The Bodies We Want: Female Athletes in ESPN Magazine’s Body IssuePosted: July 12, 2012
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
It’s not like she can’t do amazing things with her body:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
More of This:
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.
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.