Postfeminism, neoliberalism, and the American female sportscaster


I met Guy Harrison my first semester at Arizona State University. I was a newly minted PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was my research assistant.

As of Friday, Harrison is the newly minted PhD.

Dr. Harrison (Youngstown State University) successfully defended his dissertation, “On the Sidelines: Postfeminism, Neoliberalism, and the American Female Sportscaster” at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Phoenix.

Through one-on-one interviews with women sportscasters; focus groups with sports media consumers; and a textual analysis of articles, blog posts, photographs, tweets, audio clips, and YouTube videos reflecting concepts that emerged in the interviews and focus groups, Harrison argued the American female sportscaster subjectivity is a postfeminist, neoliberal construct.

Whew. Let’s take a breath and start with some definitions.

By “subjectivity,” he means how the female sportscaster is constructed, understood, and recognized by society at large, and how this construction circles back to influence women sportscasters’ professional experiences. This current subjectivity, Harrison argues, is manufactured largely through postfeminism and neoliberalism.

Postfeminism, to put it simply, describes the idea that feminism’s work is done. It can be used as a pejorative term when describing renewed or increased embrace of activities or attitudes earlier feminists protested, or how earlier feminist gains are now undermined. But it can also refer to interpretations of feminism that differ from earlier waves.

Neoliberalism, on the other hand, refers to an idea that human well-being is best advanced through entrepreneurial freedom, a strong private sector, and free trade and markets. As a larger ideological construct, it encourages people to embrace and to internalize individual responsibility, autonomy, and entrepreneurialism.

Postfeminism and neoliberalism resonate with each other because, according to Harrison – and Rosalind Gill and Christina Sharff in New Femininities: Postfeminism, Neoliberal, and Subjectivity (2011) – they both are highly individualistic, ignoring a possibility of disadvantages being beyond a person’s control, and that women are to ostensibly regulate their appearances, sexuality and emotions … willingly and gladly.

Harrison had many examples supporting this argument, one of them being what he referred to as “the nighclubifcation” of women sportscasters’ apparel: women sportscasters wearing more revealing clothing and audience perception that women sportscasters are less credible than their male counterparts. Women sportscasters appear to be compliant to this, if not outright onboard, to dressing in less conservative clothing and “asking for it” when they are sexually harassed, stalked, and/or body-shamed. Then women sportscasters are solely responsible for their own success or failure, the industry being absolved from any responsibility for double standards (sartorial or otherwise), sex bias in hiring, harassment, and emotion management. When women do ask for help, the feedback they receive is often patronizing; problems such as harassment are minimized, and the woman is encouraged to have “thick skin” because this is “just how it is” in the field. Behaviors that should not be normalized become normalized, with little industrial impetus to change.

Harrison ended the dissertation with recommendations for industry decision-makers, including addressing double standards in appearance and more suitable ways of responding to harassment. I’d like to say more, but since I’m hoping he publishes this all in a book, I should be cautious of spoilers. If and when such a book is published, you can be sure I’ll let you know.

Anyway, congratulations to Dr. Harrison.

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