Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Kinesiology and Sport Studies
Lars Dzikus, Adam Love
Leslee A. Fisher, Erin Whiteside
The television series American Ninja Warrior (ANW) is unique amongst televised sport, both as an example of the emerging ninja obstacle course racing genre, and as a sport in which athletes of all genders compete on the same courses. By featuring a gender-integrated sport, ANW offers different possibilities for the mediated representation of gender than do televised gender-segregated sports. Such mediated representations of gender are further complicated by shifts in contemporary discourse about gender politics and performance (Gee, 2014; Gill, 2007a) Given these considerations, the purpose of this study was to explore the communicated meanings about athletes' gender in ANW.I studied Season 11 of ANW, which aired in 2019, using ethnographic content analysis methodology (Altheide & Schneider, 2013). I crafted a protocol document based on theoretical insights from cultural studies, television studies, and feminist sport research to guide my analysis. Using this template, I took detailed field notes about specific aural, visual, and narrative elements during each aired athlete run in Season 11 of ANW, and then analyzed these notes using a constant comparative approach.Insights from this analysis, considered alongside the study’s theoretical foundations, expand current understanding about contemporary gender discourse in sports. The highly-produced nature of ANW suggests an active crafting of narratives by show runners. One such narrative was the prominent celebration of women athletes—in some ways, evidence of continued progress for women in the male-associated space of sport. However, these celebratory representations also demonstrate a popular feminist approach to women’s empowerment, placing the neoliberal onus on individual women to simply be empowered, offering no critique of structural and ideological barriers to women’s equality, and privileging heteronormative and white beauty standards (Banet-Weiser, 2018). Representations of men in ANW followed a similar logic: while depicting themes of fatherhood, family, and expressions of emotion that strayed from traditionally hypermasculine norms, this presentation of soft-boiled masculinity did little to disrupt assumptions about male athletic superiority (Heath, 2016). ANW presented postfeminist contradictory notions about gender by implicitly communicating higher expectations for men than women, while also providing glimpses of a continuum of athleticism across genders (Gill, 2007a; Kane, 1995).
Winemiller, Samuel Paul, "Warping the Wall: Representations of Gender in American Ninja Warrior. " PhD diss., University of Tennessee, 2020.