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Is Barstool Sports… Sexist?

If you are a Penn State student, odds are you have probably seen the Barstool Sports vs. Marie Hardin (Dean of the Bellisario College of Communications) drama. It all started with an article published by NBC News, Barstool Sports and the Persistence of Traditional Masculinity in Sports Culture, wherein Hardin made comments on the portrayal of gender roles that the Barstool Sports platform showcases.

Conservative ideology appears to be a core part of Barstool Sports — especially its portrayal of gender roles, with hypermasculine, sports-loving men and hypersexualized, submissive women. The site’s reinforcement of conservative American values is what makes its content stand out from its competitors,” Dean Marie Hardin said. “In many ways, Barstool has resisted some of the more progressive discourse around sports. And I think there’s a niche for that,” she said. “There’s a market there and they’re able to capture that.” 

Hardin, along with many other women, spoke out as experts on conservative ideology and sexism that they say Barstool portrays. But Barstool President, Dave Portnoy specifically called out Hardin with a tweet.

“Hey I’d love to debate you @mariehardinpsu I’ll come to Penn State for it.” Portnoy wrote in his tweet. Following the challenge, Portnoy wrote, “As the Dean of the PSU Communications school you should be willing to defend your comments no matter how ridiculous they are,” making a jab at Hardin’s views on Barstool Sports. Along with this tweet, Portnoy also said that if Hardin agreed to debate him, he would donate $20,000 to THON, a student run philanthropy at PSU that raises money for pediatric cancer.

Portnoy later went on to speak out in an interview with Tucker Carlson on Fox News. Carlson brought up a number of people who have spoken out against the way Barstool portrays gender roles. Portnoy responded by saying he would go on any platform to defend himself and debate these allegations. 

Personally, I think there is a lot wrong with the whole situation. One thing that bothers me most about it is the fact that Portnoy said he would donate $20,000 to THON if Hardin would debate him. In making this claim, Portnoy is stating that the only reason he would donate is to get something in return: the debate. If Portnoy knows about THON, he should donate to help the kids, not to get a debate with Dean Marie Hardin. His challenge puts Hardin in an extremely uncomfortable situation. If she says no to the debate, then she will continue to receive negative media attention and harassment online. If she says yes, she subjects herself to the harsh comments of thousands of people who will not take her opinions seriously; so, it really is a lose-lose situation. 

Another thing that bothers me about the situation is the statement that Dean Hardin made. Although I agree that much of the content that Barstool posts can be sexist in many ways–throughout the past few years Barstool has evolved from a sports content website into an entertainment platform as well. Through this evolution, they have developed a need to cater to an ever-changing audience—one that enjoys controversial content. Saying that their platform runs on a core that showcases hypermasculine men, hypersexualized women, and conservative values is not true for all Barstool content. 

The women working at Barstool have put out a wide variety of content that contradicts Dean Hardin’s statement. For example, the podcast Call Her Daddy is a popular weekly podcast run by two girls living in New York City, describing their lives in a Sex in the City type manner, using even more personal details. While some may say is a prime example of hypersexualizing women, I believe is a way to empower women through their sexuality. Sexual stereotypes of men and women have always been completely different; men should be strong, intense, and dominant, while females should be delicate, sexy, and submissive. The Call Her Daddy podcast breaks down these conservative ideas and displays women taking control of their sexuality and being confident in themselves not only physically, but also emotionally. This contradicts the idea that Barstool has a conservative core, as much of the content on Call Her Daddy is promiscuous, which isn’t typically viewed as a conservative value. Another example is the podcast Chicks in the Office, which reports on news and pop culture. This podcast doesn’t sexualize women, actually doing the opposite by just giving the two hosts, Ria and Fran, a platform to voice their opinions on different things.

Although I can see that much of Barstool’s content isn’t rooted in traditional conservative values, I do believe Dean Hardin has a very valid point in the rest of her argument. I am a feminist, and I do see that Barstool Sports does produce content where there is an evident difference in how men and women are showcased, such as Girls on Gameday—a section of PSU Barstool that showcases women as uneducated in athletics, something that is not always true. This is a prime example of how Hardin was saying that Barstool Sports showcases traditional gender roles, specifically in sports—showing women as not knowing anything about athletics. Although this content is made only for entertainment and not to be taken seriously, it does portray a stereotype of women that can be considered offensive. For a platform such as Barstool, where half of the content produced is meant to be taken as serious news and the other half as comedy and entertainment, it can be hard to differentiate the two sides, resulting in a blurry idea of what Barstool’s ideals truly are. But I think that the content produced, and the ideals of the company should be looked at as two separate things, rather than one whole. 

Barstool has females working for them that hold high-up positions such as the CEO, CFO, and CMO. Along with these women helping to run the company, some of the most successful podcasts and blogs are run by women. Although hiring women is not a testament to the company’s views on gender roles, but rather a business decision, Portnoy speaks very highly of these women which makes me doubt that he views women in a lesser light than men. 

Barstool Sports has found a niche audience for entertainment and caters their content towards these people. Their content walks a blurry line between general news and comedy, making it hard to separate their ideals as a company from their content. They cater their content to their audience, which is something that nobody can condemn them for. Dean Hardin even admitted that their values are what make them stand out. Could some of their content be sexist? Yes. Does it still sell? Yes. That’s why they produce what they produce. As an entertainment platform, they need to create content that will resonate with as much of their audience as possible, and if that content has sexist gender roles, then the debate is over who is truly to blame: the people producing the content or the people consuming the content. Oftentimes I think we go to the extremes and can look too much into something that is supposed to be used for amusement rather than serious content. This type of content can come off as offensive if looking at it too deeply instead of just surface level comedy.

As a society, sometimes content produced by entertainment source blurs the line between comedy and controversial stereotypes, and people perceive this content in different ways. Barstool’s brand exploits these stereotypes in a way that is very controversial and as I’ve said before, if taken too seriously, could be offensive. At its core, Barstool Sports is a business and their primary goal is to make money. As a business there are some societal lines that should not be crossed. Different people have different personal lines that Barstool’s content may have crossed, but I do not think that Barstool has crossed any societal lines.

Overall, everything Dean Marie Hardin said about Barstool Sports is accurate. They do exploit those gender stereotypes and showcase traditional gender roles in some of their content. But I don’t believe that all of their content showcases conservative values at its core, and I don’t think that they are completely to blame. Barstool is a business, not just an entertainment platform and they are trying to sell their brand. This allows them to say and post outlandish things because it helps them gain more traction and make more money as a company. Barstool doesn’t always portray women in a progressive way because they portray women in a way to make their business as successful as possible, not to help advance the women’s rights movement. 

Print and Digital Journalism Major at Pennsylvania State University
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