Representation of Athletic Girls on Young Adult Sport Fiction Cover Art

in Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal
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  • 1 Sam Houston State University

The purpose of this study was to examine how and how often athletic girls were represented on the cover art of young adult (YA) sport fiction. In this research, 154 YA sport fiction books were analyzed using quantitative content analysis. Using existing sport research and theory focused on women’s representation in sport media, the researchers developed a coding scheme to assess cover art for each of the following categories: (a) presence and racial representation of female character/s on cover; (b) portrayal of female body on cover (whole body, partial body/with head, or partial body/without head); (c) portrayal of female character as active or passive; (d) portrayal of female character in or out of athletic uniform; (e) portrayal of female character in or out of the sport setting; (f) presence of sport equipment; and (g) type of cover. Findings revealed that 81% of the book covers had a female character in which 29% of the covers displayed the whole body, 47% displayed partial body/with head, and 23% displayed partial body/with no head of the female character. Only 0.06% of the book covers had a female character of color. Approximately 31% of the female characters were displayed in active positioning, 58% in athletic attire, and 44% in the sport setting. Of the books reviewed, 55% displayed equipment on the cover. The findings indicate that athletic girls have few images on YA sport fiction cover art that accurately represent their athleticism, and there is a clear absence of diverse representation. It is critical that those responsible for the design and layout of book covers clearly represent active females in action, in uniform, and in the sport context.

Over the past 30 years, a significant amount of feminist research has examined the mediated representations of athletic females in various forms of print and electronic media including television (Messner, Cooky, & Hextrum, 2010; Messner, Duncan, & Cooky, 2003), magazines (Bruce, 2013; Weber & Carini, 2013), newspapers (Kaiser & Skoglund, 2006; Toft, 2011), and digital media (Clavio & Eagleman, 2011). The majority of this research has focused on how and how often female athletes are represented. Findings from this 30-year body of work, referred to as the first wave of sport media research, have found that across mediums, female athletes are considerably underrepresented (LaVoi, 2013). According to Bruce (2013), female athletes are represented in less than 10% of print media. Kaiser and Skoglund (2006) examined the column inches and feature photos that were above the fold on the front page of the sports section on two U.S. newspapers from 1940 to 2005. The findings indicated that coverage of female athletes declined over time and never exceeded 10%. Toft (2011) found that in 80 newspapers in 22 countries, only 9% of the articles were focused on sportswomen. In Sports Illustrated, one of the premier sports magazines, Fink and Kensicki (2002) found that only 10% of photographs from 1997 to 1999 featured sportswomen, and in 2013, female athletes were represented on only 4.9% of Sports Illustrated covers, a percentage that has decreased over the years (Weber & Carini, 2013). On television, a similar trend has emerged (Bruce, 2013). Messner et al. (2010) found that ESPN’s SportsCenter devoted a mere 1.4% of coverage to women’s sport, while three network affiliates in Los Angeles devoted only 1.6% to women’s sports in 2009.

When female athletes are represented, research has found that they are typically pictured outside the sport setting, out of their athletic uniform, and emphasis is placed on their femininity and heterosexuality (LaVoi, 2013). Research has also found that when photographed, female athletes are often portrayed in passive poses and in ways that not only objectify their bodies, but sometimes resemble soft pornography (Fink & Kensicki, 2002). Weber and Carini (2013) found that when female athletes were on the cover of Sports Illustrated, they typically shared the cover with a male, were nonathletes, were involved in traditionally feminine sports, and/or were represented in a sexually suggestive manner. As Kane and Buysse (2005) summarized, female athletes are more likely than male athletes to be “portrayed off the court, out of uniform and in passive and sexualized poses” (p. 215). Such representation fails to exemplify women’s physical competence and abilities. In 2019, Buysse and Wolter (2019) published a 26-year longitudinal analysis of intercollegiate Division I media guides from 1989 to 2017. Consistent with other mediums, the findings reveal that there were higher percentages of male players portrayed in their uniforms, in action, and in their sport context. Furthermore, over the 26 years of the study, true athleticism (in sport, in uniform, and active) was always higher for men than for women; female athletes were often portrayed as stereotypically feminine, and while only a small percentage of female athletes were presented in a sexually suggestive manner, it was more often than male athletes.

While the majority of research has focused on sportswomen, little research has focused on the representation of athletic adolescent girls (Kane, 1998; LaVoi, Becker, & Maxwell, 2007). As LaVoi et al. (2007) indicated, “sport media research has lacked investigation of mediums that impact non-elite youth athletes and adolescent girls, and youth coaches and parents of young female athletes” (p. 9). In addition, the majority of sport media research has focused on print and broadcast journalism; sport literature has been severely neglected (Kane, 1998; Kriegh & Kane, 1997; Roper & Clifton, 2013; Singleton, 2004, 2006; Whiteside, Hardin, DeCarvalho, Carillo, & Smith, 2013).

More recently, researchers have critically explored new and emerging models of female athleticism in an era characterized as postfeminist (Cooky, 2018; Lucas & Holder, 2018; Thorpe, Hayhurst, & Chawansky, 2018). In 2018, Toffoletti, Thorpe, and Francombe-Webb (2018) published New Sporting Femininities: Embodied Politics in Postfeminist Times, a collection of work that examines the complex and often contradictory ways that women’s athletic participation is promoted, represented, and experienced in the context of postfeminism. For example, employing a critical postfeminist line of inquiry, Cooky (2018) examined the representations of American athletes during a cultural moment in which feminism was widely circulated in mainstream culture—2015—“the year of women in sports” (p. 26). Cooky used the selection of Serena Williams in 2015 as Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsperson of the Year” and the U.S. women’s national team World Cup win to ask critical questions regarding “what is indeed ‘new’ about the sporting femininities depicted in mainstream sport news mediaca [sic] in the USA” (p. 23). As Cooky explained,

What is distinctive at this particular moment [2015] is the entanglement of feminist and anti-feminist ideas within sport media, the pervasiveness of individual choice and empowerment in shaping understandings and representations of women’s sport, and the shifting responsibility for gender equality away from sport structures and institutions and onto individuals. (p. 38)

In this recent work that draws upon literature that engages with both feminist and postfeminist considerations, there is a call for a more nuanced critical understanding of the power relations involved in the representation of athletic women and girls (Thorpe et al., 2018).

Young Adult Sport Literature

Sport literature is an important medium that includes biographies, fiction, and nonfiction. The Young Adult Library Services Association of the American Library Association defines a young adult (YA) as someone between the ages of 12 and 18 (Doll, 2012). Sports have been a central theme of YA literature for many years. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the majority of the YA sport literature focused primarily on the competition and excitement of sport and targeted male readers (Crowe, 2001; Schneider, 2011). It was not until the 1980s that YA sport literature began to expand its depth. Sport fiction writers during this time began writing stories not focused exclusively on the competitive action associated with the sport but used athletes as main characters with deeper issues (Crowe, 2001). As Schneider (2011) suggested, “few sport novels are only about sports; if they’re any good, they’re about lots of things in life—family, friends, the street, jock culture, and the like” (p. 72).

In 2001, Crowe examined the trends in contemporary YA sport fiction and found the following themes: (a) age of the audience declining, (b) sport literature helpful at reaching reluctant readers, (c) sports novel are widely read, (d) the primary character in most YA sport novels are male, (e) protagonists in YA sport literature have flaws, (f) most coaches are portrayed negatively, and (g) baseball received more attention in YA sport novels than any other sport. While the majority of YA sport novels are written for a male audience, there are increasing numbers of YA sport novels featuring female protagonists (Crowe, 2001; Evans, Heath, Peters, Byrd, & Rogers, 2011). Evans et al. (2011) examined the history and development of girls’ sport literature from the early 19th century to the year 2000. In their search, they found a total of 354 YA girls’ sports books published between 1815 and 2000. Of the 354 books, 22 were published between 1815 and 1900, seven between 1900 and 1915, 32 between 1960 and 1972, and 272 between 1973 and 1999. The significant increase between 1973 and 1999 is not surprising, considering the number of substantial changes in women’s sports during this time period (e.g., passage of Title IX in 1972). It is important to note that of the 354 books, the majority were biographies or nonfiction. The nonfiction books included resource books, such as Aquatics Guide (1973) or Baton Twirling is for Me (1981). The sports biographies were abundant, featuring a variety of prominent sports popular in that era for women and girls (Evans et al., 2011). While they represent the fewest numbers of books, YA sport fiction featuring female protagonists has been found to be increasing in number (seven in 1970s, 12 in 1980s, and 33 in 1990s).

Representation of Female Athletes in Sport Literature

While Evans et al. (2011) documented the history of YA sport literature marketed to girls, and other writers have acknowledged the absence of female protagonists in YA sport literature (Crowe, 2001; Schneider, 2011), little research has examined the representations of physically active and athletic girls in YA sport literature (Kane, 1998; Kriegh & Kane, 1997). This is a critical age period as evidence suggests that physical activity levels of girls decreases rapidly during the adolescence years (National Physical Activity Plan Alliance, 2018). According to the Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance System, the percentage of girls meeting the 60-min physical activity guidelines for Americans decreased from 22% in ninth grade to 16.4% in 12th grade (Kann et al., 2016).

In 1998, Kane analyzed 26 “lone girl” novels in which adolescent girls tried out for boys’ sport teams or participated on a girls’ team. The findings revealed that while the female protagonists were initially thought to challenge gender norms, these acts of resistance developed in ways that upheld and preserved the stereotypical perceptions regarding girls’ “true nature” in sport (e.g., physically less competent than boys/men, ill-equipped). Singleton (2004) examined two featured characters, Grace Harlowe and Dorothy Dixon, of two early 20th century book series for girls. Specifically, Singleton examined what messages about being physically active were conveyed to YA readers through these books. While Grace and Dorothy were symbols of resistance to the ideological assumptions and stereotypes associated with female participation in sport, like the female protagonists Kane (1998) studied, Grace and Dorothy routinely balanced their physical competence and desire for adventure with iterations of femininity. As Singleton (2004) indicated, “the more harrowing the adventure, the more necessary it is for ‘the girls’ to freshen up immediately after” (p. 131). In 2006, Singleton examined The Girls of Central High, a seven-book series published from 1914 to 1919. The series focused on physically active high school girls who organized and participated in a competitive sport league. Singleton (2006) detailed the significance of the series and how many of the struggles the female protagonists faced continue to resonate in women’s and girls’ sport experiences today (e.g., fairness, stereotypes). More recently, Roper and Clifton (2013) explored the ways in which physically active females were represented in 10 children’s picture books. Employing a qualitative content analysis methodology (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005), the written and pictorial portrayals of girls’ physical activities were analyzed. While the 10 books studied provide young girls (aged 4–8 years) with imagery and text that encourage female physicality, it is apparent that more books are needed that focus on girls’ involvement in sport and physical activity. Most of the primary female characters in the 10 picture books were described and visually depictured as in action and were dressed appropriately for sport involvement and/or physical activity. Parents of the female characters provided the strongest source of encouragement, whereas the female characters’ peers, both boys and girls, were the greatest source of discouragement. Discouragement of the female characters’ involvement in sport and/or physical activity centered on the “appropriateness” of female athletic physicality. In this case, appropriateness aligned with societal expectations surrounding gender and sport, whereby the domain of sport and physical activity have traditionally been considered to be appropriate for men/boys and not compatible with the (stereotypical) feminine role. Of the 10 books studied, six of the books featured a White, non-Hispanic primary female character and four books illustrated non-White primary female characters. There was also considerable diversity in the other characters depicted in the books (e.g., coaches, parents, neighbors). It is important to note that of the published research to date focused on children’s and YA sport literature, Roper and Clifton (2013) had the only study to assess racial and ethnic diversity of the female characters in the books studied.

Book Covers

According to Carter (2013), “cover art matters.” It matters because a book cover is the first impression a potential reader makes about a book and whether they will purchase it and subsequently read its content. The purpose of the cover and the blurb on the back cover and/or inside jacket are to lure readers into reading a book; marketing professionals refer to it as “grabability”—how does the book grab the consumer’s attention?

Within YA literature, cover art is increasingly important. As Yampbell (2005) stated:

The packaging of the text, previously neglected by publishers of teen literature, currently is being carefully manipulated and altered as publishers and marketing experts recognize the necessity of visual appeal to succeed within the current arena of the teenage consumers. With holograms, digital art, and metallic jackets, YA book covers are becoming more abstract, sensational, unusual, and eye-catching to allure one of the most elusive audiences—teenage readers. (p. 348)

Croggon (2013) suggested that books are marketed to young readers as if gender matters; there is the perception that boys and girls want to read different stories, and as such are marketed by using different methods. There are multiple negative effects of gendered book marketing. By marketing a book specifically to a girl or boy, readers are restricted from reading a variety of books. Male YA readers, in particular, are less likely to read across gender (Scott, 2014). Whereas girls will read books that cater to boys, boys are much less likely to read books marketed to girls (Scott, 2014). “Girl’s books” are interpreted as off-limits to most boys because of societal attitudes about masculinity. This is illustrated by Croggon (2013), who suggested, “boys are often self-conscious about reading books that might be considered ‘girly.’” Gendered book covers also carry the stereotypical association with “chick lit”; that “books by and for women and girls are more trivial, fluffy and less significant than those targeted at men and boys” (Croggon, 2013).

One area that has received no scholarly attention, to date, are book covers of YA sport literature. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to examine how and how often athletic girls are represented on the cover art of YA sport fiction. Several research questions informed this study: (a) How often are females on the cover art of YA sport fiction? (b) How are female bodies represented on the cover art of YA sport fiction? (c) How often are females on the cover art of YA sport fiction represented in action, in their athletic uniform, and/or in the sporting context? and (d) How often is sport equipment represented on the cover art of YA sport fiction?

Critical Feminist Theory

Critical theorists focus on how social relationships and belief systems are grounded in power and privilege. In the sport setting, researchers who employ a critical perspective examine how certain groups are privileged over others (e.g., able-bodied vs. differently abled, male vs. female; Kane & Maxwell, 2011). A subset of critical theory, critical feminist theory, assumes that society is structured around a series of inequitable relationships of power, whereby women and girls are systematically devalued and marginalized (Birrell, 2000; Hoeber, 2007; Kane & Maxwell, 2011). Like all theories, critical feminist theory has been revised to acknowledge and address its weaknesses and oversights. Today, critical feminist theory focuses more directly on understanding gender in terms of how it is connected with other categories of experience (e.g., race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, ability; Crenshaw, 1989; Hill Collins, 2000). This intersectional focus is critical in order to acquire a full understanding of the overlapping, concurrent forms of oppression (Crenshaw, 1989). The authors grounded their study in critical feminist theory because they were interested in understanding how athletic girls, an often underrepresented and marginalized group, were represented in YA sport fiction cover art—to date, an unexamined sport media platform. The authors aimed to use critical feminist theory to challenge the deeply engrained assumptions about girls and sport and how they are played out in YA sport fiction cover art.

Method

Books

For inclusion in the present study, (a) a book must be fiction and written for a YA audience (12–18 years of age); (b) the primary character of the book must be female; (c) a significant theme of the book, as detailed in the book synopsis on the back of the book or inside jacket, must be devoted to sport and the primary character’s involvement in sport; and (d) published in the United States within the last 40 years. Sport fiction was selected as the focus for the present study as representations of girls must be created and approved by illustrators, authors, and publishers in fiction. Studying how girls are represented in YA sport fiction gives us an understanding of how publishers, illustrators, and authors choose to represent and subsequently sell YA girls’ sports fiction. For practicality purposes, the authors delimited the book selections within a 40-year period (1975–2015). Due to the increase in girls sport literature post-Title IX, the authors delimited the selection of books to those published between 1975 and 2015 (Evans et al., 2011). Of the 154 books, 144 (94%) were published between 2005 and 2015, six between 1995 and 2004, two between 1985 and 1994, and two between 1975 and 1984.

The YA books were gathered through various sources. A university professor in library science with specialization in YA literature provided the researchers with a list of recommended books that fit the criteria for the study. The researchers also conducted an Amazon search using the keywords “teen and young adult” and “sport.” Furthermore, Goodreads, the world’s largest website for readers and book recommendations (goodreads.com), provided a list of 204 books that fit the theme “girls in sport” (books depicting strong sporty/athletic girls). Through these sources, 154 books were found that met the criteria for the current study. It is important to note that there are several nonfiction sport books written for a YA audience, most of which are “how to”/coaching books targeting girls (e.g., Winning Field Hockey for Girls, Coaching Girls Basketball Successfully) or biographies by well-known female athletes (e.g., On the Field with Mia Hamm, Throw Like a Girl: How to Dream Big and Believe in Yourself). For the purpose of this study, however, the authors focused on YA sport fiction with a female athlete as the primary character.

Quantitative Content Analysis

Quantitative content analysis involves categorizing, recording, and coding data to determine how a set of text represents a phenomenon (Coe & Scacco, 2017). According to Coe and Scacco, it is imperative that researchers create a coding scheme that adequately represents the specified phenomena. Using the extensive body of literature that has examined the mediated representations of athletic females across various forms of media and that has specifically focused on how and how often female athletes are represented (e.g., Bruce, 2013; Kaiser & Skoglund, 2006; Messner et al., 2010; Clavio & Eagleman, 2011), the researchers developed a coding scheme to assess cover art for each of the following categories: (a) presence and racial representation of female character/s on cover; (b) portrayal of female body on cover (whole body, partial body/with head, or partial body/without head); (c) portrayal of female character as active or passive; (d) portrayal of female character in or out of athletic uniform; (e) portrayal of female character in or out of the sport setting; (f) presence of sport equipment; and (g) types of cover art.

Conducting a successful content analysis requires careful attention to reliability and validity (Coe & Scacco, 2017). To ensure the coding scheme was a valid instrument that accurately assessed each of the seven categories, the coding scheme was shared with two experts in the field, one specializing in library science/YA literature and the other with expertise in media representations of female athletes. Both experts reviewed the coding scheme and provided minimal additions and edits. To ensure reliability between the two researchers conducting the coding of the book covers, several trial reviews were conducted and discussed to ensure consensus. Upon gathering the book covers that fit the criteria for the present study, the two authors independently coded each book cover using the coding scheme. The authors then came together to discuss their codes in several separate meetings. During the meetings, the authors discussed the speculative codes within each category until consensus was achieved. In the few instances in which there was disagreement between the ways in each researcher coded the book cover, they discussed the specific instance until consensus was achieved.

Results

The purpose of this study was to examine how and how often athletic girls were represented on the cover art of YA sport fiction. The findings from each of the following categories will be presented as follows: (a) number of book covers with female characters represented on the cover and racial representation of female characters, (b) portrayal of the female character’s body, (c) portrayal of female character as active or passive, (d) portrayal of female character in or out of athletic uniform, (e) portrayal of female character in or out of the sport setting, and (f) presence of sport equipment on book cover. In addition, information about the sports represented in the 154 books, the gender of the book author/s, and the types of cover art (e.g., photographs, animation, illustrations) across the 154 books are presented.

Female Representation

Of the 154 books analyzed, 124 (81%) of the books had a female character, presumably the primary character, on the cover of the book. Interestingly, of the 154 books, 24 (16%) of the books had a male and female character share the cover, and one of the books had a male but no female on the cover. For the 24 books in which a male character shared the cover with a female character, the male was depicted in the following ways: laying on the grass next to the female character; holding hands, hugging, and/or kissing the female character; or standing in the background. Generally, the male on the cover was of the same age as the female character (based upon the researchers’ assessment) and was depicted as a romantic interest (e.g., kissing, holding hands, hugging). The one book with only a male on the cover, There’s a Girl in My Hammerlock, displays a male wrestler in his wrestling attire and gear positioned before a match. Thirty (19%) of the books did not include a female character on the cover; these books typically included sports equipment on the cover. There were only a few books that had no sport indicators (e.g., female athlete in uniform, equipment, sport setting, book title) on the cover. One example is Summer in the City by Elizabeth Chandler, which includes an illustrated city with stars in the sky.

Determining racial representation based on an image has many challenges, but it is important to acquire a more in-depth picture of representation. Of the 124 books with a female character on the cover, it was agreed by the two researchers that seven (0.06%) of the book covers had a female character of color represented. On those seven book covers, two female characters (on separate books) are depicted in action and are wearing appropriate attire for physical movement. On the cover of Archenemy by Paul Hoblin, the female character, a Black female, is depicted as just about to head a soccer ball in what appears to be a competitive game, and in Under Pressure by Emma Carlson Berne, a Black girl is depicted guarding a female opponent in a soccer game. On the other five covers, the female characters of color are depicted as inactive, although two of the covers include female characters in their uniforms (both cheerleading).

Portrayal of Female Body

The portrayal of the female body on each of the covers was coded into one of three categories: (a) whole body, (b) partial body with head/face displayed, or (c) partial body with no head/face displayed. Of the 124 books with a female character on the cover, 36 (29%) of the covers displayed the whole body of the female character. Fifty-eight (47%) of the covers displayed partial body/with head of the female character. On Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, the female character is depicted from the waist up; she is seated on the grass with her hands propping her body up. Twenty (23%) of the covers displayed partial body/with no head of the female character. In one example of a partial body with no head/face displayed, Pretty Tough by Liz Tigelaar, the female character is shown from the knees down trapping a soccer ball with her bare foot. In this image, the female character is wearing jeans and standing on the grass.

Portrayal of Female Characters

Of the 124 books with female characters on the cover, 38 (31%) of the female characters were displayed in active positioning (e.g., running, jumping, kicking, swinging a bat), while 86 (69%) were displayed as inactive or passive. Female characters that were depicted as passive were portrayed standing in a posed manner (e.g., laying on the ground, leaning against a wall or object, sitting down). On covers in which the female character was passive, it was evident that she was not participating in sport.

Of the 124 books featuring a female character on the cover, 72 (58%) of the characters were displayed in their athletic uniform or athletic attire suitable for athletic movement. Fifty-two (42%) of the female characters exhibited clothing that would not be suitable for sport involvement or athletic movement (e.g., jeans, dresses, inappropriate or no shoes—in sport that would require shoes).

Of the 124 books featuring a female character on the cover, 55 (44%) presented the female character in the sport setting or in the athletic context (e.g., tennis court, soccer field, pool). Sixty-nine (56%) of the female characters were displayed out of the sport setting (e.g., in an alley or car, sitting on a dock, laying on a grassy field). The background (behind the character) of several of the book covers was nondescript or blurred and appeared to be artistic in nature. Such covers were coded as “out of sport setting” because no deliberate inclusion of the sport setting appeared and there was no indicator of the book’s focus on sport.

Presence of Sports Equipment

Of the 154 books analyzed, 85 (55%) had sports equipment (e.g., bats, balls, racquets, skates) on the cover. The sports equipment represented always aligned with the focus of the book. Of the 154 books, sports equipment was displayed in use on 29 (19%) of the book covers and laying on the ground or used as a prop in 56 (36%) book covers. None of the book covers displayed stereotypical gendered representations (e.g., pink, glitter) of the equipment. As an example of how sports equipment is used as a prop, on the cover of As Good as Gold by Kathryn Bertine, a female cyclist is depicted standing in a sports bra and spandex shorts, legs spread shoulder-width apart with cycling equipment (e.g., wheel, helmet) in her hands and under her arms. In contrast, on the cover of Give ’n Go by Kerby Mae Robinson, the female character is depicted with her body crouched down, dribbling the basketball with her head up—providing a clear indication that this female character is playing basketball.

Sport Representation and Gender of Author

A wide range of sports were represented in the 154 books, including snowboarding/skiing (four), field hockey (one), rodeo (one), mixed martial arts (three), surfing/wakeboarding (two), figure skating (seven), gymnastics (one), lacrosse (one), roller derby (five), running (11), tennis (10), swimming (11), softball (15), basketball (16), pole vault (one), soccer (16), football (six), wrestling (four), ice hockey (15), equestrian (eight), cheerleading (eight), volleyball (one), boxing (four), golf (one), and cycling (BMX, road) (three). Of the 154 books, 142 of the books had a female author and 12 a male author.

Types of Cover Art

Of the 154 books, 25 (16%) of the book covers were illustrations (20) or animation (five), and the remaining 129 (84%) book covers were photographs. Almost all of the covers with a photograph included the female character. Three of the animated book covers were described as childish by the researchers (e.g., juvenile depictions of the characters and setting).

Discussion

Of the 154 books analyzed, the majority of book covers (81%) included a female character. In media in general, and sport media in particular, representation matters; advocates of women’s sports have long argued the value of seeing oneself represented in the media and the significance such representation brings to women and young girls in particular. While it is important for women and girls to be represented on the cover, inclusion is only part of the discussion; how that female athlete/character is represented is also critical to the analysis. Like magazine covers, newspapers, commercials, and advertisements, how gender is portrayed on a book cover can contribute to the image a young person develops of their gender and role in society.

On 24 of the books, a male and female character shared the cover. When on a cover together, the male and female characters were generally portrayed hugging, kissing, and/or holding hands. These results are consistent with those of Cooky, Messner, and Hextrum (2013) and Weber and Carini (2013), who noted the emphasis sport media places on a female athlete’s relationship with males in her life, typically male coaches, husbands, and/or boyfriends. Weber and Carini (2013) found that when female athletes were on the cover of Sports Illustrated, they typically shared the cover with a male. Cooky et al. (2013) indicated that female athletes are often portrayed in conventional heterosexual and domestic roles as wife, girlfriend, and/or mother. Defining women (or girls) by their heterosexual relationships and in proximity to men (or boys) rather than emphasizing their athletic accomplishments is a common phenomenon in sport media. The framing of women’s personal lives tends to become a primary focus; there is an assumption that these roles (e.g., mother, girlfriend, and daughter) are more important to women. The majority of sport media research has focused on the ways in which sportswomen are represented, with little attention devoted to young girls. As a result, it is unclear whether athletic girls would be represented similarly to athletic women by the media. Within YA literature in general, however, heterosexual romantic themes are common; and therefore, the findings from the present study are not surprising. It is common for YA books to emphasize romantic and even sexual relationships with the opposite sex (Koss & Teale, 2009). What is missing from the book covers is a lack of homosexual romantic themes or queer identities among the characters. This omission is important to acknowledge when discussing gender representation. For some individuals of nonnormative gender or sexual identity, sports are a means to find and/or develop community (Carter & Baliko, 2017). However, LGBTQ students and athletes often claim that athletic environments are where they feel the least safe and least supported (Barber & Krane, 2007). In addition, queer YA literature—those adolescent books explicitly depicting characters and stories within the LGBTQ community—serve an important role in normalizing queer culture for young readers as well as providing LGBTQ youth with positive, healthy representations of queer characters.

Race is also a vital component of the conversation surrounding representation. Bruce (2016) noted that an important limitation of the research dedicated to sport media representation of women is the privileging of gender identity at the expense of its intersections with race, ethnicity, age, ability, and sexuality (among other identities). As Bruce indicated, “because gender is privileged as the defining difference, other axes of identity are not always acknowledged as relevant” (p. 363). In the present study, the researchers were unable to confidently determine racial representation based only on analysis of cover art; therefore, it is possible that additional characters of color may have been represented. Given, however, that only seven of the 124 book covers with a female character displayed a female character of color, there is a clear omission of diverse racial representation on the YA book covers analyzed. The impact of this absence is significant. Media has always been an effective tool for not only erasing and ignoring girls and women of color, but also for creating and maintaining common tropes about girls of color that objectify and stereotype them. Black feminist researchers, for example, have found an overemphasis on Black girls’ sexuality in the mainstream media (French, 2013), as well as a common depiction of Black girls as loud, aggressive, uneducated, and overly confrontational (Muhammad & McArthur, 2015). These types of images have consequences. Identity formation is a critical process shaping the lives of adolescents and can present distinct challenges for adolescent girls of color who are presented with false and incomplete images representing girlhood (Muhammad & McArthur, 2015). The experiences of girls of color is nuanced because it is complicated by the intersectionality of race, gender, age, and class. Not only is the absence of books featuring female characters of color significant and disappointing, it must also be considered how girls of color are represented on the book covers of YA sport fiction. Sportswomen of color are held to the standard of idealized femininity, which is defined as White heterosexual femininity or “normative embodiment” (Bruce, 2016, p. 363). Therefore, when sportswomen of color are represented, as is the case with Serena and Venus Williams, the authors see them constructed as “outside the boundaries of idealized femininity … or constrained within an ideal of individualized, assimilated, heterosexual middle classness that suits the needs of White audiences” (Bruce, 2016, p. 363).

How the female characters’ bodies were portrayed on the book covers was analyzed into three categories: whole body, partial with head, or partial with no head. Of those covers, 29% displayed the whole body of the female character on the cover, while 58 (47%) of the book covers displayed only partial body with head of the female characters. Body dismemberment, a brand of objectification, is a common practice in the mainstream media (Greening, 2006). Dismemberment advertisements highlight one part of a woman’s body (e.g., thighs, breasts, legs) while ignoring all the other aspects of her body (Curry, 1991). Displaying only part of a woman’s (or girl’s) body promotes the idea of separate entities that the female body consists of parts rather than a whole (Greening, 2006; Murnen, Smolak, Mills, & Good, 2003). Curry (1991) explains the significance of this phenomenon, noting that, “Women’s identities as people are of no consequence in these displays. The fact that women are viewed as objects is also evident in the tendency of men to dissect women’s bodies into parts, which are then discussed separately from the whole person” (p. 129). Such imagery has the potential to condition girls from a young age to view their body as a collection of parts that are individually scrutinized and evaluated by society. Presenting girls’ bodies as fragmented and disconnected can have serious repercussions, which can result in body dissatisfaction and appearance anxiety, body shame, eating disorders, and depression (American Psychological Association, 2007; Greening, 2006). On Because I Am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas, the cover depicts the silhouette of a female character (long flowing hair and wearing a dress) standing in what appears to be a lifelike living room. While the stereotypical nature of the silhouette suggests a female character plays a figural role in the book, the use of a silhouette to represent the female character erases her identity and the characteristics that make her unique. In this case, beyond objectification and fragmentation of the female character, the authors see a complete removal of the female character’s unique features. Furthermore, of the 124 book covers with a female character, 23% of the covers displayed the female character with no head/face. The headless woman/girl in media is yet another way in which a female is valued for her external form/body and not her intellect. Headless women/girls make it easy to view women only as a body by erasing the individuality communicated through faces, eyes, and eye contact. If it is considered that 70% (23% and 47%) of the 124 book covers did not portray the female character’s whole body when a female character was on the cover, the authors can speculate that a strong message is being sent about the portrayal of girls’ bodies on the covers of YA sport literature. Rather than images of action, power, and strength that symbolize athletic bodies, there are images of disconnected, passive female bodies on most of the book covers. Further research is needed to examine girls’ reception of such imagery and the influence it has on their body concept.

Sport media researchers have suggested that the best way in which to represent active females is to portray them in action, in their uniform, and in the sport context (Kane & Maxwell, 2011; LaVoi, 2013). These preferences for representation are particularly important to female athletes, young girls, dads with daughters, and mothers—the core audience for women’s sports (Kane & Maxwell, 2011). Of the 124 book covers with female characters on the cover, 31% were portrayed in action, 58% in athletic attire, and 44% in the sporting context. While most of the female characters were portrayed wearing athletic attire suitable for athletics, nearly all were depicted as passive or inactive and not in the sporting context. The characters’ passivity is particularly significant as the key concentration of the books studied is female sport participation. It is likely that a young person drawn to read such a book is interested in or likely participates in sport.

The presence of sports equipment was also examined. Of the 154 books, 84 had sports equipment on the cover. The inclusion of sports equipment on the cover is an important indicator to a reader that the book is about sport. As previously noted, there are limited YA books in which the primary female character is involved in sport. Therefore, those books that do exist must make it clear in the book synopsis and/or on the book cover that the book’s focus is on sport. Inclusion of sports equipment is one way in which a book accentuates this theme. How the equipment is portrayed, in use or as a prop, is also an important indicator of how female athletic characters are represented.

The types of cover art were also examined. The overwhelming majority of the book covers used photographs on their cover art. It is possible that a reader may be better able to identify with a lifelike image/photograph rather than an illustrated or animated image. The low number of childish animations is positive given the propensity to infantilize female athletes in the media (Bruce, 2016; Kane & Maxwell, 2011).

Of the 154 books analyzed, 142 of the books were written by female authors and 12 by male authors. It may not be surprising that female authors are the majority of authors writing about girls. Sport media scholars have argued that the trends regarding lack of and type of coverage are, in part, due to the overrepresentation of men in sport newsrooms. According to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (2018), the majority of those who are in positions to write about, frame, and edit the coverage of sports are men. Kian and Hardin (2009) found that female sports writers were more likely to frame female athletes in terms of their athletic prowess. However, Kian and Hardin (2009) also cautioned against the degree to which the presence of women in sports newsrooms may lead to significant shifts in coverage given the constraints imposed by institutional structures. It may also be important to consider the number of female editors/publishers of YA fiction and librarians responsible for ordering books.

Conclusions

Studying the representation of athletic girls on the cover art of sport fiction is important for many reasons. It is evident from the present study that athletic girls have few images on YA sport fiction cover art that accurately represent their athleticism, and girls of color have even fewer images. The stereotypical and homogenous representations of girls in this form of mass media deserve our attention, consideration, and research. Furthermore, future studies are needed to consider how such images contribute to and impact young girls’ development of their perceived gender roles and self-concept, as well as how such books influence their perceptions of female athleticism.

It is important to note that publishing companies are generally responsible for the design and layout of a book cover. A designer is provided a variety of information about the content (plot) and context (genre) of a book and the designer uses this information to create an artistically appealing and marketable book cover. While authors may have a voice in the design and layout of their book cover, there may be great variance in the input gathered from an author. It is important that a diverse representation of women serve as librarians and book publishers, as well as authors and illustrators. If it is known that fans of women’s/girls’ sports want to see images that highlight female athletes in action, their uniforms, and in the sporting context, these types of images should dominate book cover art focused on girls’ sport. Not only is such imagery more beneficial for young girls, but it is likely to have a positive impact on sales.

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The authors are with the Department of Kinesiology, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX, USA.

Roper (EAR007@SHSU.EDU) is corresponding author.
  • American Psychological Association. (2007). Report of the APA task force on the sexualization of girls. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report-full.pdf

    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Barber, H., & Krane, V. (2007). Creating a positive climate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youths. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 78(7), 652. doi:10.1080/07303084.2007.10598047

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Birrell, S. (2000). Feminist theories for sport. In J. Coakley & E. Dunning (Eds.), Women, sport, and culture (pp. 221244). London, UK: Sage.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bruce, T. (2013). Reflections on communication and sport: On women and femininities. Communication & Sport, 1(1–2), 125137. doi:10.1177/2167479512472883

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bruce, T. (2016). New rules for new times: Sportswomen and media representation in the third wave. Sex Roles, 74(7–8), 361376. doi:10.1007/s11199-015-0497-6

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Buysse, J.M., & Wolter, S.M. (2019). A 26-year longitudinal analysis of intercollegiate division I media guides in a changing sports media landscape, 1989–2017. Retrieved from The Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport: https://www.cehd.umn.edu/tuckercenter/

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Carter, C., & Baliko, K. (2017). ‘These are not my people’: Queer sport spaces and the complexities of community. Leisure Studies, 36(5), 696707. doi:10.1080/02614367.2017.1315164

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Carter, S. (2013). YA literature: The inside and cover story. The Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults, 3(1).

  • Clavio, G., & Eagleman, A.N. (2011). Gender and sexually suggestive images in sports blogs. Journal of Sport Management, 25(4), 295304. doi:10.1123/jsm.25.4.295

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    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Coe, K., & Scacco, J.M. (2017). Content analysis, quantitative. In J. Matthes, C.S. Davis, & R.F. Potter (Eds.), The international encyclopedia of communication research methods (pp. 111). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

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    • Export Citation
  • Cooky, C. (2018). What’s new about sporting femininities? Female athletes and the sport-media industrial complex. In K. Toffoletti, H. Thorpe, & J. Francombe-Webb (Eds.), New sporting femininities embodied politics in postfeminist times (1st ed., pp. 2341). Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

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    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Crenshaw, K.W. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989(1), 139167. doi:10.4324/9780429499142-5

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Croggon, A. (2013). Gendered covers are failing young adult readers. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/australia-culture-blog/2013/jun/05/young-adult-gendered-covers

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Crowe, C. (2001). Young adult literature: Sports literature for young adults. The English Journal, 90(6), 129133. doi:10.2307/822081

  • Curry, T.J. (1991). Fraternal bonding in the locker room: A profeminist analysis of talk about competition and women. Sociology of Sport Journal, 8(2), 119135. doi:10.1123/ssj.8.2.119

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Doll, J. (2012). What does ‘young adult’ mean? The Athlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2012/04/what-does-young-adult-mean/329105/

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