Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Swimsuit Issue, by the Book

My biggest regret about this blog is that I never got around to talking in depth about this 1997 book:

The Swimsuit Issue and Sport: Hegemonic Masculinity in Sports Illustrated, by Laurel R. Davis. An entire book dedicated to a scholarly study of the swimsuit issue!

I had planned to write about it, for literally years. I read it two or three times, taking notes. But I never got around to it. And at some point, SI’s web presence stopped the feature where you could virtually flip through old issues of the magazine. That was a big blow—I wanted to find specific photos and captions Davis referenced in the book.

Spoiler alert: It’s anti-swimsuit issue. But it’s a lot more complex in its approach than you might assume.

Before I go, I thought I’d jot down a few things about it.

• Sometimes it’s a little too scholarly.
And I don’t mean “hard to read,” but rather “willing to disappear into overanalysis and theory.” Davis spends a lot of time establishing that, yes, the swimsuit issue is aimed at straight guys. And a significant portion of a chapter is spent trying to figure out if the swimsuit issue is porn or art or advertising or pin-up. She lists arguments in favor and against each category. For example:

Is it porn?
PRO: It definitely plays on sexuality. CON: It’s too tame.

Is it art?
PRO: The photography is top quality and the photographers are credited. CON: It’s a mass-produced sports magazine.

Is it advertising?
PRO: The swimwear is identified by designer and price. CON: The primary intent is not to sell swimwear.

Well, that leaves the most obvious choice: pin-up. But even that might not be a useful or reliable term, “because the consumers often disagree with each other about the degree of sexual meaning expressed by texts from the pin-up genre.”

Only in an academic analysis can the obvious be so deftly obscured.

• I think the author would like the ESPN Body Issue a lot more.
She states at the beginning of the book that, “after reading a wide variety of feminist scholarship on pornography, nude bodies in art, pin-ups, and advertising, I became convinced that sexual images and objectification should not be seen as the enemy of feminism.” She thinks hot bodies have their place, but she levels some pretty familiar (and fair) criticisms at the swimsuit issue: What does this have to do with sports? Why feature these women with not-specifically-athletic bodies? Isn’t it sexist to assume that straight guys are the only fans of sports (and Sports Illustrated)?

The book was published way before the ESPN’s Body Issue existed. But (as I’ve pointed out) ESPN is a foil to the swimsuit issue; it features actual athletes, male and female. It’s nowhere near as difficult to justify as part of a sports magazine.

• I think Davis had to backtrack—just a little—with the dawn of Tyra Banks.
I noticed that she claimed to have studied every swimsuit issue from 1964 to 1991, and also 1996. I couldn’t figure out why she skipped 1992 through 1995. Then I noticed that part of her criticism is the magazine’s lack of black models.

This happened in 1996:

So she had to quickly include a reference to Tyra's first cover, as the number of covers featuring black models had jumped from zero to one. I believe (I can’t find it in my notes) she tempers it by pointing out that even in 1996, the black model had to be paired with a blonde white model to help her go down more easily.

If she had expanded her sample one more year, she would have seen this:

Granted, that’s where black cover models end: two consecutive years of Tyra. (Yes, we had Beyonce as well. But she was on the cover because of a marketing partnership and a music theme. She didn’t arrive there by the grueling cover selection process that the other girls—from Babette to Elle to Tyra to Hannah—had to go through.) The cover remains almost entirely caucasian, and that needs to change.

• Davis gets a little ethnocentric in her criticism of ethnocentricity.
She interviewed several unnamed producers of the magazine and asked them for some behind-the-scenes info. When she asked them about race, she noticed that a lot of the producers assumed “race” meant “black”:  
“Interestingly, many of the interviewed producers equate ‘people of color’ with ‘African-American,’ ignoring the underrepresentation of Asian-Americans, Latina-Americans, and Native-Americans.”

Here, Davis unwittingly displays a touch of ethnocentricity of her own: Who says the models need to be American at all?

Oluchi is African.

Jessica is half Chinese, half Portuguese, from Australia.

These ladies are from Brazil.
(Which, yes, is in South America, but I don’t think that’s the “-American” Davis is referring to.)

Even the lily-white chicks are from Eastern Europe and New Zealand and the Netherlands and Russia and Spain and France.

I admit, this is just a “gotcha” on my part. Davis’s points—that other races are poorly represented—stands. But it’s an interesting slip. In calling for an openness to the world’s races, she accidentally ignores the non-America world.

• I think she overplays her hand a little.
Something strikes me as very 90s-university-social-critique about this book. I think there are good points to make about sexuality and gender roles in a study of the swimsuit issue. But:
“Feminist critiques of Sports Illustrated generally, and its swimsuit issue in particular, need to address the contemporary components of hegemonic masculinity. As feminists of both genders attempt to reduce aggression and violence that injures women and men, those who support hegemonic masculinity help to produce this violence in sport, homes, and wars.”

Is she linking the swimsuit issue to domestic violence and war??

I guess a more fair description is that she sees it as part of a larger tapestry that includes violence—not that there’s a direct link between Judit Masco in a bikini and Desert Storm. But it does seem like she’s relying on the swimsuit issue to do a lot of heavy lifting in some major global issues.

• Davis may have missed a big story.
She references Media Watch, an organization dedicated to fighting sexism in the media. But—unless I missed it—she doesn’t mention that Media Watch was founded by this woman:

Ann Simonton was the cover girl of the 1974 swimsuit issue. Later she left the industry to become a feminist activist, and she is quite anti-swimsuit issue.

Maybe Davis didn’t know about the link. I can’t imagine why she wouldn’t have explored that detail—it seems custom tailored to her book.

There’s a whole section on the swimsuit issue as “tourism” and the exotification of other cultures—locals as props and stereotypes—that ties in directly with this controversy from the “seven continents” issue. But I sadly don’t have the time to go deeply into that section.

Anyway, if you are interested, and it’s at your local library, check it out. It’s a quick, interesting read. I respect the fact that Davis explicitly states that she doesn’t want to equate “feminism” with “anti-sex,” and her approach makes sure to keep the critiques deeper than “pictures of naked ladies are wrong.”

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