The big news in human sexuality this week is the release of the movie Fifty Shades of Grey. I have not read the celebrated novel on which it’s based, and would sooner face the gallows, nor have I any intention of seeing the movie. I like bad movies, but only bad movies of a certain type and genre: bad horror, bad action/adventure, bad sci-fi, yay! Bad porn: I’ll pass. I do find the national reaction to this film (based on that novel) pretty interesting. It’s the leading ticket pre-sale movie ever, for example. But those massive pre-sale tickets have been unevenly distributed geographically. It’s doing boffo business, apparently, in the South: Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, West Virginia, Kentucky. Rachel Maddow, last night, had a lot of fun with the fact that Tupelo, Mississippi (Elvis!) is the headquarters for the American Family Council. And that Tupelo leads the nation in FSOG pre-sales.
What has not been remarked upon is the fact that the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue also just came out. It usually does come out about this time of year, two weeks after the Super Bowl, in early February. Sun and sex, enlivening the bleak midwinter. It’s only come out later than that once, in 1992, when SI just quietly announced they were putting it off for a couple of months. Why? Well, therein lies a tale, I think. I don’t remember anyone pointing this out, but it seemed obvious to me why: the biggest story in sports, in late January and early February of 1992, was the rape trial of Mike Tyson.
I have subscribed to Sports Illustrated since 1977. I like it. I look forward to reading it. SI really does genuinely publish the best writing about sports in America. The photography, in SI, is routinely remarkable. In a time when magazines are going the way of the dodo bird and brachiosaur, SI remains popular and successful. And SI isn’t just a magazine for male sports fans. The magazine champions female athletes, and female writers about sports. (It’s also progressive in its recent focus on LGBT athletes). SI‘s recent story about the Australian Open tennis tournament, for example, was much more about Serena Williams’ win than about Rafael Nadal’s. I think this is because of the one way in which SI does still retain a parochial focus: it’s a magazine much more about American sports than it is about international sport. Serena got more and better coverage because she’s an American. (Plus, SI has pretty much always liked Serena). It’s a magazine for American sports fans, about sports American fans care about.
And then, once a year, the magazine seems to just go insane.
Okay, a few caveats: first, there remains a certain laddishness to American sports fans which a magazine may as well acknowledge, and their way of doing that is show photos of pretty girls wearing bikinis. You can argue that it’s harmless enough; more comical than offensive. The women who appear in the Swimsuit issue are hardly coerced into doing so; nothing does more for a model’s career than an SI Swimsuit cover. Of course the swimsuits are ridiculous. Fashion is always ridiculous. Sports is a celebration of human achievement, is it not? A chance to honor the extraordinary, the superbly conditioned, the marvelously disciplined. Yes, team sports are gloriously preposterous; yes, we really are rooting for laundry. Still, we’re allowing ourselves to be amazed, by that catch, that throw, that leap, that sprint. It’s Sports Illustrated, Sports Photographed, Sports Written-about. The photographs–a human being in motion, captured for an instant–are a lot of the point. So why is it such a stretch to ask those same brilliant photographers to go to a beach somewhere and shoot some pretty (and fit!) girls in their swimwear. Or, as is often the case, just barely wearing swimwear. Or not wearing anything at all, but a coyly positioned hand or elbow. (Especially when the stories accompanying the pictures piously describe the models’ personal fitness regimens. We’re promoting exercise, folks).
Which is where it goes skidding off the tracks for me. Those photos, found once a year in this issue, are so obviously, so blatantly sexual in their appeal, and so clearly objectifying in their approach, it’s not really possible to see them as anything but sexist. Borderline, at least, pornographic. (Granted, pretty soft-core, but still). For every article and photo of Serena Williams or Mone Davis or Diana Taurasi, every inspirational article about a female athlete competing, we also get this, an entire issue completely devoted to women. It’s like the magazine is saying, ‘yes, women play sports, and good for them. Also, check this out!’
I generally reject the idea that there exist one-to-one correlations between the media we consume and the choices we subsequently make. But I do worry about blurred lines, mixed messages, confusing signals. I don’t think that there’s much direct correlation between the Swimsuit issue and rape. But I can’t help but remember the early winter of 1992, when Desiree Washington had to summon all her courage and tell an, at times, hostile courtroom, ‘no, I did not consent. No, I did not agree to what he did.’ I can’t imagine the mental toughness that took. And, no, probably the two things aren’t quite related, but the subsequent decision by SI to hold off awhile on sending their most popular issue of the year to peoples’ mailboxes seems to betray, at least, a certain unease.
I don’t understand the appeal of Fifty Shades, though I can’t help but speculate about how, in the Bible Belt, forbidden sexuality might give off a particular frisson. I totally get why guys like the Swimsuit Issue; I’m a guy. But I have daughters, I’m married, I have many many women I consider close friends, I call myself a feminist. Women are not objects, existing to gratify men, not even women who agree, with whatever degree of enthusiasm, to participate in their own objectification. Way too many men get the SI Swimsuit Issue, and way too few men actually commit acts of rape, to suggest correlation between the two. But are the two phenomena completely unrelated? Aren’t attitudes shaped by media, just a little, and don’t those attitudes, occasionally, for some people, lead people to act, at least sometimes? Are the seeds of domestic violence somehow planted in this particular soil?
I’m not suggesting we protest, boycott, picket. SI’s not going to give up their most popular annual issue, movie studios are always going to make movies based on best-selling novels. And I don’t want to sell magazines, or movie tickets either. I am recommending what I do. Glance through the magazine, chuckle a bit, then toss it. Glance, chuckle, toss. Because there really is a sense in which hypocrisy is always funny. Especially when it’s this blatant.