Sports Illustrated Has a Woman Problem

The magazine's decision to use Barbie as a cover girl is troubling.

Barbie Doll attends the Barbie and Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 50th anniversary celebration of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit legends.

This isn't sports.

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Female athletes have displayed impressive feats at the 2014 Winter Olympics, whether it’s a breath-taking performance by snowboarding slopestyler Jamie Anderson, stunning young talent shown by several teenage figure skaters, or the (grumble, grumble) gold-grabbing fortitude of the Canadian women’s hockey team, which came back from a 2-0 deficit with just three minutes left in the game to best the (almost) equally impressive US women’s team.

What better way, then, for the nation’s premier sports magazine to mark those accomplishments than by running its 50th soft-core porn edition of women in barely-there bathing suits?

Sports Illustrated just can’t let go of the offensive and archaic swimsuit edition, a cutesy and pathetic effort to pretend that it’s really about sports, since the women (oops, girls, as they are called) are technically in clothing one might wear to the beach. Well, one might wear such suits to the beach if one were a pole-dancer or just an exhibitionist. And there’s nothing really wrong with being a pole dancer or exhibitionist. It’s just not sports.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the 2014 Sochi Olympics.]

But there it is, right in the middle of the Olympics, aggravating the insult (could they not at least wait until the once-every-four-years competition is over?), an alleged sports magazine featuring three nearly-naked women on the cover. And inside, there is a photo of the doll Barbie in a one-piece suit.

The use of Barbie (who, being mute and inanimate, presumably could not object) is particularly galling – not because Barbie and the swimsuit issue present some idealized version of the female body, but because Barbie is so much more than that. We have Pet Doctor Barbie, Presidential Candidate Barbie, Astronaut Barbie. Barbie long ago became more than a fashion plate. Yes, even Barbie, with her vacant stare and perpetual smile, is more evolved than the living and breathing editors of Sports Illustrated.

The problem is not that the issue, with air-brushed photos of models with lovely figures, presents an unattainable physical ideal for women and girls. That whipped-up concern is almost as patronizing as the magazine edition itself, since it’s based on the presumption that women are all a bunch of neurotically insecure creatures who live for nothing more than making themselves attractive to men. So what if the pictures are airbrushed? Unless the figure is a political candidate, images are often photo-shopped. So what if the women aren’t typical? The men in the magazine aren’t typical, either. Why should we assume that photos of professional models will make females dissolve into a tragic puddle of tears? Do men, upon seeing Sports Illustrated photos of professional basketball players, collapse into depression because they know they will never have the height, physical fitness or athletic talent of the male icons in the pages of the magazine? It’s insulting that Sports Illustrated, in the middle of the Olympics, wants to convince us that women’s contribution to sports is posing in tiny bathing suits. It’s an added insult to presume women share that value system.

[Read: "The Feminist Argument Sports Illustrated Swim Suit Barbie Is Trying to Make."]

Ah, but the mostly-male readership of Sports Illustrated likes the issue, we are told. Market excuses are just that – an excuse. There’s a market for kiddie porn, and a market for heroin. That doesn’t make either one right. Or, if one wants to take legality out of it, consider this: there is surely, and horrifyingly, a market for a magazine that would present racist images of the president and other African-American leaders (there already are such appallingly racist images on the Internet, including one of the first family as primates emailed by a local California GOP official with the comment, “now you know why no birth certificate”). But such a magazine issue would be considered outrageously offensive and not done. The “we’re-just-giving-readers-what-they-want” argument wouldn’t hold water.

If the editors of Sports Illustrated want to publish soft-core porn, then just do it. Just don’t pretend you’re publishing a magazine about athletics. Women compete – on the slopes, in the skating arena, in politics and in business. Sports Illustrated, of all magazines, should understand that. Unfortunately, the magazine editors seem to believe women should compete not for medals, but for men.