A Contradiction in Female Empowerment
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is scheduled to drop this February. Wait. Isn’t this the very definition of “tone deaf”? Visit Sports Illustrated’s website, and you’ll see the PR people have been working overtime to get the word out that this issue is about body diversity and inclusivity—and wow, even women are the photographers—so therefore all must be well and there should be no backlash.
(The photo represents sand that I won’t be rolling around on.)
The #MeToo Movement
The #MeToo movement started with a bang. Like a newborn calf, it’s found its legs, and the rest of us are all watching to see if it will continue to thrive in the world as a permanent change in the collective consciousness. We’ve heard terms in the media like “seismic shift,” which indicates that something has been forever changed. In some ways, it almost seems as though it has. But not so fast. For the #MeToo movement to really have a lasting impact, not only will abusers in power need to be held accountable, but our entire culture will need to rethink the objectification of women.
Whoa! Whaaat? That’s like demanding peace in the Middle East, right?
Exactly. It’s not an easy task, especially in a culture where half-naked women fill the pages of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue, which is considered a mainstream, not even porn, magazine; and the cheerleaders at the Super Bowl wear bikinis to cheer on the male football players, who by the way, are all wearing clothes.
The reason the #MeToo movement has such an uphill climb is because it’s easier to file lawsuits than to change minds.
#MeToo and the Media
Right now, we’re in this odd limbo period where women’s voices are actually being heard, and awards shows are struggling to strike the right tone. Do we wear black? Do we make pins? Yet in spite of the positive upheaval, we’re still living side by side with the continued, disturbing representations of women across all media channels. How do we reconcile this imagery with the goals of the #MeToo movement, to force our culture to view and treat women with respect, to treat us as human beings and not just bodies?
The viewers gazing at the models in the SI swimsuit issue do not care about the models as human beings with thoughts, opinions and aspirations. They are only bodies on a page. As Katherine Blakeman, Director of Communications at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, said in a recent column: “You can’t humanize something that is fundamentally dehumanizing.”
Why a Swimsuit Model Feels “Empowered”
Others will argue the opposite. In fact, it’s an ever-present drumbeat, like a mantra, that to get naked is to feel empowered and confident. (It’s funny how only women say this.) A Sports Illustrated swimsuit model said she feels insulted when she’s told she’s being objectified. She says, “I embrace my body and celebrate it, and for me that is what this issue represents. When I strip down and roll around in the sand, I’m not doing it for men, I’m doing it for me.” Many women, not just models, like to use that argument. But seriously, how is stripping down and rolling around in the sand empowering? Personally, I feel empowered just finding matching socks in the dryer. Maybe that’s just me.
Ask yourself this: Do men need to take off their clothes to feel empowered? No they don’t. And the reason why is at the heart of the #MeToo movement. Men are already accepted as fully realized human beings. They haven’t been bought and sold as sex objects for decades.
The SI model went on to say that what she does is what feminism is all about, that there should be equal opportunities for both genders, and that you have the right to show your ass in whatever magazine you want. I agree. But I’d argue for a more conscious feminism, a heightened awareness of the attitudes and assumptions you’re perpetuating when you choose one magazine over another. If your casting call involves stripping down and spinning around for another person, that would be a red flag on the objectification meter for me.
A Larger Problem
Sports Illustrated is only one part of the larger problem. But it’s an example of a widely accepted offender, and even morning shows gloss over its sexist implications. SI and other forms of media only create more obstacles for the #MeToo movement to continue to succeed.
Before #MeToo, there was the struggle for women to be taken seriously. If there was a claim of rape or harassment, there was the culture of “women as sex objects” informing the response to these women. Appalling questions, like what was she wearing, dominated the discussion. If women are going to be truly equal players in this society, we have to lose the objectifying imagery and stop normalizing it or derailing the discussion with stories about how great it is that plus-sized models are now being asked to strip off their clothes.
This isn’t okay.
And let’s be absolutely clear. If the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue was truly about diversity, there would be nearly nude male models in it. The fact that there aren’t proves the point that it is, and always has been, a sexist endeavor.
How Can We Keep the #MeToo Movement Strong?
Let’s remember what the #MeToo movement is trying to accomplish. How can we expect, as women, to be respected if we allow male-dominated industries to continually use our bodies for profit?
Harassers and rapists have derailed careers—and lives—of women for decades by abusing our bodies. So I must again agree with Katherine Blakeman, that it takes “mental gymnastics” to juxtapose images of practically nude women rolling around on their backs on the beach with a newfound respect for women as human beings in our society, worthy of opportunities at work and equal pay. Yep, I see the connection as easily as I can interpret abstract paintings.
The bottom line: We have to be careful not to be short-sighted, not to blow up a movement that, by its very existence, is empowering. We have to remember that Harvey Weinstein isn’t the only threat to women’s advancement in careers and in life. Objectifying imagery is toxic to women’s advancement. Don’t forget that.
(Please keep it nice. Only civil comments will be published. )