Black Belts and High Heels: an Analysis of Gender Representation on Black Belt Magazine Covers

  • John R. MalmoEmail author
  • David T. Rolfe
Original Paper


A content analysis was conducted of all 618 Black Belt magazine print edition covers between 1961 and 2017. Each person featured on the cover was examined in regard to their sex and the manner of their portrayal. Data collected from the analysis was quantized using previously identified gender characteristics adapted for this study. Results support existing literature that female athletes are underrepresented by sport media. Twenty-one covers (3.40%) featured females. Results found females were portrayed differently than their male counterparts. Featured females were more likely to show excessive skin in their photographs, and were more likely to be sexualized or objectified. Only 1.78% of featured males were sexualized or objectified as compared to 33% of featured females. Additionally, covers featuring women were significantly more likely to include text referring to gender. These references often infantilized, gender stereotyped, or objectified women.


Gender Sport Martial arts Content analysis Magazine covers 

Black Belt magazine is one of the world’s leading and oldest publications dedicated to self-defense, martial arts, and combat sports. The print version of Black Belt magazine has a circulation of 30,000 including numerous martial arts schools and retailers that distribute the magazine. The online version has approximately 396,000 page views per month and 107,000 unique visitors. Black Belt’s online presence includes nearly 13,000 followers on Twitter, 34,000 YouTube subscribers, and over 470,000 likes on Facebook. In addition to the magazine subscribers, there are 34,000 subscribers to the Black Belt newsletter (Cruz Bay Publishing 2015).

Black Belt’s launch, by Mithoshi Uyehara in 1961, served to present martial arts practitioners with a viable print media designed to provide martial arts news, information, and entertainment. In addition to the magazine, Black Belt publishes books, creates instructional DVDs, and maintains a strong internet presence (Black Belt History 2018). The magazine features interviews with prestigious martial artists, historical pieces on various combative styles, philosophies, and in-depth coverage of techniques, weapons, self-defense, training regimens and industry trends (Cruz Bay Publishing 2013). “All these endeavors are designed to spread the benefits of martial arts training to the largest possible audience” (Cruz Bay Publishing 2015, p. 2).

Martial arts is a truly global activity. An important and significant portion of Black Belt’s audience is martial arts practitioners in the United States. As with many sport and leisure endeavors, it is difficult to determine a precise number of participants and their demographic and psychographic information. The U.S. Census Bureau briefly reported martial arts participation data from the National Sporting Goods Association. Data reported for the ten year time span from 1995 to 2004 indicated a range of 4.2 million to 5.4 million people participated in martial arts in the U.S. (National Sporting Goods Association 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004). This represents between 1.5% and 1.9% of the American population. For the same years, 30% to 43% of martial arts practitioners in the U.S. were female.

Despite numerous attempts, the researchers were unable to obtain demographic information for subscribers and readers of Black Belt magazine. It is unknown whether the consumer breakdown by sex is similar to the overall martial arts practitioner ratio between males and females. Regardless, one of the stated goals of Black Belt is trying to spread the benefits of martial arts training to the largest possible audience. Therefore, it could be argued that Black Belt should have a vested interest in the wants and needs of both male and female practitioners. One could expect the content and the manner of portrayal of the content to be representative of and in line with communicating with the largest possible audience.

By examining the portrayal of athletes and sport by the media, it is possible to gain a better understanding of society and the messages that affect consumers. Research exploring the consumption, motivation, and behavior of martial arts fans and the manner of marketing and promotion of the martial arts is sparse. While scholars have looked at the depiction of athletes by the media, studies investigating the depiction of martial arts practitioners were not found.

Drawing from feminist theory, this study adds to the literature by examining the covers of Black Belt magazine for evidence that female practitioners are ignored, reduced, undervalued, or presented in subservient roles. Previous studies have not explored who or what is featured on Black Belt magazine’s covers. Additionally, no previous content analysis of Black Belt magazine’s covers was found. This study examined not only who or what was featured on the covers, but also how often males and females were portrayed and the manner in which they were depicted. The following research questions were used to guide the research:
  • RQ1. Is there a statistically significant difference between the numbers of covers featuring females versus males?

  • RQ2. Is there a difference in the way females are featured versus the way males are featured?

  • RQ3. Do the featured martial artists display gender-stereotyped characteristics?

  • RQ4. Are females more likely to be sexualized or objectified in their portrayal than males?

1 Literature Review

1.1 Feminist Theory

The body of sports research has several noticeable gaps: women in sports as well as non-traditional sports. This study not only focuses on non-traditional sport, but with women as a key variable. Analyzing the status of women in sport can be achieved by viewing the issue through the lens of feminist theory. Scraton and Flintoff (2013) stated that social, political, and economic change influence how one understands and explains gender and sport. Focusing on gender politics, power relations, and sexuality, feminist theory seeks to understand gender inequality while promoting women’s rights, interests, and issues (Hattery 2010). Its main purpose within the sociology of sport is to, “theorize about gender relations within our patriarchal society as they are evidenced by, played out in, and reproduced through sport” (Birrell 2000). In particular, it is interested in how sports reproduce gendered ideas and practices as it relates to masculinity and femininity (Beedie 2010).

Sport is generally centered on the values and experiences of men with power and influence (Bilton et al. 2002; Coakley and Pike 2014). Feminist theory posits that females lack equal opportunity in sport and are underrepresented due to this hegemonic masculinity. Additionally, traditional feminine traits or virtues are seen as conflicting with masculine traits that are typically associated with sport such as competitiveness and aggressiveness (Woods 2016).

1.2 Sports Media Portrayal of Female Athletes

Female athletes are underrepresented and are portrayed differently than their male counterparts by sports media (Fink and Kensicki 2002; Messner et al. 2003). While 40% of sports participants nationwide are female, women’s sports receive just 8.7% of total sports coverage in newspapers and female athletes only receive 5–8% of media coverage (Grau et al. 2007; Fink et al. 2014). This lack of equity between media coverage of women’s sports versus men’s is well-documented in sports media (Farrell et al. 2011).

Studies investigating the coverage of major sports entities such as ESPN, ESPN’s SportsCenter, and Sports Illustrated have revealed a vast discrepancy between the coverage and portrayal of female athletes versus male athletes. Reid and Soley (1979) found that the coverage of women’s sports in Sports Illustrated (SI) did not increase from 1956 to 1976 despite the increase in participation by females. Feature coverage by SI of women’s sports also did not increase in the 20 years following the study by Reid and Soley (Bishop 2003). Weber and Carini (2013) found that women only appeared on 4.9% of SI covers from 2000 to 2011. Interestingly, women were depicted on a higher percentage of SI covers from 1954 to 1965 than from 2000 to 2011.

In ESPN’s list of the 100 greatest athletes of the 1900s, only 8 women made the list. While numerous arguments and justifications were made for the shortage of women on the list, “no explanation proves to be as valid as gender bias against women” (Billings 2000, p. 416). Engleman et al. (2009) found that ESPN The Magazine reinforced gender hegemony and undervalued women’s sports. Tuggle (1997) and Adams and Tuggle (2004) found that SportsCenter devoted nearly all coverage to men and men’s sports with a ratio of 25:1 in 1995 and 48:1 in 2002. Eastman and Billings (2000) noted an evident gender bias by SportsCenter. In a longitudinal study of SportsCenter, Turner (2014) found no increase in the prevalence of women’s sport from 1999 and 2009 as compared with previous studies.

Knapp (2015) examined CrossFit Journal’s photographs, and found that 1794 females (28%) were pictured as compared to 4531 males (72%). However, of the 1794 females, 69% were pictured with males. As noted by Weber and Carini (2013), women’s participation in sport is often minimized by sharing covers with their male counterparts. Only 9% of all sampled photographs pictured females by themselves or in groups with only females.

Scholars continue to find that little progress has been made in terms of portrayal of women by sport media. When the media has attempted to embrace women’s sports in the forms of magazines and websites, they have ultimately been unsuccessful. Two examples are Sports Illustrated Women/Sport and Sports Illustrated Women which both failed less than two years after their launches. It is yet to be seen if espnW, ESPN’s attempt to serve and inform female athletes and fans, will prove to be an exception. Wolter (2015) examined espnW, and found that female athletes were featured 68% of the time as compared to 12.4% for male athletes. Female athletes comprised 71.2% of the lead story photographs compared to 16.9% for males. This indicates a shift in the coverage dedicated to women’s sports by an organization that has received a lot of criticism for its practices.

As discussed, research shows that media marginalizes females in sport, preferring to show them in sexually appealing ways (Bernstein and Kian 2013; Kane and Maxwell 2011; Lumpkin 2007; Weber and Carini 2013). “When female athletes are featured, limiting and dangerous stereotypes tend to prevail, for example, the emphasis of physical beauty over performance, sexual objectification, women as more fragile and domestically oriented, and that there are ‘inappropriate’ sports for females to play” (Weber and Carini 2013, p. 197). While there is some indication that there has been a rise in the sexualizing of male athletes (Heywood and Dworkin 2003), it is far more common for female athletes to be sexualized or objectified (Duncan 1990; Duncan and Hasbrook 1988; Hilliard 1984).

By sexualizing female athletes, the focus is diverted from athleticism or performance toward an emphasis on sexuality (Cranmer et al. 2014). Female athletes’ accomplishments are shaped to be less important than their physical beauty or sexual worth (Weber and Carini 2013). The shift from ability to appearance is accomplished through the content and context of photographs and articles. As noted by Duncan (1990), the content and context of an image influence the photograph’s meaning. Kim et al. (2010) found that SI swimsuit issues’ context and content focused on the sexualization of women rather than their athleticism. All of the female athletes wore swimsuits on the beach, were posed in more feminine poses than men, and were portrayed as feminine objects. “The most physically attractive athletes tended to be the ones most frequently chosen as subjects for photograph models in swimsuit issues. Most female athletes portrayed in swimsuit issues did not necessarily have distinguished athletic achievements but were more often than not famous for their physical beauty” (Kim et al. 2010, p. 159).

In addition to being sexualized, women are frequently gender stereotyped within sport media (Kane et al. 2013; Whisenant et al. 2002). The femininity of female athletes depicted by sport media appears to contradict the attributes typically associated with sport. “The qualities associated with sport and masculinity are the powers of dominance: physical superiority, violence, aggression, control, and victory” (Cahn and O'Reilly 2007, p. 52). Women are more likely to be portrayed in non-masculine sports (Bernstein and Kian 2013), and are more likely to “conform to the Eurocentric ideals of what a woman must be both as an athlete and a woman” (Trolan 2013, p. 216). Women are framed within the context of familial roles (Daddario and Wigley 2007). Additionally, female athletes are often infantilized by referring to them as ‘girls’ or ‘young ladies’ (Wensing and Bruce 2003). Finally, in juxtaposition, several high-profile women martial artists actively exploit their own femininity and sexuality via social media by posting sexualized or nude images with marital arts theming. So, can it be argued that self-representation and exploitation of the sport may not be exploitation at all?

2 Methodology

Content analysis was performed on all regular edition Black Belt magazine covers (N = 618) from 1961 to 2017. Examining media content and analyzing photographic representations is a common methodological procedure (Duncan 1990; Kim and Sagas 2014; Salwen and Wood 1994). The first step involved identifying the number of covers that included a picture of a male and the number of covers that included a female.

Photographs on the cover were then evaluated to determine the differences, if any, between the portrayal of women and men. Specifically, covers were examined to determine if individuals on the cover were pictured with other people or were the primary or sole image; whether they were included as an inset; or whether they were part of a collage. If covers included two or more people, it was identified whether the cover depicted all men, all women, or men and women together. In cases where males and females were shown on the same cover, it was examined to determine whether the male(s) or female(s) were the primary focus of the photograph by inspecting details such as picture size and position. Characteristics of relative size, function ranking, and ritualization of subordination as described by Goffman (1979) were also used to determine whether a man or a woman was the intended feature or held the position of power on the cover.

Next the clothing and postures of the individuals on the covers were examined. It was identified whether individuals were standing, sitting, jumping, or kneeling, and whether they were engaged in an activity such as kicking or punching or simply maintaining a pose in the photographs. Clothing was examined to see whether it could be considered an appropriate martial arts ‘uniform’, workout clothing such as sweat pants or shorts, street clothing such as jeans, or formal wear such as a suit or cocktail dress. It was also determined whether individuals on the cover wore revealing clothing or had a lack of clothing for the purpose of sexualizing or objectifying the person.

Finally, gender characteristics were evaluated using previously identified characteristics (England et al. 2011) modified for this study. England et al. looked at Disney films to examine the change of gender portrayal of prince and princess characters. For this study, the six masculine characteristics were identified as being: strong; unemotional; athletic; intimidating; brave; and aggressive. The six feminine characteristics were identified as being: focused on appearance; submissive; emotional; a victim; graceful; and soft, gentle, or meek.

This study utilized thirty coders to rate the gender characteristics of individuals on the covers. Coders were randomly sampled from this pool, with each cover rated by a random sample of five coders. Fleiss’ Kappa was used, in addition to observed agreement, to determine inter-rater reliability. Fleiss’ Kappa is “suitable for studies where any constant number of m coders is randomly sampled from a larger population of coders, with each subject rated by a different sample of m coders” (Hallgreen 2012, p. 26).

Observed agreement for coders across individual gender characteristics ranged from 85.7% for strong to 97.7% for submissive. Kappa scores for individual male characteristics ranged from 0.709 for strong and 0.801 for aggressive. There was 87.6% observed agreement with a Kappa of 0.748 across all masculine characteristics. This indicates substantial agreement among raters for all masculine characteristics (Landis and Koch 1977).

There was 93% observed agreement with a Kappa of 0.687 across all feminine characteristics. This indicates substantial agreement among raters across the feminine characteristics. Kappa scores for individual female characteristics ranged from 0.481 for submissive to 0.72 for emotional. Of note, three of the female characteristics had Kappa scores that could be indicative of having only moderate agreement. However the observed agreement among raters for these characteristics ranged from 91.6% to 97.7%. This is a known paradox of Kappa.

The Kappa statistic may act inconsistently in cases of strong agreement between raters since the index may assume lower values than would have been expected and Kappa is affected by the prevalence of the finding under consideration (Falotico and Quatto 2015; Feinstein and Cicchetti 1990; Viera and Garrett 2005; Zec et al. 2017). A lower Kappa value does not necessarily indicate low rater agreement. For that reason, the researchers included both the observed agreement and Kappa scores.

Observed agreement across all gender characteristics was 90.3%. The Kappa across all gender characteristics was 0.785. Scores indicate substantial agreement among raters.

The researchers rated whether individuals on the cover were sexualized or objectified. Cohen’s κ was run to determine if there was agreement between the researchers. There was almost perfect agreement between the researchers, κ = 0.852, p < .001.

3 Results

Research question 1 asked if there was a statistically significant difference between the numbers of covers featuring females versus covers featuring males. Females were included on 35 covers (5.66%), however 14 of these covers were focused on, or featured, the males on the cover. A chi-square goodness-of-fit test was conducted to determine whether covers featured men and women equally. The minimum expected frequency was 307.5. Males were significantly more likely to be featured on the cover (χ2 = 533.868, df = 1, p < .001.) Only 21 covers (3.40%) featured women while 593 covers (96.12%) featured men. Three covers (0.49%) did not include a man or woman.

An examination of the covers by decade found that 1990 through 1999 had the highest percentage (5.83%) of covers featuring females. Only 1 cover (0.83%) featured a female between 1970 and 1979, and 1 cover (0.83%) featured a female between 1980 and 1989. Of the first 206 issues, 4 covers (1.94%) featured a female. Of the second 206 issues, 7 covers (3.40%) featured a female. The final 206 issues examined in this study had 10 covers (4.85%) that featured a female.

The last three women featured on Black Belt include Ronda Rousey, former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) women’s bantamweight champion, and Kayla Harrison, the first American to win an Olympic Gold Medal in Judo. These women were featured in May 2012 and November 2012 respectively. The most recent cover to feature a female was in February 2017. See Table 1 for a breakdown of covers by decade.
Table 1

Gender representation by decade


Number of Covers

Covers Featuring Females






























Research question 2 asked whether there was a difference in the way females are featured versus the way males are featured. A couple of non-significant findings stand out in addition to numerous significant findings. There was not a statistically significant difference between females being featured solo versus males being featured solo (χ2 = 2.036, p = .154). There was also not a statistically significant difference between males and females being included in an inset (χ2 = .016, p = .901).

Featured males were significantly more likely than featured females to be pictured standing (χ2 = 6.787, p = .009), and were also more likely to wearing a traditional martial arts uniform (χ2 = 15.201, p < .001). Featured females were significantly more likely than featured males to be pictured wearing workout clothing (χ2 = 22.882, p < .001), and were more likely to have excessive skin showing (χ2 = 16.794, p < .001). Only 4.21% of men were deemed to be showing excessive skin compared to 23.81% of women. Finally, covers featuring women were significantly more likely to include text referring to gender (χ2 = 43.084, p < .001).

Research question 3 asked if the featured martial artists displayed gender-stereotyped characteristics. Mann-Whitney U tests were run to determine if there were differences in exhibited gender traits between males and females. Distributions of the masculine scores for males and females were not similar, as assessed by visual inspection. Males (mean rank = 310.94) had statistically significantly higher masculine scores than females (mean rank = 224.76), U = 4489.00, p = .026. Sixteen featured males (2.7%) did not exhibit any masculine characteristics, and forty males (6.73%) exhibited all six of the masculine characteristics. Two-hundred-seventy-five featured males (46.3%) exhibited four or masculine characteristics. All females exhibited at least one masculine characteristic. One featured female exhibited all six masculine characteristics.

Females (mean rank = 444.52) had significantly higher feminine scores than males (mean rank = 303.17), U = 9104.00, p < .001. However, five featured females (23.81%) did not exhibit any of the gender-stereotyped feminine characteristics. One female (4.76%) and one male (0.17%) exhibited four feminine characteristics. Two-hundred-sixty-seven males (44.95%) did not exhibit any of the feminine characteristics. None of the featured models exhibited more than four feminine characteristics.

Featured males were significantly more likely than females to exhibit the gender-stereotyped characteristic of intimidating2 = 10.101, p < .001). Females were significantly more likely than males to have the gender-stereotyped characteristic of appearance emphasized (χ2 = 82.174, p < .001). Females were significantly more likely to display the characteristics of submissive2 = 11.451, p = .001), graceful2 = 4.432, p = .035), and soft, gentle, meek2 = 13.299, p < .001). Females were also significantly more likely to display being a victim (χ2 = 10.512, p = .001).

Research question 4 asked whether females were more likely to be sexualized or objectified in their portrayal than males. Featured females (33.33%) were significantly more likely to be sexualized or objectified than males (1.85%) (χ2 = 70.753, p = <.001).

4 Discussion

The purpose of this study was to explore how males and females were portrayed on one of the world’s leading martial arts magazines; Black Belt. Significant differences were found in the numbers of covers featuring males versus females, and in the manner in which males and females were featured. Results indicate that males are given significantly greater coverage and are more likely to represent the expected image of a martial artist. Females are significantly more likely to wear revealing clothing, be sexualized or objectified, and be depicted in ways that emphasize feminine characteristics rather than athletic abilities.

Findings support the literature that women receive far less coverage in sports media than their male counterparts. Of the 35 Black Belt magazine covers that included images of a woman, 14 covers featured a male. On these covers where a male was featured, the woman or women were included as an inset (42.86%) or were portrayed in an inferior position (57.14%); lower than the man, behind the man, or pictured smaller in relative size. Black Belt’s goal of reaching the largest possible audience suggests that covers would be designed to appeal to, and be representative of, both males and females. In the field of martial arts, where an estimated average of 37% of participants are female, one could reasonably expect that far more covers would feature females. Only having 3.4% of magazine covers featuring a female is further evidence of the inequality and inequity of sports media coverage between males and females.

When women were featured, they were more likely to be sitting, kneeling, or crouching. They were also more likely to be shown in more revealing clothing, and in manners that emphasized their physical appearance over their athletic abilities. For example, on one cover, a female is shown in a sports bra and shorts. These articles of clothing in and of themselves are not necessarily an example of sexualization. However, they may not be seen as traditional martial arts apparel. The true concern is that the sports bra had several slits in it that served no purpose other than to be revealing.

An important aspect presented in the results is the use of text referring to sex or gender on numerous covers. In nearly every case, it referred to females in some manner. Many of these references infantilized, gender stereotyped, or objectified women. For example, “Beauty Queen”, “Karatekas clean house”, “Karate wives how they cope”, “my mommy can beat your daddy…wife, mother”, and “hottest star”. Additionally, many of the text statements served to qualify the experience of women. For example, “weapons for women” and “women’s self-defense”. These statements may seem innocuous or like target marketing. However, they position women apart from men creating a separation of experience that can lead to inferences of inferiority. The statements imply that women are not capable of participating or performing in the same manner as men. The equivalent qualifiers were not found for men. There were not any statements that said men’s self-defense, weapons for men, etc.

Perhaps not surprisingly, males exhibited gender-stereotyped masculine characteristics and females exhibited feminine characteristics. However, the portrayal of these characteristics lent itself to the males coming across as confident, capable, and willing. By comparison, the women appeared as victims, reluctant, and in danger of being overpowered at any moment. For example, several covers displayed one man throwing another man to the ground. In doing so, the man looked in control and powerful. When a woman was shown throwing a man to the ground, the picture looked more like she was helping the man up than throwing him down. Furthermore, as a male-dominated sport, martial arts have historically been associated with male-dominated societies. And as such, stereotyped covers could be seen as reinforcing patriarchal ideals.

In line with previous research, women were portrayed in manners that de-emphasized their athleticism and sexualized them compared with their male counterparts. “Male athletes are athletic and females athletes are aesthetic” (Cranmer, Brann, & Bowman, Male athletes, female esthetics: the continued ambivalence toward athletes in ESPN’s The Body Issue, Cranmer et al. 2014, p. 159). It is discouraging that this portrayal of female athletes is so pervasive across so many different sports and activities.

This research makes an important contribution to the literature by focusing on the portrayal of females in a non-traditional sport. This study was the first to examine gender analysis within the context of martial arts. The martial arts and women in the martial arts in particular, is a topic that is growing in interest. Given the somewhat unknown of total female martial artists on a national and global scale, it is likely that female martial artists will continue to be underrepresented in the media.

Future research should include interviews of male and female martial artists in regard to their perceptions of the portrayal of women in the martial arts. Studies should investigate the attitudes of journalists and commentators covering the martial arts. The research should also be expanded to examine the portrayal of female martial artists in entertainment segments such as video games and movies where females are commonly represented as sex-objects and helpless victims. Continued work must be done to understand why the underrepresentation and selective representation of females in sport happens, as well as how this trend of hegemonic masculinity can be addressed.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Management, Marketing, and EconomicsChristian Brothers UniversityMemphisUSA
  2. 2.Department of Physical Education, School Health, and Movement StudiesCentral Washington UniversityEllensburgUSA

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