Athletic Excellence Competes with Raunch Culture at Women’s World Cup

The Women’s World Cup has proven to be a sparkling oasis amidst the most arid section of the sports calendar. The tournament provided a series of non-stop thrills, culminating with Japan’s heart-palpitating final victory against the US, winning 3-1 on penalty kicks after extra-time finished with the game tied at 2. Star US player Abby Wambach is no doubt hurting tonight, but I hope the forward with the skull of steel realizes that she was absolutely correct when she said last week,  “It’s gonna be awesome.” Normally, I dislike direct comparisons of women and men’s sports, but with far less players taking dives and far more players scoring goals, this World Cup proved to be profoundly more entertaining than the men’s variety last summer.
 
Beyond our media’s laser focus on the US team alone – which didn’t even begin until the squad started to soar - we were introduced to a new generation of remarkable players from across the globe. The dazzling Marta of Brazil and Japan’s Homare Sawa come to mind as players who left your jaw on the ground. But in a fitting coda for the beautiful game, the final cheers must go not to an individual player, but to Japan’s team, which employed a tactical genius spliced with a near-Brazilian flair that was a joy to behold. Riding a wave of emotion following last March’s horrific earthquake and subsequent nuclear leaks, Japan’s team welcomed the opportunity to provide some needed uplift for their country. They even passed around photos of victims of the nuclear spill before matches.Their teamwork on the field represented this terrific unity.
 
As a volunteer coach myself, I love the quote by Japan’s Coach Sasaki who
said of his vertically challenged team (average height: 5’4”), “I think you know that the Japanese players are not tall, but our focus is on ball control and good passes, good combinations. We have good team spirit, and that leads to good team performance.” It is also satisfying to see sports fans that normally dismiss women’s sports with a Pavlovian reflex become Women’s World Cup addicts.
 
Yes, it’s been a marvelous month for soccer but any assessment of this triumph would be incomplete without taking stock of the raunch culture that stalked the tournament’s every step. In the sporting context, “raunch culture” is when women athletes buy into the idea that it’s somehow empowering to display their naked bodies for men’s magazines. These great athletes put themselves before the photographers’ lens in positions both seductive and prone.  They claim that they are not only promoting their sport but also proving to the world that their attractiveness and (straight) sexuality is not to be questioned. After posing for their country’s edition of Playboy, five players were kicked off the German under-20 World Cup team. Player Kristina Gessat made plain her motivation, saying, "With these photos, we want to disprove the cliché that all female footballers are butch.”
 
As the Huffington Post, which promotes raunch culture across their supposedly progressive site wrote, “Whether or not there's any backlash over these photos remains to be seen, but one thing's for sure: they definitely helped spread the word on the Women's World Cup.” Maxim couldn’t have written it any better. [Full disclosure: I used to write at the Huffington Post but no longer work on Arianna's farm.]
 
Then three members of the French team also posed topless under the headline: "Is this how we should show up before you come to our games?" They said they did it “to generate some discussion.” This isn’t “empowerment.” It’s commerce.
 
Every
scrap of academic research shows that conditioning viewers to see women athletes as sex symbols comes at the expense of interest in the games themselves. As Mary Jo Kane of the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center says, “For a female athlete, stripping down might sell magazines, but it won’t sell your sport.”
 
But beyond the raunch culture and rancid sexism, the intense interest and athletic élan on display show that there is a market for women’s sports. The game is that good. From a sheer sporting perspective, it was, as Abby Wambach promised, “awesome.”

 

[Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.]

24 Reader Comments | Add a comment

The sexualization of the game occurred in other areas, too. For example, the US women's jerseys seem designed to simulate a low-cut shirt. And I can't shake the suspicion that a colored sports bra wouldn't show through quite as easily through my Landon Donovan jersey as it did through these...

ESPYs Raunch-fest

Which females got ESPYs face-time?

Lindsey Vonn, two-time Female Athlete of the Year (coincidentally, the blondest, girly-est, and most death-defying elite American athlete).

Serena Williams...was anyone even looking at her face?

Danica Patrick, dolled-up in a sexy dress and heels she could barely walk in (while escorted by Justin Bieber in a peace-sign emblazoned nascar-style racing suit). Instead of boring y'all with a feminist analysis of that one, I'm just hoping Serena gives her a few pointers on how to rock an evening gown, for next year. (Or, put Danica back in the racing suit a la SI 2008...she needs no pointers on rocking that look!)

(The Amazing) Anthony Robles' (Amazing) mom (though I am truly happy that Male-Athletes-Missing-A-Limb have made so much progress!)

And last, but not least, the most time of all was given to the caricature of the "Kissing Canadian" woman, who was face-sucked, groped, and dry-humped throughout the telecast.

As Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler would say on SNL, "Really?!"


Slightly different, but there's also this news story which came out a couple weeks ago:

"The Brazilian journalists came running toward Hope Solo here on Saturday morning. As soon as the U.S. goalkeeper had finished an interview with me in the lobby of the team hotel, a top Brazilian TV network asked Solo if she would "send a kiss" on video to a male sports anchor back home who has become infatuated with her during the Women's World Cup."


http://eu-digest.blogspot.com/2011/07/germany-world-cup-womens-soccer-hope.html

True, this was Brazil, but I have to wonder what people think of a female anchor who publicly swooned over a male athlete. Of course, women anchors generally have to be hyper-professional to be take seriously, and most people are more concerned with male athletes' actual athletic ability than their looks.

serena williams is ugly

and andy wambach is pretty manly


your seth meyers is more feminine than both of them

Doube standard/Double Exposure

DZ is upset by the women athletes posing for men's magazines but the question remains would he be upset if the athletes posed for women's magazines. He doesn't want women used as sex symbols but what is his take if they posed for the politically correct magazine. I guess what I'm questioning is DZ's definition of "raunch culture" being confined only to men's magazines. Shouldn't it be all or nothing at all.

dexx...case in point

Your Andy Wambach sounds like a stud!
What sport does he play?

re: Racist Moi?

I think an important difference here is that the sexualization and objectification of women athletes is buttressed by centuries of gender-based oppression, and that this is reflected the character of our institutions. Basically what this means is that it's more harmful when a women is objectified because women have been and continue to be oppressed on the basis of gender across our society, and this reinforces that. If a man were to pose nude in SI, he still retains his gender-based power as a man. He, in fact, has the PRIVILEGE of being able to pose in such a magazine and then still go out on the field and be evaluated solely on the basis of their performance. The same isn't true of women, and that's why them posing is a bigger deal.

daniel suarez that is the biggest hunk of...



nothing gibberish i have ever heard.


I hope the local womens studies prof gives you the doggy biscuit you are trying so hard to get.

style and substance are not mutually exclusive

I think its great when top female athletes don't hesitate to show off their hottness. My first recollection of this was Florence Griffith Joyner wearing shiny skin tight outfits to compete, that got me tuning in to track meets. But the glitz would have been meaningless if she didn't excel.
Likewise, thanks to Misty May I hardly ever missed Olympic ladies beach volleyball. She aldo had style and substance without sacrificing either one.

There is no need to to pose nude for Playboy, ladies, take a tip from Charlie's Angels -- do good and look good doing it!

re:dan

The problem that DZ was stating is that womens' sports try to market their athletes as "hot," then people will only tune in so long as they are "hot," and the actual quality of play gets de-emphasized and ultimately undermined.

Also, with the wealth of places to find "hot women" out there, between magazines, television, movies, pornography, and the like, how long is emphasizing the sexuality of women athletes really going to keep people tuning into track & field or soccer? Seems like an unsustainable plan for growth.

daniel



why is showcasing female athletes bad and porn? seems to me that pron taken way more advantage of women than, say, sports ilustrated does

re:dexx

I think you need to work on your reading comprehension.

arid?

The most arid season of the sporting calendar you say? I think you may have forgotten about a certain bike race in France that's been going on for the past two weeks...sheesh!

sex & sports

Dave Zirin,

I respect the athletic talents of any athlete, male or female, who can win on the big stage!

But I'm tired of you & the Radical Feminists who go ballistic when female athletes pose nude!

(by the way, I haven't heard you or the Radical Feminists complain about the covers of Dennis Rodman's book, or the male soccer stars posing in their undies in a well-known fashion magazine around the same type as the Men's World Cup!)

Look, women, like men, are multi-dimensional people. Even the athletes.

So yeah, a female athlete can have a serious side, a fun side, a risk-taking side, a vulnerable side, an intellectual side, a spiritual side, a compassionate side and a (oh my god.......nooooooooooh!) a sexual side too!

It's unrealistic for you and the Radical Feminists to expect female athletes to act asexual just because they're athletes!

I'm not saying we should force female athletes to pose for sexual photos! However, if they CHOSE to do so, either 1) lighten up and enjoy the ride or 2) ignore it and get a life!


Oh yeah, by the way, if you're wondering why many young women don't call themselves "feminists", IT IS NOT a desire to be oppressed! It is because TOO MANY WHO IDENTIFY THEMSELVES AS FEMINISTS are the same ones who go ballistic when a female athlete pose for sexual photos!

The reality is that many young women would LOVE to be the female athlete who poses for sexual photos. It's got nothing to do with patriarchy or capitalism or whatever! Most young women love to see themselves as tough and sexually attractive. Those female athletes represent that!

You want a world in which women don't want to pose for sexual photos? You might as well start a genetic engineering project, because your Radical Feminist rhetoric will NEVER over-ride evolution, will NEVER over-ride women's desire for an image of "tough and attractive".

If feminism is about "respecting people's choice regardless of gender" THEN START RESPECTING women athletes who pose for sexual photos! They're just doing something fun on the side! You shouldn't expect them to be serious all the time! Lighten up!

Sincerely,

Pablo Wegesend

sex & sports

Dave Zirin,

I respect the athletic talents of any athlete, male or female, who can win on the big stage!

But I'm tired of you & the Radical Feminists who go ballistic when female athletes pose nude!

(by the way, I haven't heard you or the Radical Feminists complain about the covers of Dennis Rodman's book, or the male soccer stars posing in their undies in a well-known fashion magazine around the same type as the Men's World Cup!)

Look, women, like men, are multi-dimensional people. Even the athletes.

So yeah, a female athlete can have a serious side, a fun side, a risk-taking side, a vulnerable side, an intellectual side, a spiritual side, a compassionate side and a (oh my god.......nooooooooooh!) a sexual side too!

It's unrealistic for you and the Radical Feminists to expect female athletes to act asexual just because they're athletes!

I'm not saying we should force female athletes to pose for sexual photos! However, if they CHOSE to do so, either 1) lighten up and enjoy the ride or 2) ignore it and get a life!


Oh yeah, by the way, if you're wondering why many young women don't call themselves "feminists", IT IS NOT a desire to be oppressed! It is because TOO MANY WHO IDENTIFY THEMSELVES AS FEMINISTS are the same ones who go ballistic when a female athlete pose for sexual photos!

The reality is that many young women would LOVE to be the female athlete who poses for sexual photos. It's got nothing to do with patriarchy or capitalism or whatever! Most young women love to see themselves as tough and sexually attractive. Those female athletes represent that!

You want a world in which women don't want to pose for sexual photos? You might as well start a genetic engineering project, because your Radical Feminist rhetoric will NEVER over-ride evolution, will NEVER over-ride women's desire for an image of "tough and attractive".

If feminism is about "respecting people's choice regardless of gender" THEN START RESPECTING women athletes who pose for sexual photos! They're just doing something fun on the side! You shouldn't expect them to be serious all the time! Lighten up!

Sincerely,

Pablo Wegesend

sorry for the repeat

I might've accidentally re-posted the same comment twice!

i think they also...



dont care about feminists with their dirty hair and coke bottle classes and bitter attitudes.


yeah, lots of young women aspire to be like THAT...


and daniel you need to work on your self respect and not writing a bunch womens studies utter bollocks

Re:

"This isnt empowerment. Its commerce."

If somebody feels empowered sexualizing themselves, who is anybody else to tell them otherwise? Now let's assume you're right that this is all about commerce. So what? Who are you or anybody else to tell them or anyone else how they can market themselves?

Nothing changes....

Hi all.
Been away from here for a while, and am not particularly surprised to discover that the trogs ignore the bulk of DZ's post, as they probably have nothing coherent to say about the form of football that is actually played with the foot (me... I'm with the Chinese who call rugby "olive ball" and US football "American-style olive ball"... as in olive-shaped [for the trogs]).
There's been a lot of progress in women's football... personally though, as with baseball, I'm still waiting for women to be given "permission" to play with men... that is the only way that the commercialization and dehumanization that DZ describes will ever truly be eliminated, I think.

I'd like my little daughter not to be relegated to "softball" as a certain age, especially as she is better than boys her age, by far (hand-eye coordination etc... you know the story).

I'm dreaming, I know... the cockroaches will inherit the earth before such "unnatural" acts will be allowed to occur. Still, dreams are nice, at times... especially a dream of my daughter striking out some muscle-bound neanderthal. :)

Raunch

Dave,
It's all commerce, unfortunately. The on-field performance, which was intense and far more entertaining than the men's version, and the raunch. You know this. All professional sports, and most so-called amateur sports, is essentially commercial. The women soccer players may show great joy in the playing, but that doesn't mean that the sport isn't going to rot into the debacles that have become pro football and pro basketball.

thankyou Steven, but

Dave is trying to encourage, to nurture a different type of role model for women. That's what he is searching for, dreaming of. This is MORE realistic than the fixation with what IS in the current putrid culture we - men and women - are suffocating in. Your critique of Dave is partially correct, Stephen, i.e. that "empowerment" is firmly in the realm of commerce. But you are wrong to dismiss any potential for young radicalized women putting "liberation" back on the map, challenging the dominant culture. We must not just wait and see, but take responsibility ourselves, no?

You're welcome Lewis, but

My point is not about empowerment at all. It is about the fact that there is no escaping the commercial context of sport. Sport exists embedded in commerce. Whether there are radicalized women on the field or not, to think that the individual actions of the players can alter the capitalist economic formation in which they are employed is naive.

Tom Brady, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo

Male athletes (the good looking ones anyway) do plenty of sexualized advertisements as well. I remember seeing Reggie Bush's abs on the cover of a couple of magazines. There's tons of underwear ads featuring C Ronaldo, David Beckham and even Tim Tebow!
Why do you think it is that Beckham, who was never even close to being the top player for any of the teams he played for, makes more in endorsement deals than any other player? Sex appeal! Same with CR7 who despite being a very good player is not better than Messi.
How does that play into the feminist narrative?

Re: Pablo Wegesend

Thanks for speaking for all young women Pablo! As a 23 year old woman myself, I sure am glad there's a man around to stand up for my right to ensure no one ever sees past my tits! Damn those "radical feminists" who want to take away my right to get naked in public for money - it's so much more fun than playing the sport that I love! I don't do it because I'm being paid or because if I don't people will accuse me of lesbianism or asexuality and that'll be the end of my endorsements. I do it because it's fun, fun, fun! I'm so jealous of strippers, they get to do it all the time, lucky b*tches!

Just FYI though, I know loads of young women who proudly call themselves feminists, and a lot of them are tough and sexy and know it, even though they've never been on the cover of a men's magazine. Amazing, right? They're also smart enough to realize, unlike you apparently, that context matters. It doesn't mean the same thing for a male athlete to show skin as a female one (ever heard of playgirl? me neither), and when a female athlete poses in her underwear, she's not the only one impacted: every girl who dreams about being a world-class athlete is affected and sent home with the message that it isn't enough to be great at her sport, she's got to be beautiful too. It'd be different if there were more female athlete role models or a long, well-known history of women in sports, but as it is girls don't get to choose who to idolize, they've got to make do with the few options available.

As for the three athletes mentioned in the above post, David Beckham played for England, meaning someone thought he was one of the 11 best players in that country, and just because Ronaldo isn't as good as Messi (arguably the best player EVER) doesn't mean he's not seriously talented. I know next to nothing about Tom Brady so I can't speak to that, but if you're trying to find a male athlete known first and foremost for his sex appeal you're going to have to do better than those two.

Finally, a question for anyone out there: does anyone know what these female athletes are being paid for their photos, and how that compares to their salaries/other promotional deals/income?

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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