Fair Game News Logo

Sarcasm over, SI: time for real pics of female athletes

February 13, 2010 – 4:04 PM

By Laura Pappano

OK, I’ve learned something valuable: My effort at a tongue-in-cheek fan letter to SI for their “un-coverage” of female athletes was not clearly tongue-in-cheek to many readers on this site or the Women Talk Sports network site.

Firstly, what a terrific (and impassioned!) discussion. Secondly, to set the record straight: I employed a tone of sarcasm in the post because I do find it absolutely absurd to promote the idea that sex appeal does anything but undercut the image, goals, and status of seriously talented female athletes.

We appear stuck in a sort of moment — much like the feminist we-can-do-it-all quagmire — where we feel compelled to be both serious athletes and hot bodies. The problem is not that women athletes don’t have great bodies; the issue is that in putting so much energy into showing them off as such distracts from being seen as a seriously intense (skier, snowboarder,…fill in the blank). If I want people to pay attention to me when I am, say, giving a talk, I’ll wear a suit — and not one for swimming.

I understand that sex appeal is part of sport. But where, say Tom Brady may be pretty, as a male athlete he is given plenty of latitude to also be tough. There are many ads of him of the chiseled chin and tight abs but even that exposure is far outweighed by the serious network air time, news coverage, talk radio, pre-game, half-time, and post-game analysis of his athletic performance.

Certainly, female athletes can be attractive AND competitive. I don’t see this in the larger sense — or longer term — as an either/or debate. But right at this moment, we have a serious attention bias in the way women’s sports events — and female athletes — are viewed. When all that warrants mainstream coverage is undress, it tilts the image and shapes the conversation.

This very point was confirmed this morning as I listened to two male hosts on sports talk radio station WEEI in Boston giggling about the SI coverage and how they were going to be paying more attention to Vonn (and not her skiing) at this Olympics. (Really guys???)

SI is known for it’s incredible action photography. Given that, how about a few more female athletes caught, freeze-framed, mid-action? If we want some “balance” in the sexy vs. serious debate, that might be a good place to start.

  1. 5 Responses to “Sarcasm over, SI: time for real pics of female athletes”

  2. Okay, Laura, I didn’t get the sarcasm part of your last blog. I honestly think that what you wrote was a great idea, and I would love to see it actually happen-and yes, I am a enlightened male fan of female sports.

    Sports Illustrated is like any other magazine. They will publish/print/talk about what makes money. That is the reason the magazine exists, not to be a social statement publication. If men’s sports didn’t sell, SI wouldn’t exist either.

    I doubt sincerely that anything will change. Therefore, if you want change, you will have to do it yourself and force a change, as opposed to asking/demanding/expecting others to do it for you. Sorry to be blunt, crass or disrespectful, but that is how I see it.

    By Edward on Feb 13, 2010

  3. I also think it has to do with money … SI does what will sell magazines to males. So either males have to express that they are not interested in seeing Vonn undressed on the slopes or VONN (and other women athletes) have to reject exposing themselves in that way. Nothing wrong about being athletic and beautiful, but in the right place and right time.

    By Davi-Ellen Chabner on Feb 14, 2010

  4. Thank you, Laura. Great points, especially your bolded statements. I can’t wait for more serious and “real” coverage of women athletes!

    By Rachel on Feb 15, 2010

  5. Laura: In “Playing with the Boys” you make a case that is forward-looking, one that points us generally in the direction the debate about women in sports must ultimately go. Here, however, your gloss is rather more shopworn.

    It’s not so much attention bias, it’s lack of attention–period. If “all that warrants mainstream coverage is undress,” instead of complaining priggishly shouldn’t we be asking why that is? One easily finds photos of Tom Brady, displaying any number of personae, all deemed compatible with his status as super-athlete. As long as he throws touchdowns and wins games on the football field, few will forget about his athleticism when they see him in other activities and circumstances.

    I should also add that “sexy” images of male athletes typically reinforce their status as potent athletes. For them, the ideal look doesn’t hinder but rather facilitates athletic performance. It’s difficult to be a great athlete without an athletic body–why I think it is sometimes good for girls and young women to see athletic female physiques.

    When the attention female athletes receive is measured against, say, what male athletes of modest ability (DIII, semi-pro, etc.) receive, it becomes evident that their slights are likely the result of the ordering by ability that naturally occurs in athletics. Our task, then, is to remove obstacles that hinder female athletes from becoming better athletes, including body-image ideals that aren’t conducive to athletic performance, which in some cases might be best served by “uncovering” female athletes.

    By Rob Mars on Feb 15, 2010

  6. OK got it! I hadn’t seen this yet. I was a bit confused by the original post knowing your work, but found it interesting that most of the comments were agreeing with you! However, after the latest round over the sex sells female athletes, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Keep up the good work. -Nicole

    By Nicole LaVoi on Feb 17, 2010

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.