups that insist women are weak and cannot stand for themselves.

The article features a statement from a journalist that wrote the leaked results story but missed an opportunity to condemn the inhuman conduct by that report. Despite all this, reading the Mail & Guardian story one realize that in spite of all the media reports about Semenya the South African public is behind her and see her a hero and not a victim like the media does.

Discussion Questions

  • What is your opinion of the Semenya makeover?
  • How does media stereotype women in sport?

Training exercises

Exercise one: You are an editor at a national publication and very confidential information about a national female athlete’s sex test results falls onto your lap. Would you run the story or you will wait for an official confirmation? If you are going to run the story how would you approach it to make sure that it does not violate the athlete’s rights to privacy.

  • What sort of headline would you have?Who would you speak to?
  • What angle are you going to take?
  • How are you going to make sure that the story does not propagate gender stereotypes?
  • How would you go about balancing the sources in terms of gender representation in news reports?
  • What sorts of facts would you have to back you up should your report be deemed a defamation of character?
  • What sorts of ethical issues are you going to pay attention to in order to avoid defaming the athlete?

Exercise two: Study the article and consider the following questions.

  • Is the story gender-blind or gender aware? Explain answer.
  • What gender issues are highlighted in the article?

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