Since the Rio Olympics commenced Friday with the “sexiest” Opening Ceremonies ever, NBC and its commentators have uttered some not-so-gender-equal observations.
The chief marketing officer said women watch the games for the “reality show” journey, not the results. When Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu broke a world record, an analyst gave the credit to her husband, who also happens to be her coach, calling him “the man responsible” for her feat. Fury ensued when Katie Ledecky was widely called the “female Michael Phelps.” And when the U.S. women’s gymnastics team was filmed reveling in victory, a male commentator said they looked so happy that they “might as well be standing around at the mall.”
It has been a very angry weekend for Twitter. (Slate has a smart breakdown.)
But for every headline like this: “The Media’s Olympics Coverage Reminds Us Just How Taxing It Is to Be a Female Athlete,” there is one like this: “Your Guide to Gratuitous Male Objectification at the Olympics.”
One decries the way analysts focus on the appearance of female Olympians, not their athletic accomplishments. The other features a slideshow of mostly shirtless, nearly naked men, with an invitation to “Come, join us on the official horndog tour of Rio.”
And these opposing headlines appear in the same publication.
But wait, there’s more:
“2016 Rio Olympics: The U.S. Men Gymnasts, Ranked by Ab Appeal!” “All the Shirtless Ryan Lochte Photos You Could Ever Possibly Want.” “34 Team USA Hotties Representing In Rio.” “This Hot Brazilian Gymnast Will Quench Your Parched Soul.” “The Hottest Olympic Dudes to Root for in Rio.” “If Oiling This Athlete’s Body Was an Olympic Sport, We’d Win Gold Every Time.”
Now reread those as if they were about one of this year’s favorite female Olympians — Simone Biles, Serena Williams, Katie Ledecky. The tone, to some, is suddenly not sexy, but sexist. So why is it taboo to objectify the fiercest female athletes on Earth, but acceptable to do the same to men?
Some argue that men are okay with it, as per the marketing campaign of the U.S. men’s gymnastic team, which is struggling for attention behind their powerhouse female counterparts.
“Maybe compete with our shirts off,” Sam Mikulak, seven-time NCAA champion, told the Wall Street Journal. “People make fun of us for wearing tights. But if they saw how yoked we are maybe that would make a difference.”
In an essay analyzing the gymnasts’ decision to harness their sexual prowess, writer Christina Cauterucci argues that less is best at the Olympics because, in many ways, it allows viewers to witness all the ways in which these athletes move their muscles — which took immense work to sculpt.
“To sexually objectify male athletes in the way magazines and commentators have traditionally done to female athletes is to subvert normative sexual politics and steal the gaze of mainstream sports media away from drooling straight men,” Cauterucci writes. “And apart from the raw sex appeal of a finely tuned physique, watching how a system of individual muscles accomplishes a seemingly inhuman feat of athleticism adds another layer of grandeur to any televised sporting event.”
Others say it’s all about history and context.
In sports, as in the workplace, men have been privileged, their athletic prowess not slighted in favor of commentary about their bodies. “When we objectify men, their economic and professional power isn’t reduced or threatened,” writes Daisy Buchanan in Marie Claire UK.
In an essay for the Guardian during the London Summer Olympics, Chloe George referenced a photographic experiment conducted by the publication Metro. While browsing Getty Images for photos of women’s beach volleyball, the publication realized each photo carried the same quality: butts.
And not just butts, but butts without heads, which George argued made the women’s bodies no longer strong, powerful machines to be admired for their athleticism but rather faceless sexual objects.
“This turns quickly from a state of admiration, sexual or otherwise, to objectification, a removal of someone’s story. …” George wrote. “It seems an antithesis of what the Olympics is about — the individual, their particular achievement.”
When Metro discovered this phenomenon, they applied the same artistic eye to photos of male athletes in a variety of Olympic events. George’s narration of the photos in her essay went like this: “There are their little bottoms; there are their broad shoulders; there is one bending over.”
Headless men mid-dive, mid-jump, mid-swing, mid-lunge, the emphasis entirely on their behinds and reproductive organs.
“Of course, men haven’t got a whole history of bodily oppression behind them, so the effect is sort of comical,” George wrote. “But it’s still unsettling.”
In her essay, George quotes a man who commented on the Metro photo gallery of men’s cropped bodies. He said: “‘You think the problem is that the general male audience objectifies these [female] athletes, not so, the problem is that the general female audience don’t objectify the men enough.'”
George disagreed, presenting the same argument made by actor Rob Lowe in a Vulture interview last year: Men don’t like being objectified either.
Then there’s the case for a kind of perverse parity.
After Cosmopolitan magazine found itself under fire in 2014, when they posted an Olympic bulge breakdown that drew criticism, it defended the compilation of not-safe-for-work images: “Athletes and performers’ bodies are their tools, so I’m not calling for everyone to suddenly stop judging them on their looks or physique. But it’s only fair that both sexes are objectified equally.”
And the case for plain old hypocrisy.
Critics descended upon Cosmo again this year, when it re-upped its NSFW tradition, Rio version: “36 Summer Olympic bulges that deserve gold.” Just two years earlier, though, the magazine published a story titled “Confirmed: Men who objectify women are effing horrible.” Readers online were quick to scorn, blasting out side-by-side photos of the opposing stories and lambasting the publication for what some perceived as a double standard.
Although its clear the Rio Olympics might be the year of the female athlete — 45 percent are women — with increased scrutiny and higher standards being placed on those responsible for analyzing the Games, 2016 may not be the year to fix the objectification of the world’s best athletes.
In a blunt way, the Daily Edge may have summarized the debate best: “Would it be acceptable if a men’s magazine published an article entitled Best Olympic Boobs? Absolutely not. Are male public figures objectified as much as their female counterparts? Not even close.
“… Is Cosmopolitan guilty of hypocrisy? Sure. But this is also a magazine that regularly publishes slideshows of celebs in bikinis, which is arguably much more tiresome/hypocritical for a publication that prides itself on being a feminist publication.
Just some food for thought.”
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