A truly warped way of seeing women athletes

In my recent series on women’s sports, I introduced readers to the work of a self-identified “sport media scholar” who is anything but.

Mary Jo Kane of the University of Minnesota is one of the more relentless and joyless critics of portrayals of female athletes by the media, especially when they’re not wearing much clothes.

But even when they’re covered from head to toe, Kane sees things she thinks undermine the cause of women’s sports that virtually nobody else does. (Don’t forget that for people like her, women’s sports will always be a cause that must be fought with a trenchlike-notion of warfare.)

When she and her fellow feminist sports researchers at Minnesota’s Tucker Center that she directs got riled up over the cover of Sports Illustrated‘s 2010 Winter Olympics preview, it became the latest — and most embarrassing — episode in their crusade to rid the sports media world of supposedly “degrading” portrayals of female athletes.

Do you see what I see?

In The Nation‘s recent issue devoted mostly to sports, Kane rehashes the tired diatribe that “Sex Sells Sex, Not Women’s Sports.” (The identical article also is linked here by NPR.) As usual, she misses the point of why athletes — male and female — aren’t as afraid to display their bodies as Kane is to have to “analyze” them through her narrow and peculiar lens.

Naturally, I was surprised to see this article begin with a quote from a former women’s pro soccer player in a story I wrote while I was at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I had almost forgotten about this, but Kane’s use of this I think is to illustrate her gripes that both women athletes and journalists are implicit in perpetuating “stereotypes” about sex appeal and sports. And then she renews her apoplexy over the Vonn cover:

“Even Sports Illustrated—notorious for its lack of coverage of women’s sports—couldn’t ignore this historic moment and devoted its cover to Vonn. SI’s cover, however, blatantly portrayed Vonn as a sex object and spoke volumes about the rampant sexual depictions of women athletes. Rather than emphasize her singular athletic talent, the magazine depicted Vonn in a posed photograph, smiling at the camera in her ski regalia. What was most noticeable—and controversial—about the pose was its phallic nature: Vonn’s backside was arched at a forty-five-degree angle while superimposed over a mountain peak.”

Now I’m like a lot of Americans in that I don’t watch skiing except every four years at the Olympics, so I’m not terribly well-schooled about the aesthetics of the sport. But when I did watch Vonn and other skiers fly down the mountains of Whistler, I noticed that every single one of them — male and female — was crouched just as Vonn was for Sports Illustrated, with their butts sticking out and their backs positioned as Kane describes. But this probably didn’t occur to Kane, who might as well have been Whistler’s Mother about all this.

A phallocentric pose?

A phallocentric pose?

When I linked to Kane’s tedious twaddle on my Twitter account this week, several males said to me: Maybe my mind just isn’t dirty enough, but exactly where is the phallic imagery here?


The laws of physics — another subject that generally goes over my head — applied to the fundamentals of the sport of skiing have much to do with why these athletes crouch the way they do. Shouldn’t the director of Minnesota’s school of kinesiology, which Kane also is, understand this? She ignores the “study of human movement” because of her fanaticism.

Nor did I do well in biology and anatomy classes in college, but I’d like to know if Kane is aware that actual human penises, regardless of the state of engorgement, don’t really resemble crouching skiers (as we’ll “see” below).

When a strident academic feminist can detect the male sex organ in a photo of a hot babe fully attired in the regalia of her sport and an average guy cannot, then I have to wonder what’s really on her brain.

Another male friend properly took issue with Kane’s contention that Sports Illustrated doesn’t adequately cover women’s sports. It will never be enough for Kane’s liking, but since the early 1970s, from the time Title IX was passed and Billie Jean King hit the scene, that magazine has done more sophisticated and well-produced journalism about women and sports than most media outlets. (This cover piece from 1973 is a classic that helped open up plenty of critical media attention about women’s sports.)

But Kane marches on, because she has a theory to adhere to:

“Offensive as this portrayal may have been, it came as no surprise to sports-media scholars. Over the past three decades we have amassed a large body of empirical evidence demonstrating that sportswomen are significantly more likely to be portrayed in ways that emphasize their femininity and heterosexuality rather than their athletic prowess. Study after study has revealed that newspaper and TV coverage around the globe routinely and systematically focuses on the athletic exploits of male athletes while offering hypersexualized images of their female counterparts.”

“Femininity and heterosexuality.” Bingo. This is really the burr under Kane’s saddle. Her perspective is the product of a feminist/cultural studies mindset that is completely oblivious to the nature of how commercial media works, as well as human nature.

It disregards the reality that some women athletes do not have a problem with these poses (see the video of Vonn at the bottom). Kane is presumptuous in claiming to speak for an entire gender, and in lecturing to women athletes how they should “behave.” As for “hypersexualized” images of athletes, Kane truly is in the dark about how quite a few women and some admiring gay men regard male athletic bodies.

Kane’s references to “study after study” pertain to research that is hardly empirical. Much of what I’ve seen that is available publicly is rigged from the start, especially what she and her colleagues put together at the Tucker Center. Most is found in obscure academic journals that are expensive to access. A discerning reader outside of a university has little opportunity to examine her claims. They must be believed and accepted uncritically.

Properly-identified “scholars” do not close down avenues of inquiry with their work; they open them up and invite debate, but Kane is not interested in having her ideas challenged. Sadly, this is a standard operating procedure throughout much of feminist academia, including the study of athletics.

Finally, her argument that “sex doesn’t sell women’s sports, it sells sex,” is simply a flawed way to look at this. It does generate attention and visibility, which in some women’s sports is publicity that cannot otherwise be bought. Women’s sports cannot succeed in being marketed mainly as “wholesome” and “family oriented,” and I’ve long argued that broadening their appeal to adults, including young men, needs to be considered more than it has. If an appeal to sex appeal is part of that consideration, then fine.

Kane also doesn’t get why ESPN shows and promotes women’s college basketball as it does: It sees some commercial viability, however modest, that does not exist for most other women’s sports. To presume that other women’s sports will grow in viewers and corporate sponsors with a similar approach is to misunderstand that commercial media doesn’t create something like this out of the blue. It is a response to fan interest that developed organically, over many grueling decades. There’s something of an audience out there, if only for the Final Four weekend.

But this isn’t just about women.

Viva, viva voom!

In the early 1970s, New York Cosmos goalkeeper Shep Messing uncovered EVERYTHING in a Viva magazine spread aimed at women.

(Beware to feminists of Kane’s ilk: An actual phallus is on display here that leaves nothing to the imagination. You’ve been warned, but because of your delicate sensitivities I will not post any of those photos here. If you care not to peek, ladies, this phallus looks nothing like a skier. Trust me.)

These were the days before Pelé, and the fledgling North American Soccer League was desperate for attention. As he recounted in “Once in a Lifetime,” the terrific documentary based on equally terrific book about the saga of the Cosmos, Messing took it upon himself — literally — to follow his management’s desire to help gain more exposure for his sport.

Even though Messing was first American athlete of either gender to bare all in a mazagine, his contract was terminated because of a morals clause. Once upon a time, they used to have them for male athletes. He returned to the Cosmos two years later at the behest of Pelé, who along with Giorgio Chinaglia and Franz Beckenbauer were the obvious big draws. Messing remained one of the team’s most popular players and was a good goalkeeper. Being a “hottie” and a rare American star in that league ultimately did not work against him.

Nothing that Kane cites in her rant is a raunchy, tasteless portrayal of women athletes. Nothing comes close to the display of full-frontal genitalia in the Messing pictorial. Many of the women athletes she names clearly do not feel the way she does about this issue.

Unfortunately, Kane’s article in The Nation is all readers of that issue will learn about women’s sports. It is a dismal, one-sided screed that does not reflect the true status of women athletes in 2011. Her arguments will not be scrutinized by the same mainstream media that she denounces because it is the same mainstream media that for years has given her ample space to spew her invective. That she’s been an advisor to the new espnW venture is evidence of her entrenched status. I dare espnW or anybody in the media establishment to offer such a dissenting view as mine. I’d love to have the opportunity to engage the public on these subjects on such a high-profile media platform, when Kane clearly wishes to avoid it.

More than anything, it is an embarrassment to women’s sports that individuals such as Kane are regarded as experts on these topics. She gives women’s sports a bad name because she is not a “scholar” but rather an ideologue incensed with photographs that try to gain the attention of heterosexual men.

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  1. Posted December 9, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Really engrossing blog post. I thought your post is truly absorbing. Thank you once again – I will drop by again.

  2. Posted May 18, 2012 at 2:48 am | Permalink

    Not saying everyone in the world born in 96-99 are complete idiots. I’m just saying in my small town at my high school we have dirty, rude, and unnessecary under class men. No need to hate. And we can say we weren’t like that. I can Truely say I haven’t acted like my under class men since I was in elementary school.

  3. Leah
    Posted September 29, 2012 at 12:03 am | Permalink

    “If an appeal to sex appeal is part of that consideration, then fine.”

    It sounds like you have an attitude that women’s sports have to be viewed at all costs. I disagree. I believe that sports should be about sports, not about sex and that there is a point at which to draw the line regardless of the consequences.

    I am a member of my university’s women’s swim team and we never draw a very big crowd at our meets. I’m sure that if we were to swim naked that would change. But would it be worth it? I do not believe that it would be. I love my sport and I love being athletic. I do not need to be a sex symbol to feel like a serious athlete and I do not think I should have to be a sex symbol to be treated like an athlete.

    On a different note, I’m relived that other people weren’t seeing the whole phallus thing. I kept looking at the picture and trying to figure out what Kane was talking about but it sounds like I’m not the only one who decided that she’s full of it.