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When Five Innings is Too Long: The Sexist Coverage of the Celebrity Softball Game

Today we have a special guest post from Elaine Filadelfo, friend and supporter of Bloomer Girls Blog.  By day, Elaine (@urchkin) works for Twitter, researching and telling stories about the way Twitter is used in sports, politics, and TV. By night, she’s at SF Giants games. She received a masters degree in Gender, Media, & Culture in 2011.

After watching Yoenis Cespedes rake in the Home Run Derby, I was in one of those the-remote-is-on-the-coffee-table-which-is-way-too-far kind of moods, so on came ESPN’s broadcast of the Celebrity Softball Game (pardon me, Taco Bell All Star Legends and Celebrity Softball Game). And wow, am I so glad/depressed that I ended up watching it: I was treated to an hour of commentary from Aaron Boone & John Anderson that blatantly objectified women and patronized female athletes & fans.

It all began with Boone & Anderson introducing viewers to the concept of a celebrity softball match by saying “we can all play softball” — said, no less, while Jennie Finch – one of the best athletes (no, not just ‘female athletes’) of our generation – was getting ready on the mound.

But this was just their verbal-misogyny batting practice. Their game commentary, particularly whenever a woman was at bat, was a three-tool mix of pure condescension, egregious objectification, and wonderment at women’s athletic interests. [Disclaimer: I couldn’t usually tell which one was talking, so I apologize if the blame should be shouldered more by one commentator than the other. However, in several instances you’ll see that there was a two-way conversation, indicating that both Boone & Anderson were participating.]

For all of the women who came to bat, they felt the need to offer proof of her credentials as a baseball fan. No, not even her credentials as a player on a team, but the simple fact that yes, a singer or an actress can indeed be a “real” fan. To wit: “[Alyssa Milano] is baseball cuckoo. She is a rabid Dodgers fan, has season tickets behind the dugout. She is a real baseball junkie.” And: “This girl [Ashanti], loves her sports. I don’t know if you caught her [on ESPN], but she knows her stuff.”

This is one of the oldest tricks in the yes-Virginia-there-is-misogyny book, but it’s just such a useful mental exercise. Imagine a gender reversal. Would a man be described as “knowing his stuff” or is it just presumed that he of course knows his stuff? Can you imagine a man being described as “cuckoo” for a sport or a team? No, he’s just a fan – maybe a dedicated or die-hard fan – not someone who is concomitantly described as bird-like and crazy. Oh wait: you don’t have to imagine. No justification was given for Chord Overstreet’s participation. We didn’t hear about his loyalty to a certain team or that he actually does understand baseball. Kevin James? He was simply referred to as having played softball in character in his TV show… but what about the proof that really does go to games in real life? This is yet another example of marginalizing the female sports fan (<– I shouldn’t even need that qualifier). For the men participating, it’s taken as a given that they must be a sports fan; for the women, the default is that they are not. Remember, this isn’t just problematic for women: this kind of thinking also tees up the (often homophobically-tinged) taunting that men can get for not being sports fans.

So then, how did Boone & Anderson cover the play on the field? What happened when Ashanti didn’t run to first base after hitting a soft dribbler to the mound? Commentary: “you gotta run! you gotta run! …. oooh wait the running!” (It’s hard to get across condescending tones of voice in a blog post… if I find a clip, I’ll link this and any other excerpts.) And when a routine fly ball went right over the shoulder of Darryl Strawberry, an 8-time All Star & 4-time World Series champ, there wasn’t a peep. Sure, the former softball player in me definitely cringed and rolled my eyes at Ashanti’s blunder — but that doesn’t excuse patronizing commentary unevenly distributed.

And then there was the objectification. Let me just present these quotations and let them shine as the all-stars of objectification that they are:

“We see Alyssa Milano, who I had my first crush on when I was about 11 or 12 years old”

**

“[Milano] should be higher in the lineup” [than hitting twelfth]

“I think she’s a 12″

**

“Jennie Finch against Miss America, I’m just gonna sit and let the beauty wash over me.”

[plate appearance]

“That’s strike three, I’m not sure why. Shouldn’t you be allowed to go until you hit one?”

“When Miss America comes up next time we should just stop talking”

**

“Mallory Hagen, Miss America. We’re not gonna talk.”

These are all verbatim comments from the course of tonight’s hour-long game. It goes without saying that there were no similar comments about the male participants. (If this were an academic paper, I’d footnote here to mention the fat-shaming conversation about Kevin James’ weight when he slid into second.) When reading through the batting order, their immediate reaction to Milano’s presence is to comment not only on her appearance, but on a specific sexual attraction to her. Even an attempt to actually discuss a female participant in the manner in which a game commentator should – reviewing the batting order – reverts into a cheesy, immature joke about how attractive she is. As for the comments about Jennie Finch and, particularly, Mallory Hagen (Miss America), I’m almost at a loss for words. Anyone who sees those comments and doesn’t immediately see them as sexist and objectifying probably won’t be swayed by whatever explication I put forth. But I’ll try.

Consider the fact that their JOB is to provide commentary on a baseball game (even a meaningless exhibition like this) – that is, their only task is specifically to talk while play is happening. So all this talk about not-talking is saying that these women exist on the field only for them and viewers to look at. That their job is rendered either pointless or futile because nobody would care about anything they’d say, only what these women (again, one of whom is an Olympic athlete) look like. (I’m not even going to touch the homoerotic overtures in these statements.) It’s also suggesting that their roles in the game are meaningless — would they be able to “just stop talking” if one of them hit a home run? Were any of the commentators during the Home Run Derby saying they should just stop talking to appreciate how fluid and strong Cespedes’ swing is? Or so that viewers could take in the touching moment of Ron Harper pitching to his son Bryce?

Anderson & Boone’s comments serve to objectify and demean the women involved, by specifically inviting the viewer to gaze upon them as sexually attractive bodies, not as athletes (given that there was no discussion of their athletic ability). These comments also further marginalize all women athletes by suggesting that a woman’s performance on the field is quite literally un-remarkable (but her appearance sure is), and that she needs a justification for participation in athletic endeavors.

Fortunately, the game was only five innings. Translation: they managed to cram all this offensive inanity into just five innings. I couldn’t tolerate any more.

(On the plus side, Lydia would be proud to note that the one bright spot of the evening came when Mike Piazza was asked about catching Jennie Finch between innings, and he responded “she’s a great athlete; it’s fun to catch some gas again”. That’s how you talk about a female athlete — no, that’s how you talk about an athlete.)

2 comments on “When Five Innings is Too Long: The Sexist Coverage of the Celebrity Softball Game

  1. I watched the first inning and DVRed it so I could watch the rest later, and when I tried to, I realized that I couldn’t get past the commentary. I wish I’d hear Piazza’s comment though — that was a good one. I caught the first several you talked about. It really felt like they were spending the entire time making fun of everyone participating, though looking back on it now, I definitely see where the scale was tipped toward them women.

  2. Great analysis, Elaine. I really appreciate this!

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