The Swimsuit Edition, Where Sexism Knows No Size

Apparently we’re all supposed to celebrate the fact that an average-sized woman will appear in this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.

I’m told it’s some kind of triumph that, of the many women pointlessly objectified on the pages of a magazine that’s supposed to be about sports, one will be somewhat heavier than all the others. Sexism is so deeply woven into the fabric of sports in America that this, incredibly, is meant to represent progress.

Never mind that this year’s cover model, in addition to being exactly the size you’d expect her to be, is also waxed to within an inch of her life. Never mind that only average-sized model in the magazine appears not as part of an editorial layout but in an ad. Never mind that both women appear to have been liberally airbrushed, unless you believe neither of their bodies has a single stray hair, birthmark, stretch mark, hint of cellulite or uncommon feature of any kind.

Seriously, never mind any of that. Because those details only serve to distract from the real problem, which is that the swimsuit edition exists at all.

It. shouldn’t. exist. It never should have existed in the first place, and it certainly shouldn’t continue to exist in the second decade of the 21st century. Yet it continues to roll off the press every year because SI refuses to depart from the grand sporting tradition of presenting women as props for men to ogle.

Soft-core porn has its place in the world (as does hard-core porn, for the record). Actually, it has thousands of places. You can’t surf the web for 10 minutes without stumbling across at least a few pictures of young women in various states of undress, and that’s without even trying. Prefer to go lower tech? There are plenty of books, movies, television shows and live venues serving up every kind of sex you can imagine and more than a few kinds you probably can’t. And of course there are magazines – so, so many magazines – devoted entirely to the purpose of aiding in male masturbation.

Sports Illustrated is not supposed to be one of those magazines. You can tell because it isn’t called “Playboy” or “Hustler” or “Juggs” or “Barely Legal” or “Men Only” or “SCREW,” but is rather called “Sports Illustrated,” indicating an editorial focus on sports. I don’t know a whole lot about Juggs, but I’d guess that if each year one edition of Juggs broke from the usual format to focus on, say, interior design, Juggs subscribers might not be entirely delighted. If they wanted to read about interior design, after all, they could subscribe to House Beautiful; they subscribe to Juggs because they want to look at pictures of breasts. That’s how it works: Juggs for breasts, House Beautiful for interior design, Sports Illustrated for sports. Simple.

Still, Sports Illustrated ditches sports once a year to proudly present a semi-sanitized version of Juggs. At this point, the powers that be at SI know better. They’ve heard from frustrated readers who want to read about sports – and only sports – in a sports magazine, and from those who are angry about the message the swimsuit edition sends: Namely that women, for all our progress as athletes and fans and journalists and full-fledged members of the sports world in nearly every area, are still primarily viewed as objects in that world rather than as people.

I suspect that even within the Sports Illustrated power structure there are those who would like to ax their annual glossy tribute to sexism, but lord knows every time the matter comes up in public there’s a very vocal gang of bros and would-be bros who shout and whine and all but rend their garments at the thought. SI doesn’t want to lose subscribers, and when the goal is retention then it’s always safer to maintain the status quo. So instead of angering what it perceives to be its base, arguably the nation’s most prominent sports magazine pauses once a year to print up a jerk rag and promote it as some kind of sacred tradition.

Worst of all, bunches of other media outlets buy into it. Newspapers and magazines profile the newly-minted cover model, TV shows offer behind-the-scenes looks at swimsuit edition photo shoots and, of course, we get breathless exclamations across the internet of “it’s about time!” when an average-size woman finally gets to be seen and not heard right along with her skinnier sistren.

It’s got to go, along with all the other “traditions” in sports that dehumanize women. The swimsuit edition, pro cheerleaders, ice girls, ring girls: Every time a team, league or media outlet uses women’s bodies to sell otherwise unrelated products, the message goes out that straight men are preferred customers and everyone else is just lucky to be allowed in.

To say that including an average-size model in the swimsuit edition ‘isn’t enough’ would be to dangerously miscast the situation. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a step in the right direction; on the contrary, if it tricks people into thinking the swimsuit edition is becoming progressive (and, unbelievably, it seems to be having that effect on some) then it will do far more harm than it could possibly do good. Want to see real progress? Find a way to make men understand that leering at women, regardless of size or shape, is not a sport.


Misogyny: Every Little Bit Matters

I have been forced, through sheer volume of Twitter exposure, to learn what #Gamergate is.

I’m not a gamer. Never have been. I have no reason to take any interest at all in the internal politics of the gaming community. But there’s this stupid hashtag peppering my Twitter feed, compelling me to find out what the hell it means.

Well, sort of. I know what some of its proponents say it means and I know what basically all of its opponents say it means. To be frank, I don’t care how it started (actually, given that the term was coined by Adam Baldwin, I’m actively bummed to know how it started) or whether the original accusation of bias has any merit (seems like it doesn’t, but I’m not going to do enough research to be able to speak with any authority on that). Here’s what I care about: Gamergate, either by evolution or by design, is rife with enthusiastic misogyny. Its banner has flown above threats of rape, murder and at least one full-on terrorist attack. Feminists are the enemy and silencing them is way up there on the to do list.

If you’ve ever wondered why I have taken such a big interest in the issue of NHL ‘ice girls,’ this is why.

It’s because video games are rife with sexist tropes, and when a woman speaks too loudly about that topic she is driven from her home. Gamergate is a horror show of circular misogyny, in which a segment of the population so values its god-given right to demean women that it responds to any threat to that ‘right’ not by rethinking the practice, but rather by upping the ante and putting individual women in real danger of bodily harm (to say nothing of the relentless psychological abuse raining down on these women).

‘Ice girls’ are one part – a small part, perhaps, but a part – of why some men believe so deeply that they are more human than women are. ‘Ice girls,’ NFL cheerleaders, movie damsels in distress, video game hookers, everyone pictured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition: All are defined entirely by whether or not they’re pleasing to men, and by how men choose to react to them. This isn’t about actual sex workers, who certainly have their place in society; it’s about an overall image of womanhood that we accept, unthinking, because we’re so used to it.

Children of both genders see co-ed crews shoveling NHL ice, with the men in warm-up suits and women in sports bras and hot pants, and see that there’s a fundamental difference between what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman, even when that man and that woman are doing the exact same job. Teens see an entire issue of the world’s leading sports magazine devoted to showing pictures of barely-dressed female models, and they learn that the sports world still caters directly, if not exclusively, to straight men. Grown men hear pundits blame women for provoking domestic abuse or muse about the commercial boost afforded by sexual assault charges, and conclude that ‘real men’ are entitled – and expected – to dominate women.

Add it up, and you get a bunch of male video game enthusiasts who simply cannot tolerate a woman trying to exert any influence over the content of those games. You get those same men, absolutely convinced that they are entitled to shut down that woman through absolutely any means, no matter how violent or cruel. After all, these intruders into the gaming world aren’t full-fledged people – they’re just women.

The best way to address this warped view is by preventing it from forming in the first place. No more placing ‘heroic’ males athletes next to scantily clad, seen-but-not-heard women. No more objectification of women in ‘family-friendly’ venues and outlets. No more making excuses for abusers just because we’d rather not view them as such. We have to demonstrate, every day and everywhere, that women are people, just the same as men are. Only by weaving that truth into the fabric of society can we start raising generations that see the world that way from the day one.

That’s not to let adults off the hook for their own bigotries. We’re grown-ups and we’re responsible for questioning and refining our own values, regardless of how they were initially formed. For those who haven’t begun that process yet, a tip: While there’s not always a clear right and wrong in every situation, if you find yourself threatening a stranger with bodily harm for expressing her opinion, then you are wrong. Most of the time, though, misogyny isn’t nearly that obvious. More often than not it comes attached to a grin rather than a snarl.

Rest assured, straight men, that feminists don’t seek to keep you from enjoying the sight of women’s bodies; rather, we’d like for everyone to remember that those bodies belong not to the men viewing them but to the women inhabiting them, and that those women have minds that deserve to be valued every bit as highly as men’s. Unfortunately, the sports and gaming worlds – and, to a slightly lesser extent, the world of pop culture – generally focus on women’s bodies to the exclusion of our minds. Little wonder, then, that those men who are most enamored with sports and gaming feel the most threatened when confronted with women who insist on being treated as more than just the sum of their physical parts.