Ashley Wagner is a mainstay of US figure skating — a veteran of the international competition scene and a household name. She left the Sochi Olympics with a bronze medal, placed second at the 2016 World Championships, and is a three-time US National Champion. At 26, Wagner is one of the most senior athletes involved in the US figure skating program — which made her qualification bid for the upcoming Olympics all the more critical. But Wagner failed to qualify on January 6, coming in fourth behind rising up-and-comers Brandie Tennell, 19, Mirai Nagasu, 24, and Karen Chen, 18.

Besides her elegant and performative style, Wagner is known for her outspokenness — at the Sochi games, she broke with official US policy and openly criticized the Russian government’s discriminatory policies toward their LGBTQ+ citizens. This tendency was sparked again after her failure to qualify, unleashing a storm of media attention. Following the event, she told reporters, “For me to put out two programs that I did at this competition as solid as I skated and to get those scores, I am furious, and I think deservedly so.”

Wagner acknowledged that judges should be strict on technique, and she attempted to explain that her issue was with the specific segment of scoring that impacted her overall result — the subjective component score. Wagner received a 68 on her component, or artistic, performance, while winner Bradie Tennell landed a 69.71. Tennell, though technically strong, has the “emotional range… from the bottom to the top of a shrug,” according to journalist Dvora Meyers.

This discrepancy led USA Today columnist Christine Brennan to lambast the US Figure Skating Committee on Twitter, writing, “Tennell is an amazing jumper and talent, but not in Wagner’s league on components, not even close. Judges here clearly wanted to dump Wagner.”

The compelling aspect of this controversy is the broader reaction to it. Wagner has been virulently attacked on Twitter. This response exemplifies how frequently public expressions of female anger or frustration are vilified. Compounded by the institutionalized gender inequalities in sport — which include unequal distributions of funding, media attention, and a male monopoly on perceived biological norms that underscore athleticism — Wagner’s outspokenness is a challenge to general patriarchal norms of female behaviour and perceptions of female athletes.

Prominent women in sport are often treated as if they arrived by chance — and as such, should display eternal gratitude for being awarded the right to exist on such a plane. A strong consensus exists among the scholarly community, expressed by Eoin J. Trolan at the PSU-USM International Conference on Humanities and Social Sciences, that women are “still viewed as women first and athletes second, while their male counterparts have no such concerns.”

Moreover, the sports media complex is instrumental in the reinforcement of this gendered hierarchy of value. Today, sports media extend far beyond television to include endorsements, advertising campaigns, and the more general use of sport-based imagery or rhetoric as a commercial tool. The glut of advertising and overall spectacle of the Super Bowl is a clear example of the normalization of this phenomenon.

Janet Fink of the University of Massachusetts Amherst explains that since “mass media [have] become one of the most powerful institutional forces for shaping values in modern culture,” the images and narratives looped across the world carry incredible power. For example, the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles reports that 98 per cent of American boys between the ages of eight and 17 consume sports media. This means that generations of young men are shaped by misguided and damaging interpretations of sport and athleticism, as well as the role of women more broadly.

When female athletes are portrayed, the focus is rarely on their athletic achievements; rather it is on “their physical appearance, femininity, and/or heterosexuality.” Fink posits that these differences in media coverage create, foster, and disseminate stereotypical gender roles, “producing a variety of economic, social, and political limitations that intensify the patriarchal power structure still so sharply entrenched in our culture.”

The fallout of this patriarchal dominance extends beyond athletes to coaching staff, trainers, and even female reporters, as recent allegations against ESPN highlight. In the summer of 2016, a complaint against the media giant was filed at the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, alleging vast inequality between male and female employees. Beyond fair pay, the allegations included instances where “men have made unwanted sexual propositions to female colleagues, given unsolicited shoulder rubs, and openly rated women on their looks.” In one horrific example of the power of this culture, a former female anchor reportedly performed a scheduled broadcast while having a miscarriage to prove her commitment to the job — that she could ‘tough it out.’

In light of this, the response to Wagner’s comments make sense. In challenging the terms of her judgement, she violated the terms of her acceptable existence as a relatively prominent female athlete. She displayed unfeminine, unattractive attributes: she was not gracious, quiet, or grateful. She publicly voiced anger and frustration. She asked for more.

A conservative analysis of the situation might argue that no, this was not a factor of gender, but rather a violation of basic norms of sportsmanship. Wagner lost fairly, and she shouldn’t have run her mouth about it. However, Wagner never criticized other skaters and has been publicly supportive of the winners, tweeting “Congrats to the lovely ladies of the team, you’ve got me in your cheering squad now!” Further, in an interview with NBC on January 10, Wagner stated that the judges “absolutely made the right call with this team,” but she stood by her initial reaction.

University of Toronto Varsity Blues figure skating team co-captain Lila Asher agrees that it is “important for athletes to be gracious whether they win or lose, out of respect for their competitors.” However, she also explained that considering the timing of Wagner’s initial interview, which immediately followed an emotionally intense performance, “I think she is justified in expressing her genuine frustration.” Asher highlighted the intense pressures faced by female figure skaters to “perform a specific type of femininity,” and she mentioned how damaging this can be for young athletes, regardless of gender. She also pointed out the rampant homophobia in figure skating more generally, demonstrating how prejudice impacts the entire gender spectrum.

Thus the real nucleus of the Wagner controversy is not this obtuse notion of sportsmanship, but the backlash her post-performance comments generated — and the sports media that fed it. The complex is both a reflection of and a contributor to our patriarchal society, which is instrumental in reducing sport to a privilege too few can experience.

Women are not the only victims of these imbalances; men and non-binary individuals are also undermined by constructed notions of gender identity. As powerful men fall from grace across industries, the time is ripe for systemic change in sports media.

Return next week for Kate’s article on the steps needed to make significant and lasting change in sports media.