The XX Factor

How One Innocuous Study Spun Out of Control

The real question: Why aren’t we watching women’s sports?

Photograph by Karlsen, Anette/AFP/GettyImages.

I’m usually a fan of smug, self-righteous blog posts tearing into media distortions of scientific studies, but Hamilton Nolan is ripping into the wrong team with his piece at Gawker tut-tutting the little ladies for getting upset at yet again being told that women have no inherent interests outside of man-pleasing. It’s a shame, too, because he really lays out an excellent yarn of how a well-intended and even feminist study about sports fandom got dumped into a media machine addicted to running provocative stories insinuating that the ladies are just born inferior, and how that in turn tends to provoke feminists who are fed up with this nonsense. The problem is that he then assigns most of the blame to the outraged lady bloggers, when there was just so much blame to go around.

To summarize: A paper published in Communication, Culture and Critique examining the sports-watching habits of 19 women concluded that one reason women’s sports are still struggling to gain an audience is that women don’t have as much time to spend on sports as men, mostly because they’re busy running the vacuum under their husbands’ feet as they watch the game. When the interviewed women do watch sports, it’s in the context of “family time,” which means, unsurprisingly, that the teams they watch are the husbands’ favorites. In short, women are still deeply unequal on the domestic front. I know, I’m surprised too.

The problem really started with reporting in the Los Angeles Times that took this rather feminist study and skewed it so that it read more like a click-happy reaffirmation of the sexist belief that women’s disinterest in sports is the result of something being wrong with women, and not with society or sports culture. The headline (“Wives Watch Sports for Husband’s Sake, Study Reports”) and the initial paragraphs paint a picture of women pretending to like sports to impress men, which in turn triggered pre-existing audience stereotypes about how women are too stupid to know what a “down” is. It wasn’t until paragraph seven that the writer, Monte Morin, got around to discussing how the study wasn’t actually about women only pretending to like sports, and was in fact more about how women don’t have the time nor really the interpersonal power to be the dominant sports fans in their households. Even then, Morin downplayed the actual conclusions to play up a narrative of women who are so invested in man-pleasing we’ll be bored silly for hours pretending to care about those sports that are too complex for our lady brains to grasp.

With that in mind, it’s unsurprising that feminist blogs reacted poorly. Yes, they had a responsibility before posting to see if the problem was the study itself or Morin’s ridiculously sexist skewing of it. On the other hand, it’s not completely crazy that, say, Jezebel bloggers believed what they read in the L.A. Times, assuming that paper has much higher standards than the New York Post or the Daily Mail (two publications known for teasing a misogynist narrative out of any press release).

Additionally, Nolan is being a bit glib by describing the situation with:

Was it really possible that a 21-page double-blind, peer-reviewed academic study with 80 separate cited sources could be so TOTALLY BULLSHIT that a typical non-Ph.D. non-scientist writing on a blog could dismiss it out of hand simply by considering what they believed its conclusions to be?

Most studies involving gender that get a lot of play in the media are poorly constructed “evolutionary psychology” studies run by nonbiologists making obnoxiously sexist claims about all of human evolution based on things like women’s shopping patterns. With that kind of background noise, it becomes hard not to reject out-of-hand what appears to be another “men are like this/women are like that (which is dumber)” study, even if a little digging would demonstrate that the problem was the initial reporting and not the study itself. Final verdict: Feminist bloggers made a mistake, but Morin made a bigger one. Maybe a 40/60 blame disbursement if you want to put a number on it.

In conclusion, for the good of us all, it would be nice if there wasn’t pressure to twist every study possible into a headline about how women bring all their problems on themselves for being born stupid. Stopping and asking, “Is the traffic really worth it?” before going with that narrative would have done a lot to prevent this embarrassing series of events. Of course, while that would be nice, so would be having a pony that poops Amazon gift certificates.