Friday, February 22, 2008

I've been avoiding it

Talking about the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, that is. It came out over a week ago but I just don't know what to say about it--that hasn't been said before about it anyway. A colleague of mine emailed to say she looked it over and that her dissertation research on the issue--she looked at every single one!--just gets reinforced every year she picks up another edition.

And sure, they've started to put actual female athletes in the issues (but we all know how I feel about female athletes a la Amanda Beard and Amy Atkins posing) but that doesn't make it any more palatable.

This year was Danica Patrick's turn. She is actually the only athlete in the swimsuit issue this time around. (Thankfully the cadre of professional football cheerleaders who posed for the issue were not termed athletes and I can avoid getting into the discussion.)

So JB, who tipped me off to Patrick's appearance, asked if Patrick was an athlete or a model. The quick and dirty answer is: she's both. Like Maria Sharapova, like Anna Kournikova, like Amanda Bear, like the Williams sisters and all the other female athletes who pose for SI or other publications. I am not sure what Patrick's history with modeling is. Given that she is a race car driver with many sponsors my guess is that this was not her first photo shoot. [And I just confirmed that. She posed for FHM in 2003.] And even though this one may have found her wearing far less clothing than other promotions she has done (and this is a promotion--just of a different sort) it is not as if she hasn't been asked to be sexy about it. SI just makes it more explicit. Or maybe not--anyone see that Honda commercial she did where she tried to sexify her way out of a speeding ticket??

The questions that are raised for me are: do all female athletes have to be models or exhibit model-like behavior to get any attention? And what kind of harm does this do to their careers and reputations? That MTV's Celebrity Deathmatch recently featured Patrick fighting Anna Kournikova shows just how seriously the general public (does not) take her athletic endeavors.

This opinion piece in the University of Buffalo's student newspaper does not mention Patrick specifically but the author makes good points about the issue in general (except for her point that we, as a society, laud Tyra Banks more than Margaret Thatcher--it's a toss-up for me).
Here's an excerpt:
Who needs real women when the commoditized version is so readily available? The implication is clear: to come of age, 50% of the population learns to dehumanize the other 50% in culturally acceptable terms. I say dehumanize, because that interaction was not with a woman. It was with a product masquerading as one. This is a product that "defines" beauty and womanness in a marketable way, a product that girls are supposed to aspire to.
All athletes these days are products but female athletes are subject to that marketing in ways male athletes are not because the pressure for an athlete to exemplify "beauty and womanness" is that much greater. And the little girls the author mentions see this so in addition to having to meet the unrealistic expectations for beauty set by the regular swimsuit models, they see that if they want to be athletes, they also have to be models or at least modelesque.


Diane said...

I certainly do not consider Patrick an athlete. I don't even consider her a sportswoman, but if you stretch the definition, I suppose she is. And I guess that her association with a sport (not my term) gives SI a chance to check off "both boxes."

anonymous said...

The topic of whether female athletes should market themselves and their sports by posing in S.I. or FHM has come up often in our undergraduate sociology of sport classes. I try to get the opinion of our female students on this. Many of them think that it is acceptable and if a woman can make money using her body, then she should. :-(

ken said...

It's scary, isn't it? Shining example of "postfeminism."
Have you introduced Mary Jo Kane's recent research about female athletes and posing that shows this does nothing to help women in sports? Might help shed a little light on this neo-liberal discourse.