Revenge of The Bodies We Want: Even More Naked Athletes and Even More Unwanted Feminist Analysis

In this blog’s two-and-a-half year existence, one post has gotten more views than all my other posts combined. One post has brought me traffic every single day. One post has gotten me the most amazing search terms like “female athletes boobs?” and “nude basketball PuSsy” and  “suzann pettersen lesbian”. One post has gotten me quoted – and basically plagiarized – on feministing (thanks for quoting me, guys. Not so much for the “acting like we’d magically come to the same conclusion at the same time,” though). ONE POST has ranked above them all: The naked athletes post. Otherwise known as: “The Bodies We Want: Female Athletes in ESPN’s Body Issue” . I should write more about naked people, is the conclusion I draw from that post’s popularity.

Streaker American Ninja Warrior GIF

THIS BLOG, FROM NOW ON

ESPN’s Body Issue is ESPN Magazine’s “annual exploration and celebration of the athletic form” through the medium of lots and lots and lot of naked athletes. So many naked athletes. To quote ESPN.com editor in chief Chad Millman, the Body Issue “showcases an array of sports and body types. It inhabits our mission to pay tribute to these athletes’ bodies and all they are capable of.” Back in the day – lo, in those innocent years of 2012 – I reviewed the 2012 Body Issue, concluding that: “The shoot is one where men show off their athletic abilities; where men are depicted as talented and powerful. And it is a shoot where some women can show off their athletic abilities, and are portrayed as talented and powerful.” And my conclusions about the Body Issue’s gender problems are still occasionally linked to/quoted – mostly recently when NCWTV quoted me in a piece about ESPN’s *current* body issue – the 2014 version. But: those are conclusions I drew from the 2012 body issue. They’re specific to that magazine, to that year, to those athletes and those photos. Looking at NCWTV’s pull-quote, I wasn’t sure I felt the same way about the 2014 Body Issue. In a lot of ways, I felt like the 2014 edition had gotten *better*. I wasn’t unhappy about being quoted – links are always nice! But I did think my initial conclusions deserved some updating. After all, two whole years have gone by. Had ESPN’s Body Issue gotten better? Would I get to say the phrase “male gaze” at least a billion times? (probably) So I jumped once more into the realm of naked photos. Johnny Rocket, American Ninja Warrior, American Ninja Warrior Streaker

WRONG NAKED PICTURES, GODDAMN IT

. American ninja warrior streaker, american ninja warrior, streaker, american ninja streaker, johnny rocket

STILL WRONG

Johnny Rocket, American Ninja Warrior, American Ninja Streaker, American Ninja Warrior Streaker

Those are balls, Arrested Development, Barry Zuckercorn

Indeed.

All right, enough with the cracks. (… I couldn’t help myself)

Prince Fielder, ESPN Bodies We Want, Baseball, Prince Fielder Naked, Prince Fielder Nude

Okay, yes, HELLO MR. PRINCE FIELDER. Exhibit A for why I like 2014’s issue much more than 2012’s. Two years ago, I said I wanted to see fat athletes in ESPN’s Body Issue, and THEY HAVE DONE IT. (Not because of me, obviously. BUT STILL) This is a fat athlete we’re seeing, in all his naked glory. We see his muscles, his face, his stomach, his arms – his fat is not covered up, hidden, or minimized. Better still, Prince Fielder looks straight at the viewers: there is no shame in his face, no bashfulness, no apology. He’s not unhappy about the condition of his body, not abashed. He’s proud. Prince Fielder, Naked Prince Fielder, ESPN Body Issue, ESPN Body Issue 2014 Moreover, the shoot portrays him in motion, playing his sport. This is crucial – the Body Issue has an tendency to show athletes with non-normative bodies just standing there, used for shock value: Look How Brave We Are To Photograph A Naked Fat Man. Here, Fielder is portrayed as an athlete. We see his fat, athletic body moving. Fat and athletic are not opposed in these pictures; they are intwined. His body is both fat and functional. And they gave him a cover. He’s not buried in the back of the issue. ESPN’s Body Issue is also called “The Bodies We Want,” and it’s a beautiful and radical thing to put a fat man up as an example of a “Body We Want.” Y Predictably, some fatphobic assholes are grossed out by Prince Fielder’s photos, because fat people are terrifying. Predictably, I don’t care. As Melissa McEwan points out, “It’s not about finding [Fielder] beautiful; beautiful is beyond the point. No one need agree that he is beautiful to understand that he is a human being with a right to be free from judgment and hatred on the basis of his appearance. The conflation of those two—asking to be found beautiful and asking to be seen—is the shortest (and most mendacious) way that conversations about body acceptance get shut down.” To use McEwan’s wording, I’d add that no one needs to find Prince Fielder beautiful to understand that he’s a gifted, hard-working athlete at the top of his field. Conflating those two – asking to be found beautiful, and asking that one’s skills be acknowledged – is one of the more frustrating ways conversations about body acceptance get shut down. Fielder is a gifted athlete whether or not you think he’s attractive. Indeed, ESPN’s Body Issue is NOT about showing off conventionally attractive people – at least, that’s not it’s mission statement. It IS about showing off athletes’ bodies – to: “admire the vast potential of the human form. To unapologetically stand in awe of the athletes who’ve pushed their physiques to profound frontiers. To imagine how it would feel to inhabit those bodies, to leap and punch and throw like a god.” And if that is the Body Issue’s mission, then Prince Fielder belongs in its pages as much as any other athlete. Because fat people are athletes, and do play sports at a high level – whether you’re personally okay with that or not. [Like McEwan, I'm not linking to any of the more disgusting things people have said about Fielder, but you can find them if you look] *** I do think it’s interesting that ESPN chose a fat man, rather than a fat woman, to be the first fat athlete in the Body Issue.  Indeed, while the Body Issue has always pushed the visual boundaries of our idea of athleticism, it’s always done so in a deeply gendered fashion. Looking back across the past several issues, ESPN has featured three groups of people who don’t fit our visual idea of “athlete”: visibly disabled athletes, fat athletes and old athletes. (While many of the athletes in the Body Issue may have invisible disabilities – chronic illnesses, mental health problems, injuries etc. – those disabilities remain invisible to the viewer because of the Body Issue’s visual emphasis)

Jeff Farrell, ESPN Body Issue 2010, Peter Hapak, Jeff Farrell naked, ESPN Body Issue 2010

Jeff Farrell, ESPN Body Issue 2010, photo credit: Peter Hapak

Gary Player, ESPN The Body Issue 2013, Gary Player The Body Issue, Gary Player Naked

Gary Player, ESPN The Body Issue 2013, Photo credit: Peter Hapak

Steven Holcomb, ESPN Body Issue 2010, ESPN Body Issue, Steven Holcomb nude,

Steven Holcomb, ESPN Body Issue 2010, Photo Credit Patrick Hoelck

Byambajav Ulambayar, ESPN Body Issue 2009, Byambajav Ulambayar nude

Byambajav Ulambayar, ESPN Body Issue 2009, Photo Credit: Christopher Griffith

Esther Vergeer, ESPN Body Issue 2010, Bodies We Want, Esther Vergeer Nude,

Esther Vergeer, ESPN Body Issue 2010, Photo Credit Finlay Mackay

Sarah Reinertsen, ESPN Body Issue 2009, Sarah Reinertsen nude

Sarah Reinertsen, ESPN Body Issue 2009, Photo Credit Sheryl Nields

Oksana Masters, ESPN Body Issue 2012, ESPN Body Issue Oksana Masters, Oksana Masters naked

Oksana Masters, ESPN Body Issue 2012, Photo Credit: Martin Schoeller

Amy Purdy, ESPN Body issue 2014, Amy Purdy Nude,

Amy Purdy, ESPN Body Issue 2014, Photo Credit: Paola Kudacki

Do you see it? All of the old athletes and the fat athletes are men. All of the visibly disabled athletes are thin, conventionally attractive white women. Most of whom are blonde. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but in the pictures of disabled athletes, there’s a sense of… trying to reassure the audience, almost. Yes, the magazine seems to be saying, sometimes women lose limbs, sometimes they’re confined to wheelchairs, but they’re still *women*. They’re still beautiful, feminine, thin, fuckable. You would still be attracted to them if they wore a swimsuit. They’re disabled, but they’re not ugly  – that line women must not cross. It’s telling that except for their visible disabilities, they are the pinnacle of female attractiveness: white, thin, long-haired, conventionally attractive, usually in graceful, feminine poses, almost always smiling at the camera. They’re inviting, not defiant. Obviously, disabilities don’t *actually* make people more passive – but I think there’s a reason we as a society tend to react differently to disabled men v. disabled women. I think there’s a reason ESPN is much more comfortable portraying visibly disabled women than they are portraying visibly disabled men in the Body Issue (to the point where they have not done so at all) . Visible disabilities reinforce women’s passivity, while they destroy the image of male strength. A visibly disabled woman can still appeal to the male gaze, while a visibly disabled man disturbs that gaze. While the Body Issue won’t portray visibly disabled men, they will portray men who are old or fat. Fat and age aren’t inherently unattractive, but they’re coded as such in media. And the Body Issue does not shy away from portraying fat men, or old men.  en, in other words, can be shown as unattractive, at least according to societal standards. Their skin can be wrinkled; we can see their fat; we can see the sagging. Unattractive men aren’t disturbing – as long as they’re still able-bodied. In ESPN’s body issue, women can be disabled as long as they’re still attractive, and men can be unattractive as long as they’re visibly able-bodied. Women in the Body Issue can push the visual boundaries of “athleticism”, but they can’t be unattractive – they have to be thin and young, even if they’re disabled, or muscular, or otherwise break the “athletic woman” mold. Men in the Body issue can push the visual boundaries of athleticism, but they can’t be disabled – they must be able-bodied. The core of the athletic woman is still her attractiveness; the core of the athletic man, his strength.This is a theme that comes up in the Body Issue again and again, even when we’re not talking about disability, age and fat. *** The other way in which ESPN’s Body Issue tends to be gendered is in how the athletes are portrayed visually in terms of their movement. Waaaay back in 2012 (THE DARK AGES), I concluded that male athletes were far more likely to be portrayed in active, impressive poses, playing their sport, showing off their moves, while female athletes were mostly portrayed in passive poses that had little, if anything, to do with their athletic talents and abilities. To repeat myself: “The shoot is one where men show off their athletic abilities; where men are depicted as talented and powerful.And it is a shoot where some women can show off their athletic abilities, and are portrayed as talented and powerful. But most women in the shoot are not portrayed as powerful, talented athletes. They’re portrayed as hot chicks.” Does this visual divide still hold true in 2014? Are men still portrayed as active and strong, while women stay coy and beautiful? LET’S FIND OUT WITH SOME STATISTICS! … I am way too excited about this. So, first, clarification of terms. An active pose is where the athlete is moving, and is doing something related to sport (note that I did not say “something related to THEIR sport” – we’ll come back to that part) Example of an active pose:

Angel McCoughtry, ESPN Bodies We Want 2014, The Body issue, Angel McCoughtry Naked

Angel McCoughtry, ESPN Bodies We Want 2014, Photo Credit: Art Streiber

A passive pose, on the other hand, is one where the athlete is not moving, and is not doing anything related to sport. Example of a passive pose:

Jamie Anderson, Body Issue 2014, ESPN The Bodies We Want, Jamie Anderson Naked

Jamie Anderson, ESPN Body Issue 2014, Photo Credit: Peggy Sirota

Now that we’re clear on terms, let’s look at the breakdown from 2012:

Individual Male Athletes in the Shoot: 11 Individual Female Athletes in the Shoot: 17

Photographs of Men: 19 Photographs of Women: 17

Photographs of Men in active poses: 15 (78%) Photographs of Men in passive poses: 4 (22%)

Photographs of Women in active poses: 9 (52%) Photographs of Women in passive poses: 8 (48%)

And now, let’s see if 2014 changed anything:

Number of Female Athletes: 10  Number of Male Athletes: 10 

Photographs of Women: 29 Photographs of Men: 28

# of Active Male Poses: 23 (82%)   # of Passive Male Poses: 5 (18%) 

# of Active Female Poses: 17 (59%)  # of Passive Female Poses: 12 (41%) 

IMPROVEMENT! Very obvious, if small improvement. 59% of the photographs of women in 2014 have them doing active, athletic poses, versus 52% in 2012. And although men are still portrayed as far more active, the gap between the number of active male poses and active female poses has lessened from a 28% difference to a 23% difference. Now, good news aside, there’s still a giant gap between the number of women portrayed as active athletes, and the number of men portrayed as active athletes. Almost all the photographs of men – eighty two percent – have them doing something impressive, active, athletic. Only 59% of the photographs of women have them doing the same thing. It’s more than half, yes, but barely. Men are still *far* more likely to be depicted as talented and powerful. Let’s take this a step further. How many athletes had at least *one* photograph in their shoot where they were in an active pose? And how many athletes had at least *one* photograph in their shoot where they were in a passive pose? 2012: 

Individual Male athletes: 11 Male athletes with at least ONE active pose in the slideshow: 10 (90%) Male athletes who are ALWAYS passive: 1 (10%)

Male Athletes with at least ONE passive pose in the slideshow: 3 (28%) Male Athletes who are ALWAYS active: 8 (72%)

Individual Female athletes: 17 Female Athletes with at least ONE active pose in the slideshow: 7 (46%) Female Athletes who are ALWAYS passive: 8 (54%)

Female Athletes with at least ONE passive pose in the slideshow: 15 (88%) Female Athletes who are ALWAYS active: 3 (12%)

Versus 2014:

Individual Male Athletes: 10  Male Athletes with at least ONE active pose in their shoot: 10 (100%)  Male Athletes who are ALWAYS active: 5 (50%)  Male Athletes with at least ONE passive pose in their shoot: 5 (50%)  Male Athletes who are ALWAYS passive: 0 (0%) 

Individual Female Athletes: 10  Female Athletes with at least ONE active pose: 8 (80%)  Female Athletes who are ALWAYS active: 3 (30%)  Female Athletes with at least ONE passive pose: 7 (70%)  Female Athletes who are ALWAYS passive: 2 (20%) 

Here, I think the improvement is even more visible. While only 46% of female athletes had at least 1 active pose in 2012, a 80% of them have an active pose in 2014 – an almost 40% jump. A whopping 54% of female athletes were ALWAYS portrayed as passive in 2012, but that percentage drops to 20 in 2014. More and more women athletes are being portrayed as talented, powerful and strong at least ONCE in their photoshoot. Again, though, there’s still a big gap between the portrayal of men and women. ALL the male athletes had at least one active pose in their shoot. None of the men were always passive, and 50% of them were always active – while 70% of women had at least one passive pose. ESPN continues to feel far more comfortable portraying men as active athletes. It still feels the need to tone down, say, Hilary Knight’s amazing, dynamic hockey picture:

Hillary Knight, ESPN The Bodies We Want 2014, The Body Issue 2014, Hillary Knight Naked

Hillary Knight, ESPN The Bodies We Want 2014, Photo Credit: Martin Schoeller

with a picture of her sitting and smiling, a soft expression on her face:

Hillary Knight, The Bodies We Want 2014, ESPN The Body Issue 2014, Hillary Knight Naked

Hillary Knight, ESPN The Bodies We Want 2014, Photo Credit: Martin Schoeller

70% of the female athletes’ shoots have at least one of these passive, calm pictures. In fact, there seems to be a tradition in the magazine whereupon ESPN will portray a woman as incredibly powerful and gifted in her sport – and then follow it up with a very male-gaze focused picture. Women are strong, the magazine tells us – but don’t worry! They’re still attractive. They’re still traditionally feminine. We have preserved the core of their womanliness. Even when ESPN portrays a male athlete in both passive and active poses, the passive poses aren’t geared towards the male gaze – they’re geared towards showing off the male athlete’s strength. Looking at Nigel Sylvester’s shoot, for example:

Nigel Sylvester, Nigel Sylvester Naked, ESPN Body Issue 2014, The Bodies We Want

Nigel Sylvester, ESPN Body Issue 2014, Photo Credit: Carlos Serrao

One pose is more passive than the other, but both are very much geared towards highlighting the strength and power of Sylvester’s body. It’s not like Nigel Sylvester’s passive pose involves him sitting down, smiling coyly at us while he touches his body (more’s the pity). If you contrast his pictures with say, Hillary Knight’s or Coco Ho’s: Coco Ho, Coco Ho Naked, ESPN The Bodies We Want 2014, The Body Issue 2014 Unlike with Sylvester, only *one* of the pictures is about highlighting the athletes’ talent, strength and ability. The other is very much geared towards showing off the women’s femininity and sexiness. Now, before we move on to other subjects, let’s take a look at the two women who are portrayed solely in passive poses: Jamie Anderson and Venus Williams. Notice anything interesting about them?

ESPN Body Issue, Serena Williams, Jaime Anderson

All the ESPN Body Issue 2014 covers

That’s ri-ight! They’re the two female cover models. And here, the contrast is pretty fucking obvious. All the men are doing something active, something related to their sport. They’re also all looking AWAY from the viewer, and towards whatever they’re doing – while Jamie Anderson is smiling at us, and Venus Williams is, if not looking towards us, at least looking far closer towards us than the men are. The male athletes are focused on their sport; the female athletes are focused on us. The fact that Venus Williams and Jamie Anderson are both disconnected from their sport, and are instead portrayed in a feminine, passive, male-gaze-oriented ways, is… telling (I really love the word “telling.” Is it obvious?). Because this is the way that the Body Issue advertises itself – through its cover. And when it comes to its cover, the Body Issue casts women and men into deeply gendered roles. The male athletes are talented, powerful, active. The female ones are passive, beautiful, alluring. It’s, again, reassuring to a male gaze: if you buy this magazine, you’ll see some tough, amazing male bodies, and some lovely, sexy female ones. Now, once you get *inside* the magazine, there’s a lot less passivity on the part of the female athletes. But you wouldn’t know that just looking at the covers, would you? ESPN may be making progress in terms of its gendered aesthetic, but it doesn’t advertise it. So yeah, women are getting a whole lot more active in The Bodies We Want. But they’re still not on par with the men – and, more importantly, ESPN is still very invested in “reassuring” the viewers that, while its female athletes are gifted, powerful sportswomen, they’re still feminine, feminized, submissive. *** Remember how earlier, I defined “active” as “where the athlete is moving, and doing something related to sport (note that I did not say “something related to THEIR sport)”  Yeah, there was a reason for that. As I was tallying up all the active female poses of 2014, I noticed something. A lot of the women were being active… but they weren’t actually playing their sport. At all. Quick, what sport does Amy Purdy play?

Amy Purdy, The Bodies We Want 2014, ESPN The Body Issue, Paola Kudacki, Amy Purdy Nude

Amy Purdy, The Bodies We Want 2014, Photo Credit: Paola Kudacki

What about Lyn-Z Pastrana? What sport does she play? NO GOOGLE!

Travis Pastrana, Lyn-Z Pastrana, ESPN The Bodies We Want 2014, The Body Isue 2014, Lyn-Z Pastrana nude

Travis and Lyn-Z Pastrana, ESPN The Bodies We Want 2014, Photo Credit: Martin Schoeller

I mean, Megan Rapinoe at least gets a ball, but still:

Megan Rapinoe, ESPN Body Issue 2014, ESPN The Bodies We Want, Megan Rapinoe naked

Megan Rapinoe, ESPN Body Issue 2014, Photo Credit: Peter Hapak

Amy Purdy, for the record, is a snowboarder. She also came in second on the latest edition of Dancing With The Stars. Whatever she’s doing in that picture, it’s neither dancing nor snowboarding.

Amy Purdy snowboarding

Lyn-Z Pastrana is a pro-skateboarder (the dude on the bike is Travis Pastrana, her husband, a RallyCross racer)

Lyn-Z Pastrana skateboarding.

Megan Rapinoe plays soccer.

Megan Rapinoe playing soccer

Now, I’m not morally opposed to showing athletes bodies’ doing something *other* than the sport they’re famous for. I just think it’s… interesting… when you look at the gender breakdown:

# of men shown playing their sport: 10 (100%)  # of men not shown playing their sport: 0 (0%)  # of women shown playing their sport: 6 (55%)  # of women not shown playing their sport: 5 (45%)

Men always get shown playing their sport. Always. They’re always portrayed as athletes first. They’re not just in the magazine to show off their bodies – they’re in the magazine to show off their SKILLS. But even though Megan Rapinoe, Lyn-Z Pastrana, Amy Purdy, Venus Williams and Jaime Anderson were presumably invited to appear in the issue on the basis of their talents in their chosen sports, none of them are allowed to show off that skill. Venus Williams gets to stare at a desert.

Venus Williams, ESPN The Bodies We Want 2014, The Body Issue 2014, Venus Williams naked

Venus Williams, The Bodies We Want 2014, Photo Credit: Williams and Hirakawa

Jaime Anderson is draped over a chairlift.

Jamie Anderson, ESPN The Body Issue 2014, Jaime Anderson Naked, The Bodies We Want 2014, A FUCKING CHAIRLIFT

Jamie Anderson, ESPN The Body Issue 2014, Photo Credit: Peggy Sirota

Lyn-Z Pastrana is on the back of her husband’s motorcycle. Travis Pastrana, Lyn-Z Pastrana, ESPN The Bodies We Want 2014, The Body Isue 2014, Lyn-Z Pastrana nude Amy Purdy gets to do various acrobatic things – which seem to be more about “look, she can do awesome things with her artificial legs” than about “look at the awesome things she can do in her SPORT.”

Amy Purdy, Amy Purdy Nude, Amy Purdy The Body Issue

Amy Purdy, ESPN The Body Issue 2014, Photo Credit: Paola Kudacki

And Megan Rapinoe is literally doing a pilates move. Megan Rapinoe, ESPN Body Issue 2014, ESPN The Bodies We Want, Megan Rapinoe naked

Just for context, here’s what the OTHER soccer player in the magazine is doing:

Omar Gonzales, Omar Gonzales Naked, ESPN Bodies We Want 2014

Omar Gonzales, ESPN Bodies We Want 2014, Photo Credit: Finlay Mackay

There’s something disturbing about the way these shoots distance women from the sports they play. While we are asked to admire the men for their athletic skills, we are asked to admire the women’s bodies as athletic *objects* – not as active agents within the sport they play. We as viewers aren’t invited to admire their abilities, their talent, their command of the sport. We’re often just invited to admire them as bodies, full stop. Men’s athletic bodies are functional. Women’s athletic bodies are sexual. There’s much more power – not to mention personal agency – in a photoshoot that demands the viewer look at what she’s doing with her athletic body, rather than a photoshoot that asks you to look at her athletic body. Plus, it makes for a much more dynamic image. Which is more interesting – picture #1:

Marshawn Lynch, Marshawn Lynch naked

Marshawn Lynch, ESPN The Bodies We Want 2014, Photo Credit: Carlos Serrao

Or Picture #2:

Coco Ho, Coco Ho Naked, ESPN The Bodies We Want 2014, The Body Issue 2014

Coco Ho, ESPN The Bodies We Want 2014, Photo by Morgan Maassen

We see this division in real life too. Women are invited to play sports so that they can look good, while men are invited to play sports so that they can be good at sports. Again: Men’s athletic bodies are functional. Women’s athletic bodies are sexual.  Now, I’m already guessing there are going to be a few complaints about this point. Mainly, people will say: “BUT IT’S HARDER TO SHOOT WOMEN PLAYING THEIR SPORT/ BEING ACTIVE BECAUSE BOOBS.” THINK OF THE CHILDREN. We have to hide the Lady Boobs. National priority here. To which I say: 1. If ESPN wants to be truly radical, it could take the revolutionary step of not treating women’s breasts as sex objects. Then we could just see breasts, and it would not be a problem. (Yeah, I know, not likely, but a girl can dream.) 2. If you can hide balls, you can hide breasts. Johnny Rocket, American Ninja Warrior, American Ninja Streaker, American Ninja Warrior Streaker

Serge Ibaka, Serge Ibaka nude, ESPN The Bodies We Want 2014, The Bodies We Want 2014

Serge Ibaka, ESPN The Bodies We Want 2014, Photo Credit: Peter Hapak

I’m just saying, there has to be tape/photoshop involved in some of these shots of the men. #3. ESPN has shot female athletes in dynamic poses before. Yes, even in soccer. Yes, even in snowboarding. They can handle it. SNOWBOARDING

Elena Hight, Elena Hight nude, ESPN The Bodies We Want 2013

Elena Hight, ESPN Bodies We Want 2013, Photo Credit Martin Schoeller

SOCCER

Sydney Leroux naked, Sydney Leroux, ESPN The Bodies We Want 2013,

Sydney Leroux, ESPN The Bodies We Want 2013, Photo Credit: Peter Hapak

Abby Wambach, ESPN The Bodies We Want 2012, Photo Credit: Carlos Serrao

Abby Wambach, ESPN The Bodies We Want 2012, Photo Credit: Carlos Serrao

MOTORCROSS

Tarah Gieger, Tarah Gieger Naked, ESPN The Bodies We Want 2013, The Body Issue 2013

Tarah Gieger, ESPN The Bodies We Want 2013, Photo: Peter Hapak

ROLLER DERBY

Suzy Hotrod, The Bodies We Want 2011, Peter Hapak

Suzy Hotrod, The Bodies We Want 2011, Photo by Peter Hapak

 They are capable of taking an active picture of women with NO BOOBS flying around.  Okay, you say. Fair enough. BUT! There are two soccer players in this issue. Maybe they just wanted Omar Gonzales and Megan Rapinoe to have different *types* of shoots. That’s a perfectly reasonable point. But. Why is it always the chick who has to do the Pilates? Why isn’t Omar Gonzales doing the Pilates? Why isn’t Travis Pastrana holding onto his WIFE as she skateboards down a half – pipe? Why aren’t more random male athletes doing yoga poses, or draping themselves artfully around hula-hoops and curtains? Why aren’t more men lying in the snow, laughing? Why aren’t more of them lying on exercise equipment and smiling coyly at the viewers? Morgan Maassen, who photographed surfer Coco Ho for this issue, had this to say: “”The ESPN Body Issue exists to both celebrate top athlete’s bodies as well as show that they can be sexy too. Juggling that combination, we took to the water to shoot Coco doing what she does best.” That’s all I really want: for the female athletes to be shown doing what they do best. Not pilates. (Unless they’re a pilates champion) (In which case: PILATES AWAY) *** Another major difference between male athletes and female athletes in the Body Issue is the amount of smiling. Guess who smiles more? That’s right! It’s the ladies.

Of the ten male athletes, one is shown smiling (10%)  Of the ten female athletes, five are shown smiling (50%) 

When men are in passive poses, they’re far more likely to be giving proud, defiant, strong looks to the camera:

Jimmy Spithill, Jimmy Spithill nude, ESPN Body Issue 2014,

Jimmy Spithill, ESPN Body Issue 2014, Photo by Steven Lippman

And some women get the same edit:

Angle McCoughtry, ESPN Bodies We Want 2014, Photo by Art Streiber

But a lot of women, when in these passive poses, aren’t shown confronting the viewer . They’re shown smiling at us.

ESPN Body Issue, Peggy Sirota, Jamie Anderson Naked, Jamie Anderson

Jamie Anderson, ESPN Body Issue 2014, Peggy Sirota

If you compare the photos of Jamie Anderson and Angel McCoughtry, it’s pretty clear that one of them is *much* more viewer-oriented. Jamie Anderson is leaning towards us, smiling at us, inviting us in. Angel McCoughtry is just looking at us. There’s nothing particularly inviting about her look, or her stance – she just is. She’s not being presented as an object for consumption. This goes back to the theme of “reassuring” readers. Female athletes are allowed in the “elite athletes” club – but only if we keep emphasizing how attractive and feminine they are. They can dunk basketballs and win olympic gold, but they’re still pretty. They can win fights, and they can still pose for the male gaze. Male athletes, on the other hand, can be as strong, confrontational and proud as they want without intimidating readers. Female athletes must be friendly. Male athletes must be fierce. All these things are true – but. But. There’s an added twist.

Female athletes (with Lyn-Z Pastrana): 11  Black female athletes: 3 (27%)  White female athletes: 8 (73%) 

Black female athletes who smile at some point in their shoot: 1 (33%)  White female athletes who smile at some point in their shoot: 6 (75%).  Aha. I don’t think I would have noticed this distinction before reading the work of Trudy at Gradient Lair on the portrayal of black athletes. In her post “7 Predictable Ways That The Media Portrays Black Olympic Athletes,” Trudy points out that black athletes are portrayed as innately physical “versus as ones who also work hard and use the mental acumen of focus and strategy to contribute to their performances and competitive spirit (…) the “natural” physicality (and objectification in relation musculature and size) of Blackness is central to any sports commentary. Rarely is Serena’s mental game that contributes to her success mentioned (as the obsession is ALWAYS about her physical power/size), yet it is always mentioned for White tennis players.” Black female athletes are, in particular: “de-sexualized, “masculine” and aggressive. John McEnroe made a disgusting comparison of Misty May Treanor and Kerry Walsh to Serena and Venus Williams, saying that the former “out classes” the latter (…) The hyper-feminization of the volleyball stars because of their Whiteness conforming to Eurocentric ideals of beauty juxtaposed to the consistently negative racialized sexist perceptions that are hoisted on to the Williams sisters is a part of a consistent theme in sports (…) The Williams’ aren’t the only ones to be portrayed this way. It’s common outside of the Olympics with Black women athletes.” (my italics) The phenomenon Trudy discusses reappears on the pages of ESPN’s Body Issue. While the white female athletes are consistently sexualized (Jamie Anderson), and shown as soft and passive, almost all the black female athletes are portrayed in the same way as their masculine counterparts – desexualized and aggressive. White female athletes are portrayed to appeal to the male gaze. Black female athletes are not. Here, the Body Issue firmly adheres to white, eurocentric beauty standards: white women CAN be portrayed as appealing towards the male gaze – black women, not so much. Context matters here. Without an analysis of misogynoir, it seems great that Aja Evans and Angel McCoughtry are portrayed as just as tough, active and aggressive as the male athletes in the shoot. But once you realize that black female athletes are *overwhelmingly* portrayed this way, while white female athletes get to be feminine, sexy, inviting… you realize there’s something gross going on. To quote Victoria Carthy in “Textual Portrayals of Female Athletes: Liberation or Nuanced Forms of Patriarchy?” : “black women are seen as more athletic than white women, so their femininity is discounted as irrelevant (…) they have never been fully included in the stringent ideals of femininity and heterosexuality to begin with.” (140). Black female athletes, in other words, just aren’t *good enough* for the white supremacist heteropatriarchy to find them attractive. So when we see athletes like Aja Evans and Angel McCouhtry being portrayed as aggressive and masculine (while white women are feminine and sexy), we shouldn’t just read that as them being treated like male athletes – we should also read it as black women being denied their femininity. As my boyfriend put it: white women may be stuck in the foyer of forced sexualization, but black women aren’t even allowed through the door. Thus, while two years ago, I might have viewed Venus Williams’ shoot in The Body Issue in a solely negative light – here,  we have a strong, talented female athlete who only gets to look pretty and smile at the viewers – my understanding of racialized misogyny forces me to re-examine my assumptions. Instead of being portrayed as “masculine,” “overwhelming,” “pummeling,” “aggressive,” or “predator” (common ways the media describes Venus Williams)  here Venus gets to be feminine – something that media usually does not allow her to be. Since she’s often denied that facet of her character, the fact that this photoshoot allows her to be feminine, sexy, vulnerable is… progressive. Black female athletes being portrayed as feminine has a very different context from white female athletes being portrayed as feminine. Oppression is complicated as fuck. It gets even more complicated when you look at the racial breakdown of the male athletes. While the female athletes in the Body Issue are overwhelmingly white, the male athletes are overwhelmingly black.

Male athletes: 11 (counting Travis Pastrana)  Black male athletes: 6 (55%)  Latino male athletes: 1 (10%)  White male athletes: 4 (36%) 

Which, again, reinforces the idea that black people are *inherently* athletic. So male athletes tend to be black hypermasculinized, aggressive and active, while female athletes tend to be white, passive feminine and feminized. Male athletes are a power fantasy – an extreme version of maleness – while female athletes tend to cater to the male gaze. Most of the female athletes are at the pinnacle of female attractiveness: young, thin, white, passive, feminine, smiling. Those women who *don’t* fit into that narrow box (i.e: black women) tend to be portrayed like their male counterparts. And again, I think this is very much about reassuring a male gaze.Most of the female athletes aren’t portrayed pushing the boundaries of femininity, but rather, reinforcing them. Sure, women will be athletes, but they’ll be the kind of athletes we can still be *attracted* to. You get to have your cake and eat it too – acknowledge women are athletes while still keeping most of them as objects of consumption (see what I did there with the cake metaphor? And objects of consumption? HAHAHAHAHAHA, I crack myself up). It’s interesting how ESPN’s Body Issue can push the visual boundaries of what we consider “athletic,” all while reinforcing a bunch of narratives about who is an athlete, and how they’re allowed to express their athleticism. *** One of the biggest criticisms of my previous post was: “but what if the female athletes WANT to be portrayed that way?” What if Jaime Anderson didn’t *want* to snowboard? What if Megan Rapinoe really wanted to show off her pilates prowess? What if Lyn-Z Pastrana wants to be on the back of her husband’s motorcycle instead of starring in her own shoot? First: maybe they do want to be portrayed this way. But if they do isn’t that also worth examining? If all these women want to be portrayed as particularly feminine/sexy/passive – while all the men want to be portrayed as active/strong/confrontational – there’s something going on there. Why do men feel more comfortable being active? Why do women feel more comfortable being passive? Do female athletes feel pressure to *prove* their femininity? Three of the female athletes in ESPN’s Body issue specifically mention their femininity – clearly, it’s something they think about a lot. Conversely, do male athletes feel pressured to prove their masculinity? Would male athletes like to lounge around on the sand and show off their softer side (I mean, no pressure, gentlemen, but I’d like that)? What kind of cultural pressures are women under to prove that they’re still sexy and feminine even when they do traditionally masculine things? What kind of cultural pressures are *men* under to prove that they’re never vulnerable? It’s entirely possible to examine those issues without saying “women are wrong for wanting to be feminine.” Moreover, the intent of the athlete doesn’t change the message of the shoot. Whether the athletes personally chose everything in their poses or not, viewers will still get the impression that a female athletic bodies are sexual, while male athletic ones are functional. Death of the author and all that jazz. But second… I really don’t buy that these shoots are the result of what the female athletes want. Because that’s just not how professional photoshoots work. The photographer, the set, the costumes, the props – these are all chosen without the athletes’ input.  If Megan Rapinoe had shown up at her shoot and said “whoa, I was hoping to shoot at a soccer field, just like Omar Gonzales,” would the photographers/lighting tech/makeup artists etc. pack up and go find her a new location? Probably not. These very basic decisions – set the shoot on location, or in a studio? Use a snowboard or use a hula hoop? – are probably made very early in the process, long before the athletes are actually consulted. It’s ESPN’s photoshoot and the athletes are their models. The ESPN editorial team will have very specific ideas about the kinds of locations, moods and themes they want. And that’s understandable. Shoots cost thousands of dollars; they want to make sure they’re going to get a good return on their investment. Once the athlete comes on set, most decisions are too far gone to change. Was Amy Purdy really going to walk into the studio where they’d set up a hula hoop and a weird curtain and say that she wanted a snowboard instead? She’s not paying for the shoot – ESPN is. Photographers, meanwhile, control the flow of the shoot. They’re the ones telling the athletes how to move, how to pose, where to look, when to smile. Yes, this can be a collaborative effort, with the photographer and athlete working together to get the shot – but the photographer is ultimately in charge of how the athlete will look. And even if the athlete does a lot of active poses, and the photographer takes an amazing series of photos, neither of them are the ones who CHOSE the photos that run in the magazine. The editorial board does that. They’re ultimately the ones who decide how an athlete will be portrayed. In Morgan Maassen’s interview, for example, he talks about wanting to take pictures of Coco Ho that show her doing what she does best “bending and contorting at surfing’s behest.” When you look at the magazine itself, however, only one of the pictures really shows Coco Ho surfing. Given Maassen’s remarks, I’m pretty sure this was an editorial decision. Maassen probably took a lot of pictures of Ho surfing, but the team putting together the magazine just didn’t choose a lot of pictures where Ho was particularly active.

Coco Ho, Coco Ho Nude, ESPN Body Issue 2014, The Bodies We Want 2014

Coco Ho, ESPN Body Issue 2014, Photo Credit: Morgan Maassen

And no, for the record, I don’t think the magazine editors were cackling maniacally while going “AH YES, WE SHALL REDUCE THESE PUNY FEMALES TO MERE PASSIVITY MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA WE ARE THE PATRIARCHY.” I bet they weren’t even thinking about it. That’s what’s so disturbing about institutional oppression. You’re not thinking about it. So yeah, maybe female athletes *want* to be portrayed in a particular way. But they’re not the ones who are in charge of those decisions. If anything, they’re the smallest cog in a very big production machine. *** Wrapping it all up. Looking back at my conclusions from 2012 “The shoot is one where men show off their athletic abilities; where men are depicted as talented and powerful.And it is a shoot where some women can show off their athletic abilities, and are portrayed as talented and powerful. But most women in the shoot are not portrayed as powerful, talented athletes. They’re portrayed as hot chicks,” I’d say yeah, that’s still true in a lot of ways. But it’s more complicated than that. The Body Issue is getting better. It’s pushing the visual boundaries of what we consider “athletic,” who we consider “athletes,” and how we think these “athletes” should act. And all while pushing some boundaries, the Body Issue continues to leave others firmly in place. I’m looking forward to the day when athletes don’t to be “reassuring” to a male gaze to become part of the Body Issue.  We’re getting there. But we’re not there yet. *** To finish off, here are some amazing athletes who *don’t* fit our typical definition of athletic. Maybe ESPN will consider asking them  to appear in the Body Issue. (note: I am aware that a few of these athletes would be unlikely to say yes for religious reason)

Zahra Nemati, 2012 Paralympics

Zahra Nemati, 2012 Paralympics, Gold Medalist for Individual Recurve Archery. First Iranian woman to win an Olympic gold medal (either in the olympics or paralympics)

Peggy Oki, Skateboarding,

Peggy Oki, skateboarder. One of the original Z-Boys; inducted into skateboarding hall of fame in 2012. photo credit: Kevin Steele

Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland, first black soloist at the American Ballet Theater in 20 years.

Fallon Fox

Fallon Fox, openly trans MMA fighter (featherweight) Photo Credit: CFA / Rolando de la Fuente

 

Sarah Robles

Sarah Robles, the “strongest woman in America.” 7th Place at the London Olympics

Treyvon Jenifer

Treyvon Jenifer, bronze medalist for USA basketball at 2012 paralympics,

Idalys Ortiz

Idalys Ortiz of Cuba, Gold Medalist in the 2012 Olympics for Judo (78kg)

Brenda Villa

Brenda Villa, the most decorated athlete in women’s water polo history

Brittney Griner

Brittney Griner, 2013 WBCA NCAA Division I Defensive Player of the Year, youngest athlete selected for women’s USA Olympic basketball team

Diana Nyad

Diana Nyad, 62, first person to swim from Cuba to Florida. Photo credit: Jeffery A. Salter

Amber Riley, Winner of Season 17 of Dancing with the Stars

Keri Miller, Silver Medalist in Sitting Volleyball, 2012 London Paralympics

Anyone else you’d add to the list? (Note: googling “fat athlete” will get you a WHOLE LOT of fatshaming. Learn from my mistakes, my ducks. Learn from my mistakes.)


Artistry and Misogyny, Or: Do Not Mess With Women Athletes

I’m BACK everyone!

It’s been well over a month, and I’m sorry I disappeared for so long. I have a long, perfectly reasonable explanation for why I disappeared, which can be summarized as:

1. Depression sucks

2. Pretending you don’t have depression is a STUPID-ASS IDEA. [Denial: it's not just a river in Egypt]

3. Going off your migraine pills because the side effects are terrible? Without talking to the Doctor first? WILL NOT END WELL.

This message has been brought to you by No Shit Sherlock University.

More Wine Game of Thrones Cersei

Me: for the entirety of August. Except with less wine, sadly.

But I should be back much more regularly now. Because if there’s something the world needs, it’s more feminist pop-culture commentary.

There will be rants! There will be entire posts about BOOBS (I’m not even kidding: wait for Thursday). There will be book reviews! There will be fun stories! There will be more misandronists than the trolls know how to deal with!

AND THERE WILL BE A RANT ABOUT A FUCKNECK.

Stick.

Around.

Christina Hendricks Get Your Tits On

Get Your Tits On, Everyone.

***

The Olympics are over. The Olympics are waaaay over.

But because I was off not-blogging, I still have a rant stored up. A BIG rant.

And it’s a bad idea to let rants fester, because eventually festering turn into gangrene. Then you’ve got to chop the whole brain off.

… I need my brain.

So let’s just get this over with, shall we?

Ladies, Gentlemen, People of All Genders: CHRIS CHASE IS AN ASSHAT.

Sorry for the language.

[Actually, I'm not sorry. The feminist blogosphere has been GREAT for my vocabulary. Asshat, fuckneck, douchenozzle... all the best insults]

Okay, backing up for a second. Who is Chris Chase, and how did he get on my bad side?

Chris Chase is a columnist for Yahoo! Sports. During the Olympics, he wrote a… thing – I hesitate to call it a column – called United States Leads China in “Real” Medal Count.

The impetus for the “column”? China was in the lead of the medal count – a catastrophe of international proportions.   And of course, Chris Chase took it on himself to rectify this devastating situation.

Lovely.

I mean, yes, the Olympics are supposed to be about bringing people together and celebrating sports, but really, they’re about the USA beating everyone.

Come on, people, didn’t you get the memo?

Road to el dorado headdesk

Seriously

How did Chris Chase rectify the horrifying problem of China’s medal lead? Simple! He posited that only certain sports really counted in the Olympics – the ones where victories are “objective and undeniable.” As opposed to “judged activities masquerading as sports.”

See, gymnastics and diving and judo and other “judged sports” aren’t “sports.” They’re just pretending! They’re “nonsense”! I kid you not, in a followup post, Chase explained that gymnastics is a “hobby”

A HOBBY.

Yeah, I feel no shame in calling him an asshat.

ASSHAT.

Discounting people’s athletic achievements so you can make the USA win the medal count? REALLY? That’s what we’re doing now? We’re just going to cut out all the sports where Americans don’t do well, and call them “hobbies”? Then we’re going to call the people who enjoy them “rubes”?

(again, actual quote. Rubes.)

Asshat.

Asshat who wrote a terrible column.

A terrible patronizing jingoistic column.

A terrible patronizing jingoistic MISOGYNISTIC column, at that.

***

An aside: you know, sometimes, I sympathize with non-feminists. I mean, not enough to agree with them, but I can sympathize. You’re reading a blog post about Chase, a guy, who has issues with gymnastics. Suddenly the writer yells “misogyny!” And you’re all “Uh, Chase doesn’t like gymnastics. It’s stupid, but what the hell does this have to do with misogyny? God! Feminists! So hysterical! Getting upset over the smallest things. Next thing you’ll know, they’ll be saying my cat is a misogynist.”

[by the way, your cat is definitely not a misogynist. We're cool]

Let's unpack that - anti-oppression baby animals

This kitten speaks truth

LET’S unpack my misogyny claim. Because sadly, misogyny isn’t just people running around and screaming “WE HATE WOMEN.” (although that does happen).

In fact, a big part of misogyny is categorizing things associated with women as “lesser.”

And what do all the “judged sports” Chase discounts – with the exception of judo – have in common? They’re all “artistic” sports. “Artistic sports,” like dance, gymnastics, diving, rhythmic gymnastics, trampoline etc. tend – rightly or wrongly – to be seen as “women’s” sports. “Artsy” things are coded female in our society.

Thus, dismissing artistic sports as “not” sports? Coded misogyny.

I should note, too, that in the USA, women tend to do better in these particular sports than men. American women’s gymnastics is a much bigger presence in the Olympics than American men gymnastics (the men won one individual medal, the women won team gold and four individual medals). American female divers also tend to get higher on the podium than American male divers.

So when Chris Chase decides that all these artistic sports – gymnastics, diving, trampoline – aren’t real sports, that they aren’t worthy of being included in the medal count – he’s also playing into the idea that sports associated with women are less important.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that every single athlete Chris Chase names in the “fake” sports category is a woman. Every. Single. One. He doesn’t go after male gymnast Danell Levya (the bronze medalist for the all-around) or male synchonized divers Troy Dumais and Kristian Ipsen (who won bronze in synchronized diving). But he does make sure to list female gymnnasts Gabby Douglas, Jordyn Wieber and Victoria Komova as members of a “fake” sport. He takes particular glee in explaining how Gabby Douglas’ victory over Victoria Komova – and her earlier qualification over Jordyn Wieber – are invalid: “why did [Douglas] win a gold over Victoria Komova? Because some judges said she was 0.259 better? It wouldn’t be so insulting if we weren’t the rubes who accept it like it’s real. Gymnastics wins aren’t victories.”

ASSSSSSHAT.

Sorry, couldn’t help myself. *cough*

Chase proceeds to cite “real” victors – athletes who participate in “real” “objective” sports (I will not even begin to parse the ridiculousness of these labels): Michael Phelps. Usain Bolt. Both men. He does give a nod to Missy Franklin in at the end, but the contrast between the female-heavy “activities masquerading as sports” and male -heavy REAL sports is pretty obvious.

The reason I’m still so pissed comes down to gymnastics, honestly. Americans didn’t do that well in diving or in tumbling, so Chris Chase didn’t have to throw many of them under the bus for his little “real sports” equation. But in gymnastics? In gymnastics, he took five of the most widely-recognized, inspirational athletes of the Olympics and he said they were nothing.

To these women, who won team gold for the USA for the first time in 16 years, he said: you are not athletes. You, who have trained for forty hours a week for the past five years? You are not athletes. You, who can flip multiple times in the air? You’re just “masquerading.”

Fun hobby! *headdesk*

To Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas, who won individual medals in beam, floor and all-around, he said: you are “masquerading” as athletes. Gabby Douglas, the first African-American winner of the all-around gold medal?

She’s not an athlete.

Mulan tea gif

Mulan is not impressed

And yeah, I think taking the achievements of five women and pretending they don’t count – making a POINT of explaining why they don’t count (since the women’s gymnastics team are the only “fake” athletes Chase names and discusses for any length of time) for no other reason than for the USA to pull ahead in the medal count – damn straight, I think that’s misogyny.

Chase concedes that “Gabby Douglas winning the women’s all-around was one of the most memorable moments of the first week” but damn, why are we even WATCHING this girl? Why aren’t we paying attention to REAL sports like swimming and track? If we only had MANLY sports, we would be able to beat China on the real, testosterone-filled field of battle, instead of having to fight them in all these silly, feminine, artsy “hobbies.”

The good news? I don’t really need to take down Chase’s post. At this point, I’m just ranting into thin air.

Because the USA did win the medal count. And they won it because of their female athletes, not in spite of them.

American women won 29 gold medals to the men’s 17, and 58 overall medals to the men’s 45. Thus, it was thanks in large part to the women that the USA won the medal count.

The extent to which I care who wins the medal count is pretty minimal. But – and forgive me for being annoying patriotic right now – the USA winning the medal count thanks to the women is a fitting ending to the story, don’t you think?

Final thoughts:

Gabby Douglas, bars, all around champion

Gabby Douglas: ATHLETE

Ali Raisman, tumbling pass 1, floor gold medal

Aly Raisman: ATHLETE

Gymnastics, diving and trampoline are all “real” sports.

Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney, Ali Raisman, Gabby Douglas and Kayla Ross? All “real” athletes.

Chris Chase? “Real” Asshat.

And don’t mess with female athletes. They’re the reason America did so well at the Olympics.

(Hurrah for Title IX)

Rant over. Nits picked.  Festering done. Gangrene avoided. Soap-box used.

Up Next! The BOOBS post!


The Bodies We Want: Female Athletes in ESPN Magazine’s Body Issue

[Be forewarned that this post contains images NSFW (as do many of the links in the post)]

My younger brother, in addition to being a voracious reader, an avid SF/F fan, a social justice crusader and an all-around awesome person, is really into sports. He plays massive amounts of soccer and frisbee, he bikes, he rock-climbs, he runs, he’s a self-taught juggler – I don’t think there’s a sport he’s tried that he doesn’t enjoy. So before he left on vacation in France, he suggested that I write a blog post about sexism in sports.

I said: “Wha?”

For the record, the fact that my brother is attuned to such things at the tender age of twelve makes me very happy.

Anyways. I told him that although I thought it was an interesting and important subject, I didn’t know very much about sports, and thus did not feel qualified to comment on the matter. But I promised to keep an eye out.

And then yesterday I came across ESPN Magazine’s photoshoot for its Body Issue, entitled The Bodies We Want. Thirty six photos of professional athletes. All with bodies I want, apparently [And of course, I do want them, I just wouldn't know where to put them!]

And all nude.

I was thirty four pictures in when I went: “By Jove, I believe there’s a blog post in here!”

Because if I don’t feel qualified enough to discuss sexism in sports, I certainly do feel qualified enough to discuss sexism in the ways professional athletes are photographed. Hell, I’ve written entire essays on the gender politics of visual depictions. My academic training has to come in handy at some point, right?

Okay. So, some quick background on gender in the visual arts – I promise, this is quick and painless:

[My primary source here is John Berger's book Ways of Seeing, although many texts treat this issue]:

It’s a commonly known fact among people with an interest in visual art – painting, photography, sculptures, comic books etc. – that in the western art tradition, men have typically been portrayed as active figures, while women have been portrayed as passive figures, arranged for the pleasure of the implied (male) audience.

Example:

Allegory of Time and Love by Angelo Bronzino

Allegory of Time and Love by Angelo Bronzino, 1546

Note how Venus’s body is turned TOWARDS the audience, despite the fact that, within the scene of the painting, she’s kissing Cupid and should thus be turned towards him. Instead of being an active agent, in other words, she’s displayed to appeal to the audience.

Rogue and Gambit kiss Boobs and Butt

Rogue and Gambit, artist unknown. Hat tip to Escher Girls for the picture

And here, in a 20th century piece of comic art, we’ve got Rogue and Gambit kissing. But while Gambit’s pose makes perfect sense in the context of the kiss, Rogue’s… does not. Unless she has a broken back. Or unless there are two women in that picture, one of whom is hiding her head under Gambit’s cloak. Or unless it’s normal to simultaneously turn your body towards AND away from someone you’re trying to kiss.

Rogue, of course, is in the classic “brokeback” pose, where a woman’s body is contorted bizarrely so that the (presumed straight male) reader will be able to see both her boobs and her butt.

Ahem. Now that we have the art history out of way, let’s get back to sports, shall we?

On the surface, I would have expected  that a photoshoot of athletes – even a photoshoot of nude athletes – would not have this “male active/female passive” problem. Because the point of this particular issue of ESPN magazine is – and I quote:

“to admire the vast potential of the human form. To unapologetically stand in awe of the athletes who’ve pushed their physiques to profound frontiers. To imagine how it would feel to inhabit those bodies, to leap and punch and throw like a god.”

Great! A photoshoot of people doing incredible, awe-inspiring things with their bodies. I’m all for it!

The nudity is a bit weird, I’ll grant you, but I suppose you have to be unique somehow.

Danell Levya ESPN magazine Body Issue Peter Hapak

Gymnast Danell Levya, photographed by Peter Hapak. ESPN Magazine.

And, for the first ten pictures or so, that’s what it was. Nude pictures (with no dangly bits) of athletes doing incredible, gorgeous things with their bodies. Women were being active. Men were being active. It was all good. The feminist rage was contained.

Then:

Suzann Peterson Golf ESPN Body Issue Jeff Lipsky

Golfer Suzann Pettersen, photographed by Jeff Lipsky, ESPN Magazine

Wait, what? Suzann Pettersen is a golfer. She’s a very good golfer, in point of fact – recently ranked #2 worldwide. So why is she not golfing? Why is she sitting on a deck in front of a beach?

Is there a golf move I don’t know about? Do golfers have a tanning contest in the middle of their competition?

I’m… confused.

It’s not like she can’t do amazing things with her body:

Suzann Pettersen Golf

Okay. Maybe she’d twisted her ankle. Maybe the photographer didn’t get the memo about the shoot being one where athletes show off what their bodies can do. Let’s move on.

Tennis Daniela Hantuchova Jeff Lipsky ESPN Magazine

Tennis Player Daniela Hantuchova, photographed by Jeff Lipsky, ESPN Magazine

Wait, what?

I don’t play tennis, but I watch it regularly, and I’m pretty sure that the above is not a tennis move. Unless there’s a move where the player drops her racket, lifts up her leg and pushes her hair out of her face, then smiles seductively at the tennis ball, thereby making the tennis ball fall in love with her.

I mean, it seems awfully involved. And tricky. What if the tennis ball isn’t attracted to women?

Moving on…

Candace Parker Ture Lillegraven Basketball ESPN Magazine

Basketball player Candace Parker, photographed by Ture Lillegraven. ESPN Magazine.

All right, that’s it. What. The Everloving. Fuck?

That is Candace Parker, people. Candace Parker. She’s one of only four women who have successfully executed a slam dunk in the WNBA. I don’t even know basketball, and I know that Candace Parker is fucking amazing. Why is she being photographed like she’s on an episode of America’s Next Top Model? (no disrespect to Tyra Banks).

And it just. kept. going. Female athlete after female athlete was photographed not as a talented, powerful sportswoman, but as… eye candy.

**headdesk**

Admittedly, maybe I was dreaming. Maybe just as many men had been photographed in passive poses as women. Maybe there were more active women than I thought. Maybe my feminist sensibilities were getting in the way of my critical thinking.

So I pulled out the calculator, and went for the evidence.

Before we dive into the statistics, I’ll clarify my terminology. An “active” pose is one where the athlete is performing a move related to their sport. Merely holding a ball does not make a pose active. A “passive” pose is one where the athlete is not performing a move related to their sport (or any sport).

Here are the numbers for the ESPN shoot linked above (and here):

Photographs of Men: 19
Photographs of Women: 17

Individual Male Athletes in the Shoot: 11
Individual Female Athletes in the Shoot: 17

Photographs of Men in active poses: 15 (78%)
Photographs of Men in passive poses: 4 (22%)

Photographs of Women in active poses: 9 (52%)
Photographs of Women in passive poses: 8 (48%)

Well, there’s clearly a big difference here. BUT.

Since there are multiple photographs of particular athletes, I decided to change the criteria to: how many athletes had at least one photograph where they were in an active pose? [For example, Rob Gronkowski has two photos in the slideshow. In one of them, he's in a passive pose, in the other, he's in an active pose].

And here’s where it gets particularly interesting:

Individual Male athletes: 11
Male athletes with at least ONE active pose in the slideshow: 10 (90%)
Male athletes who are ALWAYS passive: 1 (10%)

Individual Female athletes: 17
Female Athletes with at least ONE active pose in the slideshow: 7 (46%)
Female Athletes who are ALWAYS passive: 8 (54%)

Switching it around: How many male and female athletes have at least ONE photo with a passive pose in the slideshow?

Individual Male Athletes: 11
Male Athletes with at least ONE passive pose in the slideshow: 3 (28%)
Male Athletes who are ALWAYS active: 8 (72%)

Individual Female Athletes: 17
Female Athletes with at least ONE passive pose in the slideshow: 15 (88%)
Female Athletes who are ALWAYS active: 3 (12%)

Hookay, then. It appears that my Ultra-Feminist brain was not Making Shit Up. [Despite the fact that I am Female, and therefore cannot Math]

Let’s review, shall we?
78% of the photos of men depict an active pose, while only 52% of women’s do.

In addition, ten out of eleven of the male athletes in the slideshow have at least one active pose. Basically, they’re all – with one exception – being portrayed as athletes rather than eye candy.
Moreover, 72% of the men are portrayed as athletes in ALL their photos; there’s no photo where they’re just looking hot for the camera. Obviously, ESPN doesn’t feel the need to make the men eye candy.

On the other hand, over 50% of the female athletes in the slideshow have no active poses at all. Which means that over half of them are not being portrayed as athletes; they’re essentially standing there and looking pretty. And only 3 women – 12% – are portrayed ONLY as athletes. 88% of the women have at least ONE pose where they’re just looking hot for the camera (versus 28% for the men). Which suggests that ESPN DOES feel the need to make the women eye candy.

Now, I have nothing against people being pretty or people being hot. If all the guys were standing around making coy glances towards me, then we would know that the purpose of the shoot was for people to stand around and look hot. And I wouldn’t be annoyed.

Carlos Bocanegra Soccer Richard Phibbs ESPN Magazine

Soccer player Carlos Bocanegra, photographed by Richard Phibbs. ESPN Magazine

The above, by the way, is an example of a male athlete in a “passive” pose – e.g: standing around and looking pretty. I will admit that he does look very pretty, but I’m too confused by the stuff on his body to appreciate it. Mud? Paint? Syrup? Gee, that must be uncomfortable…

But that’s a moot point. Because looking hot was not the purpose of this particular shoot; the shoot was supposed to portray professional athletes showing off their abilities.

Instead, the shoot is one where men show off their athletic abilities; where men are depicted as talented and powerful.

And it is a shoot where some women can show off their athletic abilities, and are portrayed as talented and powerful.

But most women in the shoot are not portrayed as powerful, talented athletes. They’re portrayed as hot chicks.

And this goes back to the art history I mentioned earlier. In western art, men are portrayed as active agents, while women are portrayed as passive receptacles for the audience’s gaze. Here, the shoot is entitled “Bodies We Want.” The Male Athletes are the bodies the (presumed male) audience wants to HAVE – active, powerful, talented. The Female Athletes, meanwhile, are the bodies the (presumed male) audience wants to LOOK AT – beautiful and passive.

Doesn’t matter what you do, ladies. You’ll always be eye candy.

I should note, of course, that female athletes who don’t fit the standard of traditional eye candy have a much harder time gaining mainstream media coverage or sponsorships. It is not surprising – though it is depressing – that Sara Robbles, the USA’s best chance at an Olympic Medal for weightlifting this year – is getting almost zero media coverage. She can lift over 568 pounds. She also lives in poverty.

Sara Robles weighlifting olympics

Sara Robles

For female athletes, the message is clear. It is not enough to simply be powerful, talented and hard-working. One must also be traditionally beautiful enough to qualify as eye-candy.

Here’s what I find depressing. The women in this shoot are professional athletes. They are at the top of their field. They’ve worked extraordinarily hard, they’ve acquired incredible physical abilities, they’ve got the kind of talent and determination most of us can only dream of. These are the women that children who play sports look up to. These are the women children look at and say “I want to be like that.”

But in the eyes of the sports media, these women are still only important because of the way they look, not what they can do. They’re still primarily eye candy, rather than professional athletes.

What, I ask, does a female athlete have to do in order to be portrayed as what she is: an athlete?

I don’t know. Frankly, female athletes have already jumped through every possible hoop and they still don’t get the same respect as their male counterparts. At this point, it isn’t about the athletes any more. It’s about the media, and the people who consume it.

So what does the media need to do in order to portray female athletes as athletes?

The media – and its audience – needs to realize that a woman’s worth is not determined by her appearance or by her appeal to straight men. [I'd say "or her appeal to straight men and lesbian/bisexual women, but sadly, I don't think the sports media gives a flying flunderton about the opinions of lesbian and bisexual women]

The media needs to stop worrying that if they portray a strong, powerful woman as strong and powerful, everyone will freak out. They need to stop pretending that women must perform traditional femininity 24/7 in order to be worth talking about. They need to stop worrying that their audience will think female athletes are too “butch” or lesbian. For one thing, some of those women are lesbians, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The fact that they aren’t trying to “catch a man” doesn’t take anything away from their athletic competence.Not to mention the fact that there are plenty of straight female athletes who aren’t trying to catch or please a man, and this is also totally fine.

[unless I'm missing something about competitive sports. Is there some kind of half-time ritual where we release men into the basketball/soccer/golf/etc. arena, and expect the female athletes to go catch them? If there is, I really must start attending more live games...]

And we collectively need to get over our fear of powerful, talented women. Yes, there are women who can run at extreme speeds. Yes, there are women who can kick a ball hard enough to take off a man’s head. Yes, there are women who can throw you on the ground and beat you to a pulp. Yes, there are women who don’t perform femininity in traditional ways. And that is okay. The world will survive.

The good news is, ESPN is already doing those things – sort of:

Abby Wamach Soccer Carlos Serrrao ESPN Magazine

USA Soccer Player Abby Wamach, photographed by Carlos Serrrao, ESPN Magazine

US Sailing Team Anna Tunnicliffe Steven Lippman ESPN Magazine

US Sailing Team Member Anna Tunnicliffe, photographed by Steven Lippman. ESPN Magazine

This. Is exactly. What I’m talking about.

Anna Tunnicliffe and Abby Wamach are two of the only women in the shoot who aren’t ever photographed as eye-candy. We see them as athletes, and only as athletes.

And these photos? Are incredible.

They show powerful athletes doing powerful, athletic things. They show the women’s talent, skill and power. They leave the audience in awe at the amount of training and determination it must take to get to that level.

And they leave no doubt in my mind that women can be portrayed as professional athletes without the entire world crumbling.

I realize feminists are supposed to hate men, but frankly, how low an opinion do you have to have of straight men that you think they would look at the above pictures and say “Aww, damn, she’s not acting like a playboy bunny?”

I, for one, am a lot of more optimistic. I think the current sports media audience can handle it. I really do. And I know that I, for one, would be a lot more likely to buy sports magazines if I thought the women in them would be portrayed as professional athletes.

So that’s what I think the sports media should do: depict athletes as athletes. It doesn’t even take a whole lot of gender analysis or consciousness raising. You just have to do your damn job, and make sure all the pictures in a photoshoot of professional athletes showing off their skills are, in fact, pictures of professional athletes showing off their skills.

In other words -

Less of this:

Volleyball Nellie Spicer Art Streiber ESPN Magazine

US Volleyball Team Member Nellie Spicer, Photographed by Art Streiber. ESPN Magazine.

More of This:

Sprinter Carmelita Jeter Francesco Carrozzini ESPN Magazine

Sprinter Carmelita Jeter, photographed by Francesco Carrozzini. ESPN Magazine

And also, more Sara Robles. Obviously.

It’s not that hard. All those women ESPN hired to do the shoot – all the ones with the coy smiles and the model-esque positions – they all have incredible skills to show off.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see them portrayed as athletes?

Those are the bodies I want.

***

And now I’ve just gone and written an entire post about nude pictures. Because my twelve-year-old brother asked me to write about sports.

I don’t even know, man.

***

Postscript:

For shits and giggles (and for more concluding evidence), I managed to dig up a SECOND slideshow for this year’s body issue. This one with ONLY female athletes in the shoot.

You’d think things would get better there. But if you’d think that… you would be wrong.

Total Photos: 13
Photographs of the Athletes in active poses: 5 (38%)
Photographs of the athletes in passive poses: 8  (62%)

Individual Female Athletes in the Shoot: 16
Female Athletes who are active at least ONCE: 7 (46%)
Female Athletes who are NEVER active: 9 (56%)

Your honor, I rest my case.

Related Posts:

Snow White and the Huntsman: Kissing, You’re Doing It Wrong

Final Thoughts on American Idol and the Season of the Robot Women

Female Friendship in Sci-Fi and Fantasy


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