Progress is not linear; it is made in starts and stops, with a few steps forward and a few steps backwards.
Such is the case with women in sports right now – heck, women in general. As we see reflected back from arts and culture, the acceptance of women in sport is in decline now, following a long surge upward after the passage of Title IX in 1972.
Though the WNBA has recently seen some of its highest viewership ratings ever, a general perception exists that there is less buzz around the league than there used to be. To be sure, much of that is simply due to the “settling” effect: when the WNBA came along in 1997, it was new, and it generated a lot of press because of that. Now it has been around for two decades, and fans are used to it.
But as art reflects life, it seems that women have faded into the background in TV, movies and music, too.
In the 1970’s, there were ‘independent woman’-themed shows like “Laverne and Shirley” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” All-female cast or female-lead shows of the 1980’s included “The Golden Girls,” “Cagney and Lacey,” “Roseanne” and “Murder, she Wrote.” In the 1990’s, there was “Designing Women,” “Murphy Brown,” “Ally McBeal,” “Xena,” “Sex in the City” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” to name a few.
Fast forward to the 2016-2017 TV season and four of the top 10-most watched shows were football, reflecting a relatively new American obsession with this war-like sport. The first woman-themed show is “American Housewife,” at No. 31. “Mom” is at 44, “New Girl” is at No. 74 and “Real Housewives of Atlanta” is 75.
In film we saw a series of female hero star characters up until the turn of the century, including Princess Leia in “Star Wars,” Linda Hamilton in “The Terminator,” Sigourney Weaver in “Alien,” and Susan Sarandon and Gina Davis in “Thelma and Louise.” Arguably the biggest all-female cast movie was 1996’s “Set it Off,” which starred Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett, Vivica Fox and Kimberly Elise.
In contrast, last year the movie “Ghostbusters” was remade with an all-female cast, and it was widely panned before it was even released just because it featured women. This week “Wonder Woman” is to be released; we can only pray to be spared misogynistic comments.
Music is another arena that used to be flooded with strong women, including MC Lyte, TLC, Latifah, Madonna, Shania Twain, Alanis Morissette, Brandy, Jewel, Toni Braxton and Whitney Houston. Today the field is much smaller; only Beyonce and Adele are among those who could be considered stable, presenting strong images without spawning controversy or degrading women.
Thus, so goes sports. In 1998, Chamique Holdsclaw became the first woman to grace the cover of SLAM. Almost 19 years later, she’s still the only female to be shown there. SLAM barely includes women between its covers anymore. Ditto with Sports Illustrated.
When Sheryl Swoopes got an Air Swoopes shoe 20 years ago, the news made headlines. When Maya Moore got a shoe in 2014, that news did not.
Why has the presence of women diminished recently? Who knows what combination of intangible factors combined to make this a reality. It is not possible to say for sure.
The important thing for fans of women’s basketball is to continue to advocate for the sport, at all levels. To be a loud, unabashed fan of women’s hoops, those who play it, and for strong women in general, is the most effective approach. Paying undue attention to the small minority of people who go out of their way to criticize the sport and its athletes is counterproductive; it’s like throwing gas on a flame, when turning one’s back on stuff-starters is so much more effective.
Things go in cycles. We’ve got to stay strong and push on.