What's all this talk about gymnasts as romantic heroines?

July 30, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Shannon Miller was "Cinderella -- and the slipper fit." Svetlana Boguinskaya "comforted her young like a mother." And Kim Zmeskal's crowning moment came "in the arms of the man who made her dream come true."

You don't have to be a women's studies major to wonder about the language John Tesh used Tuesday night in wrapping-up NBC's coverage of the women's gymnastics events at the Summer Olympics.

And when you combine the Tesh-Talk with slo-mo images of the girls shown over chariots-of-fire piano music, you have a telecast that asks viewers to connect with these girl/woman athletes in ways that beg to be questioned. Or at least in ways that seem to have more to do with fantasy notions of romantic heroines and formulaic entertainment television than they do with real teen athletes and real-life sporting events.

The tone of NBC's coverage was established Sunday night with a dreamy music-video of the girls competing that was intercut with Eric Clapton's singing "Wonderful Tonight." The song is a ballad sung by a man in praise of the good looks and steadfast devotion of the woman he lives with -- and ends with the couple in bed.

The coverage has stayed mainly on that course. In fact, "gaggy," is the word Maureen Ryan, 28, a local radio station employee, used to describe it. "I love the women's gymnastics competition itself; I've watched all of it," she said yesterday. "I just wish NBC would stick to the competitions and cut all the other awful stuff. You wonder why it's there."

One reason it's there, not surprisingly, is ratings. NBC is searching for the ratings gold CBS found last winter in figure skating.

Initially, network executives weren't sure whether that gold would be found in women's swimming or women's gymnastics, but they were pretty sure it would involve women athletes. To get blockbuster numbers, you need a sporting event in which women viewers -- who now account for about two-thirds of the network TV audience on any given night -- are likely to be interested. And the network executives figure those women who are not avid sports fans are more likely to spend an evening watching events featuring women than men.

That's their thinking, anyway.

And to hold viewers through the five hours or so of nightly coverage, NBC figures the announcers have to craft entertaining and/or gripping "story lines," like the plots of miniseries or movies.

The Tesh story lines are where NBC's coverage of women's gymnastics starts getting gaggy.

While Tesh is talking of "Cinderella," "sweethearts" and fulfillment in the "arms of a man," viewers see pictures of athletes -- jocks, if you will -- getting sweaty and competing hard. It's as if Tesh is describing images in his mind formed by fairy tales and romance -- instead of the 14-year-old female athletes viewers see on the screen.

And, while pumped-up story lines are also crafted for male athletes, they almost always stick to athletic accomplishments -- the men as athletes, not objects of romantic fantasy, as celebrated in the Clapton song or the on-going Tesh-Talk.

Making women athletes into objects of romance is certainly nothing new. Mary Lou Retton was only called "America's sweetheart" about 10 million times in 1984. And who hasn't winced over Bud Collins; calling Chris Evert "little Chrissy" or "our princess"?

Perhaps it's time to explain how such entertaining stories can contain such potentially destructive messages. Perhaps then, the next generation of girls won't think validation is found only in the arms of a man and that happiness is being Cinderella. Maybe they could have the luxury of being dealt with simply as athletes, the way the boys are.

I'll bet that during this Olympics, NBC will not describe one male athlete as experiencing apotheosis "in the arms of the man [or woman] who made his dream possible." Nor will any male athlete be praised for "comforting his young." And no male jock will be described "as the prince who found Cinderella's slipper."

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