For years, women’s groups have complained about sexy SuperBowl ads. Yet, many are hailing this year’s game as a sign of progress. There were far fewer ads catering to the male gaze, and many new ones promoting women’s causes and scolding men for their moral shortcomings. Well, apparently, Sports Illustrated didn’t get the feminist memo. Just a few days after the SuperBowl, its annual swimsuit issue came out. Gender activists were not amused. Are they right to be offended?
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For years, women’s groups have complained about sexy SuperBowl ads. So many are hailing this year’s game as a sign of progress. There were far fewer ads catering to the male gaze, and many new ones promoting women’s causes and scolding men for their moral shortcomings. Well, apparently, Sports Illustrated didn’t get the feminist memo. Just a few days after the SuperBowl, its annual swimsuit issue came out. Gender activists were not amused. Are they right to be offended? That’s coming up next on the Factual Feminist. Now, I can understand why many parents would not want their kids to see this particular cover while waiting in grocery line. And there will be many religious and culturally conservative adults who will take offense. I for one hope that store owners find discreet ways of displaying it. But the gender activist critics are not arguing for public decorum. Instead, they consider it politically regressive for women to be treated as eye candy for men. Peggy Drexler, Cornell University psychologist, put it this way: “if the point isn’t to objectify women for the pleasure of the male gaze, why has no one created a counterpart magazine featuring a scantily dressed man?” Here is the Factual Feminist’s reply: For better or worse, popular culture is full of highly sexualized images of women—Consider a Beyonc? or Rihanna video. Or Cosmo. Scantily clad bodies are everywhere.But feminist critics are not objecting to women being sexy or underdressed.. It’s the male gaze that troubles them. Anyone who studied gender theory will probably have read about the evils of the “male gaze.” In 1975, a feminist theorist named Laura Mulvey published a paper that faulted conventional cinema for its “phallocentric” assumptions whereby men are active viewers, women are passive objects. In her words, “Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions…” Whatever. For the record, Gaze theory has no standing as social science. It has no hypotheses that can be tested. It’s a fanciful theory confined to gender studies programs. But graduates of those programs keep turning up in the media carrying on about the insidiousness of the male gaze. What about Drexler’s point that if sexy images were empowering, men would be posing for them too? Well, it’s been tried. There used to be a magazine called Playgirl that featured sexy men in erotic poses. It went broke. Its primary market turned out to be gay men. Women were far less interested. According to the Cambridge Women’s Pornography Cooperative, this is what works for women. Women seem to be less focused on sexualized imagery than gay and straight men. Gender activists mostly leave the gay gaze alone, but declare open season on straight guys. Well here is the Factual Feminist’s verdict: The rights and wrongs of mass media sexuality should be debated in terms of public manners—not of gender power and selective shaming. The frenzied policing of straight male sexuality is a dead end. Well, what do you think of the uplifting Super Bowl commercials? Do you think it would promote gender equity if Sports Illustrated went in for images of beefy guys in speedos and thongs? I welcome your comments. And if you like this series, please show your support by subscribing and following me on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you for watching the Factual Feminist.
What gender scholars get wrong about the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue
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