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.