A mixed bag of athletic focus and personal focus

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In order to analyse the construction of the athletic form, the desired material needs to have a fabricating element to it and not merely be representation in the form of sports events coverage, for instance. Thus, ESPN Magazine’s The Body Issue was deemed appropriate as it is original content that is produced in collaboration with various willing athletes, and where the magazine is in full control of what content to produce and how it is to be presented. With the tagline “a celebration and exploration of the athletic form” (ESPN 2009), The Body Issue has been released on a yearly basis starting with the first issue in 2009. Today, ESPN has a section on their website dedicated to a particular section of the magazine called ‘Bodies We Want’. Here, the user can view all the images from the ‘Bodies We Want’ sections in the magazines from 2009 through 2016, with the number of images ranging from 19 (in 2010) to 68 (in 2016). Due to the limitations of this study, doing an all-encompassing analysis of all the material was not a possibility. As such, through a strategic choice in order to get the most contemporary and rich material possible, only the 2017 edition of The Body Issue (the digital version) was analysed. The 2017 edition is freely available on the web courtesy of ESPN (2017).
The 2017 edition contains 16 entries and features a total of 23 athletes from 13 different sports. The solo entries consist of Kirstie Ennis (adaptive sports), Ezekiel Elliott (American football), Julian Edelman (American football), Javier Baez (baseball), Nneka Ogwumike (basketball), Isiah Thomas (basketball), Ashley Wagner (figure skating), Michelle Waterson (mixed martial arts [MMA]), Malakai Fekitoa (rugby), Gus Kenworthy (skiing), A.J. Andrews (softball), Caroline Wozniacki (tennis), and Novlene Williams-Mills (track and field). There are two duo entries with the first being the married couple of Zach and Julie Ertz (American football and association football, respectively) and the second being teammates Joe Thornton and Brent Burns (ice hockey). The last entry consists of six members from the U.S. women’s national hockey team. Unlike the previous editions that are available on the web, the material not only consists of photographs but also videos as well as accompanying articles (billed as ‘online exclusives’) containing interviews with the athletes. Furthermore, ESPN has picked out an extract from each article which is highlighted next to the photographs and acts as a hyperlink to said article. Thus, the digital version of the 2017 edition was deemed the most suitable in order to answer the research questions put forward in this study.
This particular material was not selected to allow broad generalisations about the sports media in general. Instead, the chosen material is a rather extreme example considering the opportunity given to the magazine as they have willing athletes at their disposal to, in their own terms, ‘celebrate the athletic form’ through texts and visuals. As such, the material should be very welcoming in allowing analyses of various semiotic modes that can emphasise the potential objectification and (hyper)sexualisation of athletes – both male and female – in the construction of the athletic form.

Qualitative research

Qualitative research is a situated activity that locates the observer in the world. Qualitative research consists of a set of interpretive, material practices that make the world visible. These practices transform the world. They turn the world into a series of representations, including fieldnotes, interviews, conversations, photographs, recordings, and memos to the self. At this level, qualitative research involves an interpretive, naturalistic approach to the world. This means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of or interpret phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them. (Denzin and Lincoln 2017, 10)
The quote above is Denzin and Lincoln’s (2017, 10) attempt at “an initial, generic definition” of a research method that is not as easy to define as it may first appear, as it “crosscuts disciplines, fields, and subject matter” (ibid., 9). Nonetheless, what separates qualitative research from the older quantitative method is that the focus lies on the meaning of the particular subject in question, and to extract meaning from a research subject requires interpretation from the researcher (Jensen 2012, 266). As stated by Jensen (1991, 4), qualitative research is about “the occurrence of its analytical objects in a particular context, as opposed to the recurrence of formally similar elements in different contexts” (emphasis in original).
The method arose as an alternative to quantitative research following critique towards both the method itself as well as its development throughout the 1960s and 1970s (Flick 2007, 1). As Flick (2007, 2) continues, instead of focusing on numbers and figures, qualitative research uses texts as its empirical material and “starts from the notion of the social constructions of realities under study” and the tools used in qualitative research need to “be appropriate to that issue and should be open enough to allow an understanding of a process or relation”. Thus, considering this study’s aim, the choice was made to go with a qualitative approach over a quantitative approach in order to attempt to answer the particular research questions put forward with a stronger focus on the how’s rather than through measurements.

Multimodal Critical Discourse Analysis

To analyse the construction of the athletic form is to analyse the messages that are communicated around the notion of an ‘athletic body’ and what it means to be an athlete. This discussion can be linked to what is referred to as ‘discourses’. Discourses can be explained as attempts to establish specific designations of meaning and particular orders of interpretation, and through that process deliberately institutionalise certain viewpoints in a society (Keller 2013, 2). On the back of this, as Keller (2013, 2) continues, discourse theories and analyses are about establishing the relationship between about what is being said or written (which is viewed as a social practice) and the subsequent (re)production of meaning systems, and all the various social actors, rules, and resources that allow this process to occur as well as the ensuing social and cultural consequences. As such, the deliberate construction of a perceived typical athletic form can be seen as a discursive event which needs to be critically analysed to reveal its communicative implications.
What is important in analysing discourse, as van Dijk (1997, 5) explains through a comparison to the function of grammar and its structures which create meaning, is that discourse is not simply ‘language use’; rather, it is about the specific components used in the language and the deliberate order in which they appear as well as how they relate to each other within a social context, which ultimately creates a communicative message. The discourses of media texts are the broader ideas that the texts are communicating, which can be seen as “models of the world” (Machin and Mayr 2012, 20). By analysing the particular words chosen and the structure of the sentences, the underlying ideologies can shine through (ibid.).
In all studies that apply critical discourse analysis [CDA], Keller (2013, 3) identifies four common denominators: the focus is on “the actual use of . . . language and other symbolic forms of social practices”; the practical use of signs as well as their meanings are socially constructed and exist within their own social reality; that the deviating individual interpretations that may exist are still a part of a more comprehensive discourse structure within an institutional-organisational context; and “that the use of symbolic orders is subject to rules of interpretation and action that may be reconstructed”.
Furthermore, van Dijk (1997, 2-3) has noted the importance of not limiting the analysis of discourse to a single mode – the spoken word – but to also include written communication as there are enough similarities between these two modes to make them both highly important in a discussion about discourse. In short, a mode “is a socially shaped and culturally given resource for making meaning” (Kress 2009, 54), and while van Dijk emphasises the importance of analysing various modes, he limits himself to just two: the spoken and the written. However, as the material chosen for this study contains not only written and spoken language but also has a large emphasis on visuals, there are additional modes that need to be examined if the full discursive message is to be analysed which leads us to multimodal critical discourse analysis [MCDA]. MCDA takes van Dijk’s emphasis on different modes to a higher degree, as, for a long time, the visual aspects were ignored in discourse studies which therefore meant that a lot of meaningful communication was neglected (Machin and Mayr 2012, 1). If one decides to analyse only a limited amount of modes, Norris (2004, 102) explains, valuable communicative information is likely to be overlooked, as it only allows analysis of some aspects of a communicative interaction. The multimodal approach, then, assumes that meaning-making is not only about language, but rather about “the full range of communicational forms people use – image, gesture, gaze, posture, and so on – and the relationships between them” (Jewitt 2009, 14). In other words, MCDA is interested in a much wider range of modes than that of traditional CDA.
To maximise the potential of the analysis, the analytical tools need to be carefully selected in order to extract as much valuable information as possible from the research subjects, which in this case will be texts, images, and videos. As such, a toolkit was crafted to fit all of these modes and to steer the analysis to find the answers to the research questions.

Toolkit for texts

The textual analysis will resemble that of a traditional CDA, and several analytical tools were selected as they fit the purpose of the study. To begin with, the first goal was to identify what type of article it is, i.e. what the main story and focus of the article is. The purpose of this is to look at whether ESPN are interested in a story about the athlete or the person (man/woman), and subsequently if the individual is primarily represented as an athlete or as something else. This will be an indicator of what was deemed to be the most intriguing and important aspect to highlight about the individual in question.
Secondly, a selection of tools were used to analyse the particular language used more deeply, with a strong emphasis on the specific words and phrasings that were chosen. This analysis will be limited to the sections of the articles that are directly concerned with the body. Examples here include formulations about how the body has been built and shaped in relation to their sport, what is said concerning size, muscle, and general attractiveness, amongst other details.
When looking at what words that are used, it is referred to as a lexical analysis. A lexical analysis can be very effective in recognising discourses and thus reveal what is considered valued even if it is not explicitly stated (Machin and Mayr 2012, 30). What is indirectly or implicitly implied is a tell-tale sign of underlying beliefs when, for various reasons, those beliefs are not openly communicated (van Dijk 2001, 104). This, in particular, could be of interest if the topic of the article is about one area, but the language used hints of another main interest from the magazine.
Here, the focus is on word connotations, i.e. what specific words that are used and what associations those words have. Although different words can explain the same story, using certain words instead of others can give different meanings to the story (Machin and Mayr 2012, 32). Another interesting aspect in language use is overlexicalisation. In short, overlexicalisation is the repetition of or the abundance in use of a certain word or synonyms, and also excessive descriptions which aim to guide the interpretation in a certain direction (ibid., 37). On the other end, another important feature is lexical absence which is when particular words that would be expected are instead absent from the text, which can have ideological explanations (ibid., 38-39). Finally, the last main analytical tool that was used for the articles was attention to structural oppositions. Structural oppositions in language are opposing or differing concepts which, when one is used in favour of the other, highlights certain attributes or qualities (ibid. 39). In this study, one example could be if an athlete is mainly referred to as a mother or father rather than an athlete.
Through this analysis, the purpose will be to clarify precisely how ESPN, in textual form, construct the athletic form as well as what is communicated to be the most important features. These results will then be analysed in connection to the findings in the analyses of the other modes.


Toolkit for images

In MCDA, the desire to mould tools for analysing imagery arose from the belief was that the typical visual analysis methodology lacked the required tools to provide a “more precise, systematic and careful description that would in turn allow more accurate analysis” (Machin and Mayr 2012, 7). Therefore, there was a need to develop a set of analytical tools which could assist in analysing visual features to the same degree as the tools of CDA allow deep analysis of the lexical and grammatical features of language, some of which are included above in this study’s toolkit for texts.
Regarding MCDA and images, Machin (2009) rationalises why the multimodal approach is beneficial for analysing visuals. Like a single word in a sentence, Machin (2009, 182) explains, an individual visual sign should be analysed as part of a composition of signs that make up a ‘visual syntax’, which has the ability to shape the meaning of each individual sign. This is where the multimodal approach shines as other, traditional semiotic methods lack the tools to speak of the cumulative effect of multiple visual elements. Furthermore, as Machin (2009, 182) elaborates, multimodality allow us to more precisely reflect on all the various “communicative functions images are able to fulfil”. In total, the tools of multimodality can create “a more systematic way to analyse visual communication which has been largely dominated by more general open interpretation” (ibid., 183). Thus, in this study, everything in each image will be under scrutiny and attention will be given to how they interconnect. Moreover, as with the articles, a toolkit has been created to have a structure in the visual analysis.
One of the first things that were noticed was the setting. The setting alone can be a communicative message where discourse and values shine through (Machin and Mayr 2012, 52), and in this study, the setting in relation to the athlete’s sporting background was of high interest as it can be used as a way to direct attention either towards the athletic aspect or away from it. Another point of interest was attributes. In short, this is about what objects were featured and how they were represented, which had the ability to communicate various ideas and values (ibid., 51). A prime example in this study was sporting equipment, but any other object was also of importance. Next was the topic of salience. To give salience to a certain feature is to highlight it and make it stand out, which draws the attention of the viewer (ibid., 54).
Furthermore, other characteristics of importance included the active or passive nature of the pose. A pose that was a direct reference either to the individual’s sport or athletics in general was considered an active pose as it displayed the athletic body while in appropriate athletic motion, while all other non-sports related poses were considered passive. Additionally, the direction of the gaze was an important aspect as it can be a way of “guiding the viewer as to how they should evaluate the participant, even if this is not explicitly stated” (ibid., 70). When the gaze is into the lens and thereby directly at the viewer, it creates a ‘demand image’. In demand images, the viewer is acknowledged and prompted to react. Here, all the various details in the image, such as poses and facial expressions, will factor in when it comes to interpreting what kind of demand and question that is being asked. In the other scenario, when the gaze is not towards the camera, it is referred to as an ‘offer image’ where no demand is made and no response is expected from the observer. Instead, the image is offered as information to be interpreted with all the details considered. Plus, the specific direction of the gaze is still of importance. If the gaze is not towards a specific object visible in the image but instead off-screen, this can carry meaning as it encourages the viewer to imagine where the gaze is focused on and what they are thinking (ibid., 71-72).

Toolkit for videos

To begin with, just as with the articles, the first aim was to recognize what the most important messages were in each video and if the clips mainly displayed the athletes while in action or if there was a stronger focus elsewhere. The toolkit for videos was fundamentally the same as the toolkit for images, but slightly adjusted when necessary to fit the medium. The questions of setting, attributes, and salience was equally as important when analysing the videos as the images. The goal was to realise the main communicative message(s) in the videos, and further interpret them in relation to all the other information gathered from the other modes.

Summary of toolkit

Just as the theory of hypersexualisation focuses on the cumulative effect of all factors, so did this study when considering the findings from each mode. As is a defining characteristic of the MCDA approach, these modes were not to be analysed solely in isolation, but the main point was how they interconnect and together create the all-encompassing context in which the discursive construction of the athletic form can be interpreted and analysed for its complete communicative message.

Reliability and Validity

As per the course of any qualitative study, a general issue is subjectivity (Drapeau 2002, 1) as different people can interpret the same material in various ways.
Likewise, the requirement of interpretation is a limitation of the multimodal approach (Jewitt 2009, 26). In order to combat this, I aimed to be completely transparent regarding which analytical tools were used and how they were used to reach each conclusion, as well as simultaneously explore different or opposing interpretations that may also be viable. Concrete examples from the material were always provided to further display and explain my thought process. Moreover, considering the material’s vast use of naked bodies in the visuals, one of the more apparent subjectivity issues could be the declaration of what is and what is not sexual.
Considering the context, the fact that the athletes were naked (or close to) was not considered a sexual aspect in itself. How their bodies were used and portrayed, however, was of significance, along with what messages the complementary modes communicated. This aspect of the analysis attempted to retain high reliability by following the principles presented by Ekström and Larsson (2010, 17) such as always being consistent, comprehensive, considerate of context, and being open to differing interpretations.
Additionally, determining one’s sample size is another common issue with qualitative analyses (Blaikie 2018, 1). However, as the entire 2017 edition is freely available on the web and its content is already (comparatively) limited, no further limitation was required and the material could therefore be analysed in full.
Furthermore, the study’s validity is likewise deemed high as the study was successful in its attempt to answer the research questions put forward. The particular material and method chosen along with the toolkits allowed for the study’s purpose and aim to be achieved in a highly satisfactory fashion.
With all of the abovementioned considered, I am undoubtedly confident in the study’s reliability and validity and will unquestionably ensure that the same high level of caution and care for quality is existent from the first word to the very last.

Table of contents
List of figures
1. Introduction
2. Aim and research questions
2.1 Research questions
3. Previous research
4. Theoretical frame and concepts
4.1 Gender and the media
5. Methodology
5.1 Material
5.2 Qualitative research
5.3 Multimodal Critical Discourse Analysis
5.5 Reliability and Validity
6. Analysis
6.1 A mixed bag of athletic focus and personal focus
6.2 Toughness, injuries, and broken bodies
6.3 Athleticism clashes with femininity
6.4 Function versus beauty
6.5 Discussion
7. Conclusion

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