There's an issue with the way we're talking about female Olympic athletes, and a tweet by writer and TV producer Cassie St. Onge just called it out. Sometimes, we get so used to certain conventions occurring in media coverage that we don't even notice that these patterns might be problematic. But by describing a male Olympic athlete in a way that is rarely used for men, St. Onge brought attention to a double standard in the way we talk about athletes — and about people in general.
"The fiancé of Miss California USA 2010 won his 19th gold medal in swimming," the tweet reads. And the fiancé of Nicole Johnson — who won Miss California in 2010 and placed ninth in the Miss USA pageant that same year — is, in fact, Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Michael Phelps. The reason this tweet sounds so funny is that people don't typically find Phelps's personal life relevant to his professional success; his athletic accomplishments stand on their own.
For women in the Olympics, however, it's a different story. For example, after Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu won a gold medal and set a world record in the 400-meter individual medley, one commentator called her husband and coach Shane Tusup "the person responsible for her performance." And when American trapshooter Corey Cogdell-Unrein won her second bronze, a Chicago Tribune headline read, "Corey Cogdell, wife of Bears lineman Mitch Unrein, wins bronze in Rio" — and what's more, as Jezebel points out, the article goes on to focus largely on the Bears, rather than on Cogdell-Unrein's accomplishment. St.Onge tells Bustle over Twitter direct message that she was poking fun at this headline in particular with her tweet.
The focus on these women's male partners reflects a larger societal tendency to view women in relation to other people, as well as a tendency to undervalue female athletes' accomplishments. "I think it's a bad, lazy habit to identify someone by what their partner does," says St. Onge. "It's not bad to mention that someone may be married to or involved with someone notable, but when you use a partner's job title in place of your subject's name, that really minimizes their incredible accomplishment in the moment they have achieved it." She also referenced coverage of human rights lawyer Amal Clooney in which she is referred to as "actor's wife."
While it can be interesting and sometimes informative to know that a celebrity or public figure is connected to another famous person, a good rule of thumb is to ask whether or not you would say the same thing about a man. As St. Onge's tweet reminds us, women with notable accomplishments deserve as much credit for those accomplishments as men get.