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Happiness is a Cold, Plastic Doll: the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue

February 27, 2014, 12:11 pm

rs_634x845-140213110818-634.sports-illustrated-barbie-swimsuit-021314It’s that time of year again: shaved pubes, barely (or not at all) hidden nipples, salt-stiffened wind-blown hair, pouty lips — that’s right, it’s the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, now celebrating its 50th Anniversary. And Barbie is on the cover.

I never knew about this phenomenon until I went to college (that would be Yale University, winter 1977.) All of a sudden, one day in the dining hall, there were gaggles of young men reading the thing (reading would be one way of putting it, I guess.) Women were supposed to pretend that a tits and ass festival was all in good fun, just like they were the following year when Playboy showed up to shoot “Girls of the Ivy League.”

My initial response upon seeing the Swimsuit Issue for the first time was puzzlement. I had no brothers, I went to an all-girls secondary school — so I had never seen one and couldn’t figure out the genre. Was it porn? Not exactly: I had seen porn, soft and hard-core. I  knew that most people didn’t walk around in public sharing their porn with anyone who happened to be in the same space. In 1977, in the ‘burbs, if you stayed out of porn’s way, it pretty much stayed out of yours.

However, the Swimsuit Issue wasn’t not porn, because everything was exposed except, as Monty Python would say, the “naughty bits.” And the women were definitely chosen for their porny qualities. No model was included who didn’t have (as they used to say back in the 1970s) a “great rack,”  or was not able to spread her legs, tip her butt up alluringly for potential rear entry, or cock her head back in that time-honored fashion that says, “Come and get it, Buster Brown.”

But like those who reject changing the name of the Washington Football Team, the swimsuit issue is spoken of as a tradition. Hence it is harmless, right? Wrong. The swimsuit issue is the porn that gets circulated in public, as if it were not really porn, which to me – makes it more sexist than the tabletop magazines that just say brightly: “we’re all about porn!” It’s the porn that gets delivered at the office, and it’s the porn that people think it’s ok for little boys to have, like the Charlie’s Angels and Farrah Fawcett posters that were so popular back in the day, because it helps them not grow up to be fags.

I have always thought that if the men in charge really cared about eliminating misogyny in sports (which they don’t) and by this I mean misogyny that leads to the ill-treatment of women and other men, they would begin by organizing to get rid of the swimsuit issue. They could then move to getting rid of the poorly paid (or unpaid) boobie girls working on the NFL sidelines (HT.) Neither women in bikinis or women dancing on the sidelines has anything to do with sports, but they both have a great deal to do with marking out athletics as the property of heterosexual men.

So needless to say I was happy to see an article at TVMix.com by my old pal MG Lord, the author of a legendary book about Barbie, about the doll’s appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  At 55, Lord notes, Barbie has achieved a notable milestone among Boomer broads: “the most sexist louts on earth have chosen to brand her ancient, half-clad plastic as ‘hot.’” Lord continues: “Technically, I suppose, Barbie is not a woman, but a woman-like thing — which doesn’t, in my view, make her different from the other heavily photoshopped human-like things on display in Sports Illustrated.”

Rock on. In some ways, as Lord points out, by posing at SI, Barbie is revisiting her slutty Cold War past as a German sex souvenir prior to 1959, when launched a new career as a bestselling Mattel toy  and enforcer of compulsory heterosexuality in the United States. But let me take it a step further here: what does it say to contemporary kids, mostly girl kids, for whom Barbie is a pre-puberty toy, to make her a sexy cover girl posing for jocks?  And what does it say about the sports industry in the United States that this national magazine still publishes an annual issue that, over forty years after Title IX was passed and equality in athletics was affirmed to be part of that, in which women are served up as treats for male athletes and sports fans?

I realize these are all rhetorical questions, so let’s open the floor: #discuss #feminists.

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