“Castigated and celebrated”: The case of Caster Semenya

Date: July 14, 2011
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Description of the saga
In August 2009, 18 year old black female South African athlete Mokgadi Caster Semenya won the world women’s 800 meter race in world record time at the Berlin World Athletics Championships competition. Along with this achievement was a gold medal prize embedded with fame and fortune. It was not only a cause for celebration for her but her amazing performance also brewed an international controversy that culminated in calls for sex verification tests.

In simple language the international spectators questioned if Semenya is a man or a woman. The argument from one group was that if Semenya is a man, then she has competitive advantage because man and woman have physical differences that provide functional advantages. Therefore Semenya would have won the 800m race based on unfair advantage and misrepresentation. Others expressed outrage arguing that Semenya was being unfairly treated.

The debate about her being female or male was at stake despite the scandal being used by politicians and some citizens to push different agendas. For instance, it cast some critical light on how the country is still divided along racial and political lines. Further questions would be; is it a reflection of race or gender stereotypes, inability of society to deal with gender benders or simply the controversies that characterize competitive sport and the idea of fair play? If the test proved that Semenya is not female, she would be stripped of the prestigious gold medal.

Name of Publications
The articles being analysed were pushed in the following newspapers:
– The Star (Daily)
– The Times (Daily)
– The Citizen (Daily)
– The Sunday Independent (Weekly)
– The Sunday Times (Weekly)
– City Press (Weekly)
The articles were published between August and September 2009.
South Africa
The following themes were identified:
– Culture and Tradition
– Gender equality
– Gender violence
– Human rights
– Media
– Racism
– Politics
– Reproductive health
– Sports
The articles selected for this analysis fall within the following genres:
– Cartoons
– Editorials
– Features
– Images
– News
– Opinion
– Adverts
GEM Classification
There are three main aspects of gender that the stories around the Semenya saga illustrate. These are:
– Gender blind
– Blatant stereotypes
– Subtle Stereotypes
Section B that follows provides the analysis of the articles selected. The articles are analysed according to the following:
– Accuracy
– Fairness
– Headlines
– Sources
– Language
– Visual images and captions
– Perspective
– Placement or positioning
As noted in the first section, a media whirlwind descended on Semenya. This section provides an analysis of the mediation and seeks to provide an answer as to whether the Semenya saga was reported on fairly and accurately. In addition, it demonstrates how the issue played in the media and if the media challenged society’s perceptions. In our conclusion, we note that to a greater extent, the media coverage was unfair and sustained relations of power whereby men were given an opportunity to speak and divert the attention from the real issues that the saga posed. In a nutshell, the media missed an opportunity of educating society and those in positions of authority about hermaphrodites.
A bird’s eye view on the Semenya saga reveals a gross breach of journalistic standards in the manner in which the saga unfolded in the media. Most of the articles that were written by the journalists omitted information that could have added value to the story. Further, the mediation marginalised public interest and suppressed diversity.
There was tendency by the ANC and the media to skirt around the real issue surrounding Semenya’s story. It seemed it had become more of a political issue than anything else. The media spectacle seemed to be a sexist and racist vilification of a young woman who had become a symbol of Africa’s triumph on the world athletics stage.
In a news headline “Stofile threatens ‘war’ over Caster”, the sports minister pointed out that “I think it [excluding Semenya from competing] would be the third world war”. Other political leaders such as Minister Edna Molewa went on to say that Semenya had been humiliated by people who do not believe that an African woman could compete with her European counterparts on the world stage” (The Star; Aug 26, 2009). This is not an accurate statement as it does not address the issue at stake and had nothing to do with her origin. Sex tests were introduced not because of black athletes but because of various competitors from different countries that sought to cheat their way to a medal.
In another headline “Respect the rules and respect other South Africans” (The Star; Sept 18, 2009), politicians such as Julius Malema jumped onto the bandwagon and used Semenya’s tragedy to push a political and racist agenda. In turn, this infringed on Semenya’s rights as a person. The tendency of avoiding real issues at stake questions the credibility and accuracy of information presented to us as evidenced by the stories around the saga. Instead of confronting head on the issue that raised eyebrows of many, politicians saw it as an opportunity of ventilating their political issues out of her situation which is unpalatable to any considerate person.
On the other hand, the media did not treat Semenya fairly and there was a tendency of understating facts. There were instances when she was fairly treated for instance when the media celebrated her success and in news headlines, they foregrounded this.
“Our golden girl”
“Caster truly a heroine”
“Semenya takes ruling in stride”
While a handful of articles represented Semenya fairly, a large number represented her unfairly. For instance the article “Caster gets made over”, the media attempts to normalise Semenya by trying to put make-up on her so that they can rightfully portray her as a woman. At the same time, the athlete was not given agency.
A headline can be a summary of the article. Some headlines are very brief leading to unintentional double meaning. The Semenya saga made headlines in various newspapers. Some of the headlines were highly sensationalised. Refer to artefacts.
Conversations around caster Semenya’s saga have been both progressive and mostly regressive as there is no balance in terms of sources from which the media scooped their stories. On some occasions we do hear Caster’s voice and she comments on issues that affected her, which was good, but in most cases she was not given an opportunity to speak out. Instead other people spoke on her behalf which leaves one wandering as to how accurate the information is and why she was not interviewed.
On the one hand we read Semenya’s comments and how she felt about the whole issue. She says that “…but when I crossed the finish line I couldn’t believe it. I have always known that one day I would be a world champion but I didn’t believe it would come this soon. I still can’t believe it man”. (City Press; August 23, 2009). In this story, she has been given a chance to tell us her personal experience and how she felt. We are left with no questions as to how credible or reliable the news is because it is first hand information and she has spoken for herself. The media has portrayed her in a very positive way which is plausible.
The Times newspaper also interviewed Semenya and quoted “I didn’t do this to prove a point but rather to have fun, I don’t give a damn what people say about me. I like the way I am and who cares about what other people say?” “I enjoyed the shoot, wish I could do more, but I can’t because I don’t have time for them. I have training to prepare for the Commonwealth games, which are soon, and studies to get through at the same time” (The Times; September 8, 2009). This was in reference to the makeover that You magazine had done on Semenya. However others disagreed with the makeover and pointed out that “she is not a liquid tights type of girl” she looks great as she is, so why not let her be.
On the other hand Semenya is not even interviewed and used as a source in stories about her. Men are used as experts to comment around issues concerning Semenya, “but it is always not clear what is meant by ‘fully female’, says Dr Ross Tucker, a sports scientist at the sports scientist institute in Cape Town. Noakes says a simple examination of an athlete’s genitalia should be sufficient, because the tests to which Semenya will be submitted to will open ‘a can of worms'”. (City Press; August 23, 2009).
In other instances the media interviewed other people and used them as sources and in some instances we are not even told the name of the source. Her former teacher, friends and neighbors commented “although she was just another high school pupil, Caster excelled at male soccer, athletics and softball simultaneously and often trained on her own. Semenya, instead of catching a taxi to visit her parents, she would run the 10km trip”, (City Press; August 23, 2009). This is one incident that Caster should have been afforded the opportunity to speak for herself. In cases where there are multiple sources they were not representative as most of them were male.
Gender is the dominant society’s views on how women and men should look, behave, what roles they should play in society, how they should perform and frequently what rewards they receive – hence gender inequity. This has usually led to lower status and discrimination against girls/women but has increasingly been seen as limiting the options and potentially harming boys/men too. Gender is not a politically correct term for sex. Sex testing would be just that – establishing whether a person is biologically female or male. So gender testing is not the term that should be used in this case, but sex testing.
The words sex and gender were confused and used interchangeably around conversations by the media as they wrote about the Semenya Saga. The lack of understanding about gender and sex is worrying. From our own understanding “sex”” refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women while “gender” refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that society defines as being for men and women. Put another way: “male” and “female” are sex categories, while “masculine” and “feminine” are gender categories.
Media had it that the IAAF had asked Semenya to go undergo a gender test and one wanders how this was going to be carried out, what sort of questions would one ask her in order to establish whether she is male or female. Secondly who qualified to do a “gender” test on her and what made them experts at it. “According to Media 24, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) asked Athletics South Africa, (ASA) to conduct a gender screening test on her. But ASA president Leonard Chuene refuted this allegation and said that she had not undergone further gender test in Berlin before her race” (Mail & Guardian; August 21, 2009). It is apparent that both the media and the public at large confuse sex for gender and gender for sex.
This confusion falls short of clarity as to whether she was to undergo a gender test in the real sense and we do not know what kind of questions one would ask in order to assess if she is a man or a woman. On the other hand, we wander if they were referring to a sex test where she would be medically checked the type of genitalia she has, levels of testosterone, psychological tests etc.
The clipping “She is a lady man” suggests that the media itself portrayed some streaks of confusion or rather a care free attitude towards Semenya as noted from the headline in the Mail and Guardian of August 21, 2009. They were writing about how unfair the golden girl was treated by the IAAF and seemed to sympathize with her yet they are publicising that they are not even sure if Semenya is a woman or a man. This headline appears like an attempt to send a message to the public that muscles are for men, success is for men and only boys are allowed and expected to win gold medals.
Sunday Times made a headline and quoted, “Hero Caster’s road to gold…” (Sunday Times; August 30, 2001). The paper goes on to say “On Friday she received a hero’s welcome in her home village, Mashelong, in Moletjie outside Polokwane”. First of all, a lady victor is referred to as ‘heroine” and this unfortunately demonstrates ignorance on the part of the media. Secondly, taking a step back one stops to think if men are the only humans capable of achieving the title ‘hero’ and that women cannot be as smart, athletic and successful as men. Thirdly commenting that she received a hero’s welcome subtly implicates that Caster had to be a man for having won the gold medal in the 800m race, yet she did not even break the record set by other women athletes in the past.
However the The Citizen seemed to be cognisant of the difference between the two words, hero and heroine as they made a headline that said ‘Our golden girl caster Semenya is truly a heroine’, (The Citizen; September 12, 2009). The paper went on to say, “By publicly announcing doubts about her in Berlin, officials placed enormous pressure on this young woman. (And she is a woman by gender, that’s how she was brought up and that’s how she perceives herself, whatever the sex test may show”. Clearly the paper proved beyond reasonable doubt that they are not confusing gender and sex and have used both terms appropriately.
The images used in the mediation are both positive and negative.
Progressive images: They represent Semenya on the track (refer to artefact), that is in the public space. In addition, the caption on the photo celebrates Semenya’s success and clearly notes that she is a “star performer”. In another image, the caption notes that Semenya is “untouchable” and the image was captured just when she crossed the finish line and raising her index finger. It seems as though she is saying “i’m number one”.
However, some of the images are not very encouraging and they show that while celebrating her success, some of the images suggest that Semenya was the villain in this whole saga.
For a woman caught up in a saga, one image did not make things any better. The caption says that Semenya is “confused” probably because of the sex test and “scared” that the medal may be taken away from her. It does not give her agency and thus she is a victim. In this image, she is shown as a very sad woman. Another image again foregrounds the idea that Semenya cannot determine her destiny. She is shown here sort of wandering and thinking and thus the heading, which is put in bold “Caster in limbo”.
Arguably, the media was not so sure about the perspective to foreground in the coverage of the Semenya case. They tended to focus on the science issue which obscured the real issue of gender stereotyping and discrimination. Professor Tim Noakes, an international sports science expert says the issue of ‘unfair advantage’ which is the only thing that should be at play here as it is in the case of drug use is simple to establish. He states that the issue that needed to be clarified here was whether the person concerned is a man masquerading as a woman or not. This could be established by a simple physical examination ‘handled within the usual constraints of the doctor/patient domain – not in the public domain” (Cape Argus, “Why the world should leave Caster alone” August 21, 2009:21).
Another question that the case raised is what lies at the heart of the matter, social norms. While issues of racism and imperialism have and will continue to apply in various circumstances and have a sensitive history in terms of women’s bodies particularly in Africa, focusing on these issues in the current context obscures the much neglected ‘elephant in the room’ – gender discrimination.
Comments within the press were unwittingly guilty of this same problem in placing ‘blame’ at Athletics South Africa or her coach’s door. They argued that the authorities should have pre-empted this situation, given her prior experiences (at the hands of the teachers, members of the public and previous authorities). ‘Pre-empting the situation’ would fall prey to exactly the same prejudices – pandering to what people perceive to be ‘normal’ for girls or women. This is akin to what might have happened during the apartheid era where actions may have tried to stave off racism by negotiating black people’s entry into racially reserved sporting or cultural events before the time. In another article, the media went on to say that “traumatised teen SA’s new Saartjie Baartman”. The Baartman issue is a very sensitive one to South Africans and by foregrounding this, the media was brewing hatred towards the IAAF by South Africans. Framing the discrimination as racism or imperialism, without reference to gender discrimination as the main issue, risked reinforcing gender stereotypes.
Again, what the mediation eventually demonstrated is that societies have a long way to go in terms of changing the dominant ideas on how women and men should ‘look’ and behave and perform and in some cases, dress – and allow for variations in ‘looks’ and roles to be underpinned by what people would like to be and do, rather than societies’ current dominant expectations. There are many excellent organisations in our own country and abroad that have worked with women and men on this issue, but as it is all too obvious from this and other cases, much work is still needed for these choices and this freedom to take root in the broader society as a whole.
The article about her makeover shows how the media and other players tried to “normalise” Semenya and make her appear as a “real woman”. As if that was not enough, in the article that follows, the media even went to ask if she had a boyfriend because as a woman and at her age, she is expected to have a boyfriend.
Semenya should not have had to deal with a world controversy over her win. She should have unreservedly basking in the glory of her and the nation’s incredible victory. No doubt she experienced this humiliation and discrimination at other levels before and had become somewhat hardened to its effect. It was such a shame for not ‘naming’ the issue for what it was and for perpetuating gender stereotypes and discrimination in her individual case and in society as a whole.
Most of the articles around the Semenya case made headlines and front page stories. Some of the stories were placed inside the newspaper, the headlines were again bolded giving them prominence. However, this prominence was negative and does not advance women’s position in society. Further, the media did not give Semenya a voice and thus the stories were biased. This is a basic requirement of journalistic practice.

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