SI, swimsuits and the cause of women’s sports

It’s mid-to-late February. The Super Bowl is over, conference play in college basketball is heating up, and pitchers and catchers have reported.

Which means it’s time for the annual flogging of Sports Illustrated for its popular and highly lucrative swimsuit issue, now hitting the stands with Kate Upton leaving little to the imagination.

But instead of the usual sports feminist scolds doing the complaining, we have two middle-aged male sportswriters echoing similar concerns, and in some cases employing buzzwords found in a NOW press release.

I like both of these writers — Ed Sherman, formerly of The Chicago Tribune and now running an eponymous sports media site, and Michael Bradley, who’s written for ESPN The Magazine, among many outlets.

In the span of a week, they have both written that they think it’s hypocritical for SI to roll out this annual paean to red-blooded male leering not long after the magazine dedicated a special issue to the 40th anniversary of Title IX.

Sherman also was concerned that too many of the models were wearing only half of their bikinis, and conducted empirical research — by counting, apparently — to reach this conclusion:

And Vegas, here’s your winning total: 39. And that’s give or take a few I might have missed. Either way, the number seems rather excessive, or as my wife would say, “outrageous.”

Again, what’s the point other than to titillate and sell a bunch of ads? And one more question: How long before SI goes full frontal topless? No arms strategically placed, etc…

But titillating and selling a bunch of ads has always been the point, as much as I wish it weren’t so.

At least Sherman ran his thoughts by an actual woman — his wife — before writing his post. Bradley, writing on the Indiana University National Sports Journalism Center website this morning, just ripped off standard feminist boilerplate in adding to Sherman’s point about the SI Title IX issue:

You can’t be an advocate for women’s rights and contribute to their objectification.

As I wrote in response to Bradley’s post, we live in a society in which women’s athletic developments are celebrated and embraced, unlike my pre-Title IX youth sports days.

Bully for that.

We saw this on display last night in a stirring women’s college basketball game between No. 1 Baylor, the defending national champion, and No. 3 UConn, which has seven NCAA titles to its name.

But we also live in a society in which drop-dead gorgeous women are still regarded as something to behold.

And bully for that too.

These are contradictory and “incongruent” things only to those who fall for simplistic, antiquated feminist rhetoric that’s still stuck in the 1970s. There’s really nothing to reconcile.

To suggest that women’s continued progress in sports must necessitate the eradication of supposedly sexist portrayals of women in general is as unlikely as it is absurd.

SI makes a lot of money with the swimsuit issue. A lot of money. It also is one of the Time Inc. titles up for sale in a panicked decision that media guru Michael Wolff has savaged.

Even if the magazine were in better commercial shape to ditch the swimsuit issue, why should it? Bradley provocatively asks, “At some point, Sports Illustrated’s publishers have to decide that they stand for something beyond profit.”

What troubles me is something else being implied here: That because SI has done good some journalism about women’s sports — this 1973 piece still rates highly in my book — then it somehow should be about advancing the cause of women’s sports.

Bradley’s is a valid question, one that many of us who have been in print media have muttered as we took newspaper and magazine buyouts or dealt with layoffs and early retirements.

During its early years, as it strived to fill a niche and develop an identity, SI lost money, a lot of money, according to “The Franchise,” Michael MacCambridge’s 1997 history of the magazine. It eventually became a gold mine before the advent of the swimsuit issue, on the strength of stylish writing, hard-nosed investigations and spectacular photography. Those have been its causes.

There’s a troubling notion at work here that women’s political, educational and legal gains, including Title IX and sports, are being undermined by photos of supermodels in fishnet bikini tops.

Those who follow this line of thought are serving up a set of false choices.

The American feminist establishment relentlessly projects the ideal woman as well-educated, in a successful, high-achieving, white-collar career in which she fights for, and ultimately gains, power and social status that men have long enjoyed. Sports feminists have crafted a similar variation of an “empowered” female athlete, with a healthy body image unrelated to how she looks.

These are all noble things, and I support removing barriers for women who want to pursue those avenues.

But there’s little room in this narrative for the expression of sex, or traditional feminine sexuality, since that plays to male erotic desires which cannot be tolerated in this egalitarian vision.

Even women who choose to pose — and Lindsey Vonn donned a swimsuit for SI right before winning Olympic gold in Vancouver — are regarded as complicit in their own objectification.

While SI’s Title IX issue had some terrific components — including its Top 40 female athletes list — it largely ignored the concerns of those like me, who are critics of how the law is being enforced.

Still, SI displayed a lot more journalistic rigor than espnW, which truly went over the top in uncritical Title IX adulation to mark the 40th anniversary. That espnW has designated the activist Women’s Sports Foundation as its official charity has not generated one paragraph of scrutiny from any sports media party that I know of, nor from ESPN’s ombudsman.

There aren’t swimsuit babes on espnW, which ought to please Sherman and Bradley. I do get their weariness at seeing these displays in a supposedly more enlightened time. Indeed, among the upcoming ESPN/espnW “30 for 30″ documentaries includes “Branded,” which focuses on Anna Kournikova. From the promo:

This film explores the double standard placed on women athletes to be the best players on the field and the sexiest off them. Branded explores the question: can women’s sports ever gain an equal footing with their male counterparts or will sex always override achievement?

Because a “double standard” is presumed, I already know what the filmmakers’ answer is going to be.

If anyone wants to see a powerful media outlet taking on the cause of women and sports, and doing it badly, I give them the latest from featured espnW columnist Kate Fagan, who trafficks in women-as-perpetual-victims-of-a-sexist-sports-culture on a regular basis.

She takes a stupid, infantile comment from one NBA player known for saying and doing many stupid things, and spins it into a broad indictment of American culture:

Some people might shrug and say this type of gender-bashing is bound to happen in a male-dominated environment. But, of course, we know there’s more to it than that: It’s a microcosm of how women are too often disregarded across society.

This is truly lamentable stuff, and it does the cause of female sports advancement no more favors than a topless Kate Upton or a winless Anna Kournikova ever could.

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One Comment

  1. Bern
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    Well Played. After observing how the Title IX 40th anniversary thingy was handled by ESPNW it’s pretty clear why they are engaging folks like Fagan. If you go back and look at her pieces the direction has been pretty clear from Day 1. It’s not PC to speak the truth but it is what it is.

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