No room for the female gaze in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue

In the event that you missed the news – and now that the Pope has announced his resignation, that’s actually probably pretty likely – Sports Illustrated is set to release the annual Swimsuit Issue tomorrow.  The feminist criticisms of the Swimsuit Issue have pretty much remained the same for the past few decades, so I won’t rehash them here.  (I do think it’s fascinating to note that a woman is more likely to end up on the cover of Sports Illustrated if she’s in a bikini than she is for her athletic accomplishments.)

What I do want to talk about is SI’s attempt to broaden the appeal of the Swimsuit Issue in an attempt to cater to the estimated 18 million women who read the magazine.  Did they recruit Cullen Jones to frolic in the turquoise waters of Saint Tropez while wearing a pair of skin-tight briefs?  Did they drape a bevy of male models on a yacht and slather them with body paint, as if in a Duran Duran video?  No, why would they do a silly thing like that?

Instead, this is what will comprise the new lady-friendly section of the Swimsuit Issue.  From the New York Times:

The guide includes six pages of content from Sports Illustrated and six pages of Target ads. Titled “Secrets of Swimsuit,” the guide will include information on swimsuit trends and advice on how mere mortals, not supermodels, can achieve that sexy beach look.

Yes, because beachgoing women simply have no place to look when it comes to recreating “[t]ousled beachy hair” and “very light makeup.”

The inclusion of this “female-friendly” guide means this year’s Swimsuit Issue is shaping up to be even more of a male-gaze bonanza than in recent years.  Not only are the pages packed with gorgeous modelesque women clad in little more than a few strings and a prayer, but it also very handily provides the female section of its audience a specific guide to help them look more like said gorgeous modeleseque women.  (I wonder if that guide contains pertinent information like “be born to the right parents” and “don’t eat very much.”)

The idea that anyone might actually want to look at men’s bodies seems to be curiously absent.  Once again, decision makers in the mass media have a really hard time with the idea that the (hetero) female gaze could actually be a thing that, you know, exists.  I mean, “Magic Mike” made a bajillion dollars this summer (and not on the strength of the guys’ personalities, if you catch my drift and I think you do), and for crying out loud, it’s been twenty years since that Diet Coke commercial with Lucky Vanous, and yet Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen still felt perfectly comfortable putting fingers to keyboard and sharing with the world that he has a sad over the fact that he feels like he has to look like Daniel Craig in order to bang a 23-year-old chick.  (BTW, I really liked Alyssa Rosenberg’s take on this, which is kinda relevant to this post.)

We hear all the time that “men are visual creatures” and “women are emotional” and “women are attracted to personalities” and “it’s science” and blah blah blah, but I feel comfortable in saying that this is just essentialist garbage that obscures the fact that almost all human beings (who aren’t blind, that is) are visual creatures, regardless of our gender or our sexuality.  Most of us like to look at people we find sexually appealing!  It’s how we roll, and as long as we don’t treat each other badly because of it, there’s nothing wrong with that.  What I do have a problem with is this belief that there is no such thing as the female gaze.  It contributes to that god-awful “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” nonsense that acts like men and women are two alien species with virtually nothing in common, when the reality is that men and women have way more in common than not.  Many women like to look at sexy people, and many men like their partners to be decent, interesting people.  It’s not either/or, yet we keep acting like it is.

Mind you, this is not an argument for creating a culture in which everyone is objectified, which is how I feel things are going.  I die a little inside when I hear about rising rates of guys with eating disorders or getting more plastic surgery or taking steroids in their pursuit of bigorexic ideals.  Rather, what I want is a culture that accepts that people find a wider variety of bodies to be attractive and sexually appealing than just the ones that belong to a very tiny subset of young sylphlike women.  I would also like to live in a culture that does not equate sexuality with dehumanization and objectification, but instead regards it as a very life-affirming aspect of being human, but I suppose that is a lot to ask for a culture that still has aneurysms whenever a woman dares breast-feed in public.

This is why I find ESPN’s Body Issue infinitely more appealing than SI’s Swimsuit Issue.  The Body Issue’s inclusion of bodies of all sizes, genders and abilities – and the way it frames most of those bodies in tableaux that emphasize the dynamic nature of the human body, and by extension, the dynamic nature of the person to whom the body belongs – seems very modern to me.  On the other hand, the Swimsuit Issue seems like a relic from a time when Hugh Hefner was regarded as a vanguard of the sexual revolution and not just a sad old man shuffling around in a robe.  The fact that the Swimsuit Issue is still so focused on showing a specific kind of female body only serves to make it seem rather quaint and old-fashioned, at least in my view.

Of course, there’s nothing to indicate that SI will change its formula any time soon.  After all, the Swimsuit Issue is consistently its top selling issue, and in an industry when headlines are mostly about how everyone is getting laid off or going broke, anything that makes money is going to inspire magazine publishers to hold on so tightly their knuckles explode.  All I am asking is that we re-evaluate this idea that only bodies worth appreciating are the bodies that belong to a vanishingly tiny group of women, and that we consider the possibility that maybe – just maybe – men’s bodies are sexy, too.

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14 responses to “No room for the female gaze in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue

      • How about equal-opportunity-gaze? It doesn’t roll off the tongue so well, but it is inclusive.

        On the Today Show (I know it’s terrible, but it’s better than white noise while I do my morning yoga because I can yell at it when it gets ridiculous and tune it out completely when it’s banal) I believe Al Roker made a comment that men couldn’t be part of the shoot because if it was in Antartica…yikes! Or something. What was so fucked up beyond belief was Kate Upton blithely recounting how her body started shutting down when she got back from the shoot because it was under such duress from being in Antarctica in a bikini and parka. YIKES.

  1. Pingback: Imaginary Sex Differences Perpetuated By Fictional Convention | Lynley Stace·

  2. I agree that objectification for everyone sounds grim. The marketers have made a lot of money convincing women to be ever more dissatisfied with their bodies, and they are now turning around to profit similarly by sowing discontent to the men. That is a truly depressing twist on “equality”.

    I have no problem with eye candy, I just would like it to be more inclusive. As a straight woman, I like to look at attractive men. I understand that straight men (and lesbians!) like looking at attractive women. There has to be a way of presenting that, and with more diversity, without the assumption that every person who doesn’t measure up to the media-contrived standard of the moment is worthless and without turning an attractive person into a dehumanized object.

  3. I’ve got a one-word explanation for why they don’t give equal time to handsome men in skimpy swimsuits: homophobia.

    They probably figure that, as much as their straight (and bi) female and gay (and bi) male readership might want to see male swimsuit models, the straight male readership (which we all know is the most important because patriarchy) would run screaming from it. Can’t have anyone see them reading it, could they? They might think they were *gay*.

  4. I used to read the SI website a fair bit, and truth be told, what you’re describing is not limited to the swimsuit issue. Your comment about this issue being a relic applies to much of the mindset permeating the establishment over there. It’s not incredibly excessive, but if you read a lot of what they have there and then go elsewhere (e.g. Yahoo Sports), you start to notice SI feels much more guy’s club-ish. The hot chick of the day doesn’t help.

    100% agree about the Body Issue. It goes beyond the inclusion of all shapes and sizes, as well. Even though most of the people in there have phenomenal bodies, those are bodies attained through hard work, which anyone who wants to try and reach that level can do. Yeah, you can run into problems if you obsess too much about reaching a form of perfection few of us can manage, but most people without some serious physical ailment have the ability to attain a level of fitness that’s highly impressive relative to our genetic starting points. So even if you never look like Rob Gronkowski or Ronda Rousey, you can still make yourself look badass in a way dieters can’t.

  5. “I wonder if that guide contains pertinent information like “be born to the right parents” and “don’t eat very much.”

    Say it sister! Your blog is EMPOWERING. I’m going to bed tonight feeling extra strong and saucy thanks to your sharp insight and sarcasm. Thank you for being a fit feminist … and a talented writer.

  6. Are men really so incorrigible that the only way women can achieve “equality” is by becoming as shallow and vapid as the traditional male? So sexual objectification isn’t wrong, per se, it’s just that it’s done exclusively to women? If we all had a shot at viewing other people as things to be consumed and discarded, none of us would be “sexist” because we’d all just be a bunch of pigs. Maybe the solution to “smashing the patriarchy” isn’t about encouraging women to behave as badly as men. Maybe it’s about all of us evolving into something more healthy.

  7. How about just talking about gynephilic or androphilic gaze? That leaves our genders totally out of it and just addresses who we like to ogle and perhaps leaves room to explore how the different gazes are constructed?

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