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Sochi = Sexism?

It’s only day 4 of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games yet, shit is already hitting the fan, recklessly spinning through the air at supersonic speed, and hitting society in the face. Urine-colored toxic tap water, Russia’s new  “homosexual propaganda” law, life-life-threatening snowboarding coursesmelting snow …Sochi is off to a great start!! All sarcasm aside, the 2014 Winter Olympic Games have marked some major milestones for female athletes. The first women’s ski jump ever has been hosted at this Olympic Games. The International Olympic Committee finally allowed women into an event that has been part of the Winter Games since 1924. I digress…

According to Sochi authorities, something that will surely put viewers in higher spirits, despite the Olympics’ less than smooth start, is the cornucopia of advertising campaigns featuring scantily-clad female Olympic athletes. Because, who wouldn’t love to see photos of half-naked Olympians? Here is a fun photo spread featuring athletes like four-time gold medalist and speedskater, Tatiana Borodulina, and freestyle skier and silver-medalist, Maria Komissarova. These photos, taken from an official Russian website, aim to “refute the stereotype that women athletes are mountains of muscle and have manly figures.”

Speed skater: Siberian-born Tatiana Borodulina, 29, from Omsk but now living in Australia, is a short track speed skater who has competed for her motherland since 2006Tatiana Borodulina, short track

I am all for the message this campaign is trying to send. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. But, then why is the headline of the very same photo spread that aims to refute a certain assumption about the female body say: “Russia’s female athletes are the best PR for our Olympic team in Sochi”  

So, Russia’s marketing claims that the purpose of the photo spread is to encourage the public to embrace the femininity of these athletes’ bodies when really, it is using the sex appeal of Russia’s female athletes as an advertising tactic? Sounds like a Russian goulash of sexual objectification and a feeble attempt at “female empowerment” to me.

It also makes me wonder what kind of agency these women had, if any at all. If I had spent, hypothetically, my entire life training to compete in the most important and publicly televised sporting event in the world, I would want marketing to focus on my talent, ability, and hard work to be emphasized—not how sexy my body looks in lingerie. “It’s a shame when someone who has worked so hard to accomplish so much has to diminish themselves in this way,” observed a Bleacher Report writer. “What kind of message is being sent to young kids, and future Olympians, when their sports idols are posing in next to nothing?”

As I watch Russia’s publicity stunt rear its ugly head at me, and everything my version of feminism stands for, I also have to consider the global scale of this issue. What makes this photo spread different from the PR campaigns of other countries like, say, the United States? Well, we’re not doing much better:

Alpine skier, Julia Mancuso, may have won a bronze medal on Monday at Sochi, but she is probably already known for her “lucky underwear.” Mancuso stripped down for the February edition of GQ magazine, ditching her usual ski suit, boots, and mask for a provocative spread involving long black underwear with the top of her derrière on display, and a pair of teeny tiny white undies. “It is not a shock to me when I have a good race,” 29-year-old Mancuso told GQ. “I started to tell people I’d just worn my lucky underwear.”

Again, why would a female athlete, like Mancuso, prefer to be remembered for her “lucky underwear” instead of the bronze medal it took her years of training to win?

There are probably a lot of answers to this question. I am assuming money is one of them. Slate Magazine’s, Hannah Rosin contests, “one semi-reasonable justification for derobing winter athletes in advance of the events is so we can see them.” That kind of makes sense…skiers and snowboarders are covered in layers of warm clothing and fly down mountainsides in a blur. Viewers can hardly even see the emotion on their face when scores are posted because of their masks and goggles. These photoshoots, as vulgar and unsettling as they are, turn these female athletes into relatable, flesh and blood heroines.

But then, why don’t men have to strip down to their skivvies to solidify their brand? I want to see Bode Miller in his briefs! There isn’t a single photo that features Miller bearing-it-all in the way these women are for Sochi (believe me, I thoroughly Google-stalked.) All I can find is wholesome, G-rated, booooring stuff like this:

USOC Media Summit

Even though the seething feminist in me is quick to assume that advertising campaigns featuring half-naked female Olympic athletes screams, “sexism, sexism, SEXISM,” I have to shush her for a moment and consider: Is this a blaring display of female objectification in the Olympic games? Or is it simply a celebration of the female body?

I think it’s a little of both, to be quite honest. I also think that it is really difficult to draw such an unequivocal line to separate the two ideas. This issue is not transparent. And, it most certainly does not have an obvious answer.  Sexy or sexism? You decide.

4 Responses to “Sochi = Sexism?”

  1. cpowell92

    My first thought when seeing those photos and reading your article was to be angry that the Olympics are using these athletes in such as way as to take away from their talent. However, you are right in that it could be viewed both ways. Should it be a celebration that women are embracing what they have and being recognized for it? Or should it be looked at as objectifying women since obviously male athletes do not pose in the same way and get recognition regardless of what they are wearing. I think I fall more towards the side of this being a sexist issue. Why could they not do a spread where these women were in their gear doing some sort of awesome trick. Or could they do something a little less provocative that didn’t have the girls’ butts hanging out all over the place? I seriously think they could have been a bit more creative and focused more on these women’s talents not asses. I love this article though because I would have never known about this issue!!

    Reply
    • SpongebobBloggerpants

      Cpowell92: Thanks for your comment! I initially felt the same emotions as you. Anger was definitely present. I also am leaning toward treating the photo stream, and other magazine photo shoots like it, as sexist media. It is not fair for female athletes to be subjugated to a level where their bodies take precedence over their performance. I am so glad that I was able to spread awareness about the issue–thanks again for reading!

      Reply
  2. Rylan

    The question really is why would these women agree to the shoots? In general principles are not for sale among those who have true self confidence and self respect.
    Maybe they enjoy showing their bodies off.

    Reply
    • SpongebobBloggerpants

      Rylan: That is a question that leads one to wonder about the women’s agency in the matter. They could have very easily been forced to do the shoots. Another plausible explanation is funding: It is remarkably expensive to be able to train for an event of the magnitude of the Olympics and many female athletes do not receive funding or sponsorship as easily as male athletes do. They have to go to greater lengths in order to acquire the money they need to be able to accomplish their goals. This dynamic is true about most professional sports that women are involved in, which is a huge problem.

      Reply

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