Tag Archives: essay

Sexist Gnomes in Fable III (Yes, I’m Serious)

I first encountered the Fable game series during my freshman year of college. I binge-played the first game, spending long spans of time at my then-boyfriend’s house over my school’s winter break until I had played the game from start to finish. I was enthralled. I loved the elaborate world, the mini-games, and the balance between story and action. I loved helping a stranger with some odd task and then having to fight a horde of enemies, constantly switching between my magically augmented crossbow and longsword. I loved that every decision you made affected your character and the subsequent gameplay.

Now I’m all grown up (ha!) and semi-recently played the third installment of the Fable game series. The game was released in 2010, but I didn’t have a chance to play it then. When my boyfriend and I picked Fable III up from a local GameStop, I was stoked. I was excited to become addicted. I was especially excited because I knew that this game (along with Fable II) allowed you to choose whether you wanted to play as a man or a woman. This change from traditional male-focused action-RPG represents a step forward in my eyes. A kind of invitation to gamers out there who are girls and women, and the opportunity for a greater sense of inclusion. I was also nervous about this change. Since becoming more aware and well-versed in feminist ideas, I tend to approach video games with caution (and, admittedly, a little resentment). It’s not news to anyone that women have not always been treated with much respect when it comes to video games–both on the screen and in the gaming community. In all honesty, when I started playing Fable III, I was waiting for something to go wrong, but I found myself pleasantly surprised. At the start anyway.

There are a lot of things that Fable III does right. I liked that the princess you get to play as was tall and had a sturdier build than the runway-model-figure I had expected. I liked that you encounter characters of varying race whether you found yourself amongst nobility or the industrial workers. I liked that the fact that my character was a woman was hardly commented on throughout the first part of the game.

Woman Hero

I was aware that Fable III has received a great deal of flack for simply being a “bad game,” and I had my fair share of complaints while playing. But, overall, I was really enjoying the game as I played, and I was pleased I hadn’t encountered the sexism I had been bracing myself for. I played for hours, and my biggest complaint was a single scene in which some character fetishized a kiss between the female hero and a cardboard princess she saved in a mini-game (which is a topic for another day). For the most part, I was satisfied with the way the female hero option had been treated. I was actually telling my friends how happy I was that I could simply be a badass princess-hero saving Albion without being made to feel weird about my gender at all. 

And then I heard it.

“Look, it’s the lady hero. You’re not going to drone on about equal pay for equal work, are you?”

I froze. What? I was sure I had misheard somehow.

“Are you lost, milady? I can direct you to the nearest kitchen.” 

Nope. I was definitely not hearing things. Fable III, kiss my praise goodbye. You just pissed off a different kind of warrior.

Let me give you some background here. Within the overarching storyline of the game, there are dozens of quests you can undertake to earn rewards. These quests can be as small and simple as taking an item from one town to the next, or they can be more elaborate, involving multiple trips or battles. In one quest, you are to help a man whose collection of gnome figurines have turned evil and escaped from his gnome garden. The gnomes are scattered throughout the fictional land of Albion. When you find one, you’re to hit it with some kind of weapon, which makes that gnome magically disappear from that spot and return to the gnome garden. These gnomes are hidden in all kinds of places, often high off the ground where you would never usually look. To find them, you follow their voices as they speak. As you follow the voice, it becomes louder as you draw closer, acting as a way to help find them. The big gimmick of these evil gnomes is that they don’t just speak–they insult you. You’ll be walking down a street and amidst the chatter of the townspeople you’ll hear “You know what I like about most people? THEY DIE.”

Evil Gnome1

Evil Gnome2

(Images from http://xbox360.gamespy.com/xbox-360/fable-iii/guide/page_29.html) 

At first, it was funny. The gnomes were obnoxious, sure. But they were meant to be annoying and evil, so the insults fit. Plus, the prize for returning them all to the gnome garden was a hefty one. But my willingness to put up with the gnomes only lasted until I started hearing the gender-specific comments that took me completely by surprise.

Here is a comprehensive list of the comments specifically aimed at woman heroes made by the gnomes. If you play as a man hero, these comments don’t exist.

  • “You’re going to make someone very lucky… If he likes UGLY BIRDS with no PERSONALITY!
  • “You remind me of my mother. SHE WAS FAT AND UGLY TOO!
  • “You really got your father’s looks. Eww.”
  • “Are you lost, milady? I can direct you to the nearest kitchen.”
  • “Well well, a young lady. Make yourself useful and get me a cup of TEA!
  • “There are a lot of problems in the world. It’s going to take one big, strong MAN to fix them.”
  • “Look, it’s the lady hero. You’re not going to drone on about equal pay for equal work, are you?”
  • “Good afternoon, milady. How about you come over here, and show me the GOODS!” 

Wow. There are A LOT of problems here. If there’s a tired, old, stereotypical insult to touch on, they’ve done it. Let’s break it down.

“You’re going to make someone very lucky… If he likes UGLY BIRDS with no PERSONALITY!

“You remind me of my mother. SHE WAS FAT AND UGLY TOO!

“You really got your father’s looks. Eww.”

These three quotes may appear to be the most harmless out of the lot. For now, I’m not even going to touch on the fat shaming bit (although in my research on this part of the game, I’ve learned that the gnomes have an additional group of insults for heroes who have become “fat” over the course of the game from having eaten certain foods). The last of these three comments is also specifically looking to punish for a lack of adherence to traditional ideals of “feminine” beauty (and one could definitely argue some blatant transphobia is at play here). But the issue I’d like to focus on is that the spirit of each of these three comments is an accusation of ugliness. So what’s the problem? Men get insulted by being called ugly too, right? Well, yes, but the idea tends to hold a different kind of power on the women’s side of things. Women are told over and over, consciously and subconsciously, that their appearance is one of their most important attributes–it is their main source of worth and value. So yes, while men are insulted by being called ugly too, this accusation has a much deeper-rooted affect and history for women that must be considered. The first of these comments also plays the “you’ll never find a man” card, which is another tired insult used to not only make women feel undesirable, but also to reinforce the idea that finding a man should be a top priority for a woman.

“Are you lost, milady? I can direct you to the nearest kitchen.”

“Well well, a young lady. Make yourself useful and get me a cup of TEA!

Both of these comments lazily use the “learn your place as a woman” idea that’s been inducing rage in my life ever since I can remember. These comments send a clear message: women shouldn’t be out leading a life of adventure and political action–they should be at home, bound by crippling stereotypes about gender roles!

“There are a lot of problems in the world. It’s going to take one big, strong MAN to fix them.” 

Nothing clever about this one. Just the straightforward idea that women are inferior to men in their ability to take effective action and make a difference.

“Look, it’s the lady hero. You’re not going to drone on about equal pay for equal work, are you?”

I must say that I found this one especially irritating. It irks me in a different way than the others. All of these comments are meant to get your attention and annoy you. This one really gets at me because I feel like it was designed to target people just like me: women playing video games who care about feminist issues. So good job. You’ve called me out and belittled my ideals. What this comment is really saying is “Shut up about your feminist ideas because no one wants to hear it.” Are you sure this game is supposed to be fun?

“Good afternoon, milady. How about you come over here, and show me the GOODS!”

Ah, yes. The collection simply wouldn’t be complete without some kind of inappropriate sexual comment that would reduce the female character to nothing more than a objectified body there for the pleasure of a man.

So yeah. I was pissed. All I wanted to do was enjoy a fun video game, and my fun was being stomped on by these stupid gnomes. I felt unwelcome. I felt unfairly targeted. I felt like I was being made to feel bad for being a woman in a world that didn’t belong to me. And no, it didn’t feel like a good-humored joke.

Furthermore, these comments made me feel legitimately uncomfortable. I started to dread encountering the gnomes. When approaching an area where I knew one was hiding, I would start to feel anxious and wonder if there was a way to go around the area. It occurred to me that it actually felt like street harassment. Unwanted comments specific to my gender that gave me that awful pit-of-darkness feeling in my stomach and made all of my muscles tense up. And it wasn’t always easy to remedy the issue by poofing the gnome and sending it back to the garden. I would spend minutes that felt like hours searching a certain wooded area for a gnome I couldn’t for the life of me find while it harassed me facelessly only to give up and run off to leave the gnome and his banter behind. I wished I could turn the quest off somehow and forgo the whole task and its prize, but I couldn’t. I was stuck having to have offensive remarks hurled at me unexpectedly while trying to go about whatever other business I was working on. I felt genuinely upset. I started looking up their exact locations online when I heard one nearby so as to dispose of them as swiftly as possible and save myself the rage and annoyance. 

Evil Gnome

(Original image from http://fable.wikia.com/wiki/Gnomes)

But aren’t these comments coming from characters we all are acknowledging as evil? I know a lot of you are thinking it. Sit tight because I’m going to get to that question in a second.

First, what about the men? Once I realized the gnomes were spitting out gender-specific insults, I immediately wondered what players using the man hero experienced. I was being made fun of for being a woman. Were the men being made fun of for being men?

Of course not. In fact, every single comment from a gnome that is directed specifically at a man hero uses the weapon of perceived/stereotypical femininity (or the lacking of masculinity) to insult him. Every. Single. One. Don’t believe me? Have a look:

  • “The ladies must really love you. You could share makeup tips and trade shoes!
  • “You look familiar. Oh yeah, I remember: you look like this girlie I used to shag!”
  • “Look at those rippling muscles, those broad shoulders, that squared jaw… You are one weird looking lady!
  • “I can tell you where there’s a nice big chest of gold coins… You can use them to buy yourself some new handbags!”
  • “You really got your mother’s looks. Eww.”
  • “Blue is a nice colour for you. You should pick out a nice blue DRESS!
  • “You certainly are a big, strong hero…for a lady.”
  • “The world needs a big, strong man to put things right… you know any, milady?”
  • “For my money, men make the best heroes. Present company excepted, of course.”

The first six comments all exploit the same idea: the hero is being labeled as feminine in some way and thus should feel tremendously insulted. This is a problem, though not a new one. People have been insulting men in the form of calling them womanly for ages, and I am certainly not the first to have spoken out regarding the problematic nature of this device. I remember encountering this idea in Jessica Valenti’s book Full Frontal Feminism:

“What’s the worst possible thing you can call a woman? Don’t hold back now.

You’re probably thinking of words like slut, whore, bitch, cunt (I told you not to hold back!), skank.

Okay, now, what are the worst things you can call a guy? Fag, girl, bitch pussy. I’ve even heard the term ‘mangina.’ 

Notice anything? The worst thing you can call a girl is a girl. The worst thing you can call a guy is a girl. Being a woman is the ultimate insult. Now tell me that’s not royally fucked up.”

We see this go-to insult everywhere from sitcoms to playground bullying. If you’re whining or perceived as weak, you’re called out as a girl and are meant to feel terrible about it.

I won’t break down the offensive nature of each comment, but I’ll sum up the two main problems running wild through the list. 1.) The traditionally feminine is used as an insult, implying that anything related to women in badbadbad. 2.) The idea of the inferiority of women is perpetuated by telling us that women are simply weaker and men are needed to fix real problems.

These comments also reinforce the very strict gender binary we are force-fed in our society. We’re told you’re either a man or a woman (and we’re usually told you must be born that way). And that’s that. This completely erases the communities of people who don’t conform to this supposed norm. This is an issue not just in this specific instance, but in video games in general. While including women as playable characters is a step forward, we are still greatly lacking in representation of anyone who doesn’t fall into the extremely traditional and limiting man or woman categories.

So, the big question remains: why do I find this so upsetting? First of all, it’s a small part of the game, right? What’s the big deal? Second of all, these are characters are portrayed as evil, so it shouldn’t be a problem that they are saying offensive things–they are MEANT to be offensive!

The problem with that latter argument is that you aren’t meant to be genuinely offended–you are meant to laugh. Do you really think that they wrote and recorded these comments thinking “Gee, this will really expose the idea that these kinds of offensive comments come from evil people and are wholly unacceptable.” Of course not! They were created to exist in that sticky “offensive but funny” vein of humor. In that way, these offensive comments and the ideas they represent and perpetuate are actually being associated with something positive (hello, retro sexism!). The truth is, the dark and harmful stereotypes lurking behind these ideas aren’t funny–they are the roots of the oppression that people face in their everyday life all over the world. We live in a time where people say that gender equality is completely logical and then turn around and undermine those ideas by trying to pass off stupid sexist jokes and ideas as “funny.” Well, I’m not laughing. 

Additionally, the creators of Fable III made a CHOICE to include this type of humor. I get that the point of the gnomes is to insult the hero, and that’s fine. But they could have easily made all the gnome comments gender-neutral, using the same ammo against every hero, regardless of the chosen gender. But they didn’t do that. They CHOSE to employ sexist insults that target women in a severely problematic way. Even worse, they bash women in BOTH sets of comments. Whether you’re playing as the prince or the princess, you are going to be bombarded with comments that remind you that WOMEN ARE INFERIOR. And you are either condemned for being one or insulted by being compared to one. The truth is, there was NO REASON for the creators to include gender-specific comments that lean so heavily towards misogyny. So, why did they do it? Seriously, why? If you can answer that question with a response that doesn’t point to harmful sexism, I’ll be very surprised.

And lastly, why should I be getting so worked up over something that is such a small part of the game? I would first argue that this part of the game is not that small. While it is a secondary quest to the main storyline, it is one of the few that extends over an extremely long period of time. Did I mention that there are FIFTY gnomes in total? That’s quite a few, all scattered throughout a large world. Basically, this quest hangs over your head for the majority of the game, and you could be verbally assaulted by one of these gnomes at any time. For being a minor task in the game, these gnomes are present over an awfully long period of time, making this quest and their harassment feel like more than just a small part of the game.

Gnomes

(Image from http://www.trueachievements.com/gamerblogcomment.aspx?gamerblogid=51871)

Moreover, small parts of anything still warrant conversation. A problem is a problem, no matter how small. Pointing out issues like this gets people talking and thinking about the much deeper dynamics at play. Am I out to start a riot or a boycott? No. Am I so outraged by this misstep that I’m going to stop supporting the game series altogether? No. I still appreciate the Fable series for the good it has done, but that doesn’t mean I can’t call it out for messing up too. I offer a nod to Anita Sarkeesian, who often points out in her videos that “it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects.” When it comes to stamping out sexism in pop culture, I truly believe, like many others, that we shouldn’t settle for “good enough.” Yes, we can appreciate the progress that’s being made and celebrate it, but we should still keep a critical eye on the problems that are still occurring over and over again–or else these things will never change.

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Sexism Laid Bare in ESPN’s Body Issue

The following is an essay I wrote during October of 2011. It inspired me to start this blog (later than expected, but still). You can read a little more about this in my initial post.

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Okay.

I have something to say about the 2011 ESPN Body Issue. And believe it or not, I’m not raising protest decrying the—gasp!—nudity. I get it—the nudity plays a part in the way this project achieves its goal. It’s actually done really tastefully. What I’m after is more complex and less obvious.

I was led to believe this project was meant to be a celebration of the athletic body. I thought that was great—athletes use their bodies fiercely, with a dedication and power that deserves to be celebrated (I could also say something about how these lean and pleasing-to-society bodies may not be the ones really in need of some celebration, but that’s another story…). I came to the photo collection with an open mind, but was disappointed to find that gender was playing a role I didn’t think had a place in the project. Not only that, but the women were getting the questionable end of things. So, of course, I was immediately compelled to open my mouth.

Let me make something clear right off the bat: I know very little about sports. The only sport I’ve ever played seriously is roller derby. The only sport I’ve ever watched seriously is hockey. And, in both of those realms, I’m still learning. So I came at this year’s Body Issue with a relatively clean slate. The only reason I was looking at it at all was because I knew Suzy Hotrod was being featured, and the derby world was abuzz with talk of how this is a sign that roller derby is getting closer to being recognized as a “real sport” by the general public. Suzy Hotrod’s photo started popping up on my Facebook feed after some of my derby friends posted it. The picture was so badass! Dyed hair flying, tattoos in a vivid rainbow of colors, sculpted muscles. My biggest complaint was that the pristine state of her skates gave away that they had clearly never seen any track time. That aside, it was awesome. I was actually excited to see the other pictures.

Some disclaimers: Since I first heard about ESPN’s annual Body Issue, I was entirely skeptical that this was merely a “celebration of the athletic body.” Please. Because it’s definitely not because people will rush out and buy pictures of naked good-looking people. Of course not. Sarcasm aside, I do believe that the bottom line is sales. But for the sake of this analysis, I’m (mostly) putting that aside to scrutinize the project in and of itself.

Before I dive in, I want to just note that I’m making this analysis off of the collection of images entitled “The Bodies We Want,” found on the ESPN website. While I first saw these photos online, I went to the library to get my hands on an actual copy of the magazine to see what the differences were. The gallery in the magazine is nearly identical to the one ESPN has on their website save for few photos not included in one or the other. Since they are practically the same, I will be making my analysis specifically of the gallery on the website. The spread includes twenty-four photos featuring twenty-two athletes. It should also be noted that I am basing this analysis on the images only, not the content surrounding them in the magazine (mostly little blurbs quoting the athletes). The project’s main component is the spread of images, and, let’s face it, that’s what people are buying—not the bits of text accompanying them.

Let’s start with the basics. Don’t think I didn’t notice the man/woman ratio. That’s right, ESPN—you’re not fooling me. You see, there is actually an equal number of men and women featured in the spread. “But that’s perfect!” I hear you say. “Equality and all that awesome stuff you feminists are always after!” Yes. Well. About that. I find it incredibly suspicious that the only time equal attention is given to the gals is when they happen to not be wearing any clothes. Hm. On any other day, women athletes are drowned out from ESPN and other sports networks/sites. Women’s sports generally just make tiny headlines in those hard-to-reach and little-seen places on sports-news websites. So, pardon me for being a little irritated when nudity is the only thing that can get the ladies equal face-time.

But, okay, let’s be real. Who’s surprised? We all know the sports world revolves around men. Of course the female athletes are going to be thrown unprecedented attention when they take their clothes off! After all, who is ESPN targeting with the Body Issue? Who makes up the majority of their audience? Men. Men who want to watch men play sports but see the ladies in their birthday suits. As a selling strategy, I get it. I hate it, but I get it.

There’s more to it than the ratio that’s making me raise an eyebrow. It’s the nature of the pictures that’s got me rather bothered. Don’t get me wrong—most of the photos are incredible.  They showcase many of these athletes in very empowering and interesting ways. But a few of these photos slip far below those standards and put into question the purpose of this project. And just because the majority is on the right track doesn’t mean that we should surpass pointing out the flaws and what those flaws are saying to the viewer.

I’m going to break this down. Each of these photos is operating in two different categories for me—agency and information. When I look at these photos, I ask myself two things: 1.) What kind of agency is this person portrayed as having? Or, does this person appear active or passive in their environment? And 2.) Does this picture communicate any information to me about this person’s athletic life?

These questions are important because they help me to scrutinize the validity of this project’s supposed purpose.  If we’re celebrating the power and capabilities of the athletic body, why would we do anything but portray them actively to fully showcase that? Also, if we’re not informing the viewer of the person’s actual athletic activity, then are we really paying proper homage to the sport that person dedicate his/her life to? Without that kind of context being included in the photograph, the pictures can be reduced to nothing more than a tasteful nude portrayal of some individual. Hopefully these key points will be made clearer as I go on.

Fortunately, most of the photos fall into the best of both worlds—they show the athlete in an active and powerful fashion while also including the context of what kind of athlete this person is. My favorite photo—and I’m obviously bias—is the one of Suzy Hotrod. Not only is she shown in an exciting action-pose, but we know what she does! Even if you’re not all that familiar with roller derby, you know she skates.

Derby Girl Suzy Hotrod (photo by Peter Hapak)

Apolo Ohno’s photos are also pretty incredible. They showcase his athleticism while staying relevant to his sport—you can tell he’s a skater and he’s not even wearing skates! These photos are amazing even out of context.

Speed Skater Apolo Ohno (photo by Francesco Carrozzini)

The reason it is important for us to associate the pictured athlete with his or her sport is because that sport is central to the celebration of that person’s athleticism. Without that kind of function, the purpose of the whole project gets fuzzy—are we here to showcase the athletes and the sports they love or are we just looking at naked people? It also could be construed that they are representing their sport in a way. Suzy Hotrod is not just some naked rollergirl doing a photo-shoot—she is seen as being part of a step forward for the whole derby world!

Many of the other featured athletes also fall into this category of being shown as active while simultaneously informing the viewer. The photos of mixed martial artist Jon “Bones” Jones, artistic gymnast Alicia Sacramone, and long distance runner Ryan Hall are a few more of my favorites. Other photos that fall into this category are those of basketball player Blake Griffin, track and field Paralympic athlete Jeremy Campbell, sprint athlete Natasha Hastings, bowler Kelly Kulick, and boxer Sergio Martínez. I consider all the above listed photos to be the most successful in carrying out what this project claims to be about. Congratulations, ESPN—about half of your photos pass the test one-hundred percent!

Artistic Gymnast Alicia Sacramone (photo by Francesco Carrozzini)

The next photos I’ll discuss try for the mark, but miss in a small way. These athletes are shown as active, but it is unclear what kind of athlete they are. Take Julie Chu’s photo as an example. She is clearly engaged in activity, and it’s relevant to her role as an athlete, but fails to inform the viewer in any way that Chu is an ice hockey player. Louie Vito’s photos are also incredibly active, but fall short in the same way. Also in this category is football player Steven Jackson—while appearing less active than the two previously mentioned athletes, he is still engaged in some sort of movement.

Snowboarder Louie Vito (photo by Peter Hapak)

The photo of Sylvia Fowles is murky as well. I gave this one an “active” rating because, even though she doesn’t appear to be necessarily moving, she’s clearly engaging her body in the activity (you hold that plank, girl!). However, there is absolutely nothing about this photo that hints at basketball being the thing she spends her life playing. They didn’t even go for a neutral setting on this one. They just flat out chose to photograph her in a fashion completely irrelevant to her sport. I can’t pass up mentioning that there’s a vaguely questionable racial thing going on here, but I’ll leave that for someone else to analyze.

Basketball Player Sylvia Fowles (photo by Jeff Riedel)

The photo of Hélio Castroneves falls into this category as well, but in an incredibly amusing sort of way. His position is active—not the most powerful, by any means, but at least he’s engaged in some kind of activity in which he has agency. At first glance, this photo seems completely irrelevant to sports, and you’re just stuck wondering what the hell a grown man is doing on a tire swing. And then the punch line hits you. He’s an auto-racing driver! And he’s in a tire-swing! Oh, ESPN—you and your sneaky sense of humor. What a knee-slapper!

Auto-Racing Driver Hélio Castroneves (photo by Luis Sanchis)

There are some photos in the collection that are difficult to categorize. Take, for example, the photo of baseball player José Reyes. This photo doesn’t indicate what sport he might play and is not even particularly active. However, there is at least a kind of power to his stance. Even if he’s not engaged in any kind of movement, it appears a stance of readiness more than passivity.

The photo of Ryan Kesler receives a similar assessment—his position doesn’t really fall into either the active or passive category. However, the photo also does a good job of highlighting his muscles (arms, abs legs). That in combination with his active attention in the photo lend him a relatively powerful appearance. I also rated this photo as being completely irrelevant to his role as an athlete. Until I realized he was a hockey player. And he’s leaning on ice! Oh, man, you guys got me again!

Ice-Hockey Player Ryan Kesler (photo by Alex Cayley)

Gretchen Bleiler falls into this category as well, but only at the bottom of it. I scored her position as neutral, but, unlike the photos of Reyes and Kesler, snowboarder Bleiler’s body doesn’t seem to be particular engaged at all. The showcasing of her abs is pretty incredible (wow), but that’s the only thing that ties this photo into the supposed mission of the Body Issue. The condition of her body (and not what she’s doing with it) informs us of her athleticism. I was pretty lenient with this photo.

Snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler (photo by Frencesco Carrozzini)

Now we get to the fun part. These next four photos are the ones that I deem as failing miserably to even kind of pretend that the aim is to showcase the athletic form. And—surprise!—they’re all photos of women.

Take, for example, this photo of golfer Belen Mozo. When I first saw this picture, I thought I may have clicked past the Body Issue gallery and into something else—something more along the lines of generic pictures of naked women taken solely to please or entice the male gaze. But no. Apparently this picture’s aim is to celebrate the power and grace of the athletic form. Right. Her position is entirely passive and there is absolutely nothing about this photo that informs the viewer that she plays golf (or any sport at all). The photo seemed so out of place to me—instead of marveling over how being an athlete has turned her body into a powerful thing (as I did with many of the gallery’s other photos), I’m getting the feeling someone is about to try to sell me alcohol or an exotic vacation. But I guess it could be worse, right?

Golfer Belen Mozo (photo by Jeff Riedel)

Absolutely. When I saw this picture of Stephanie Gilmore, my WTF alarm went off in an instant. She’s lying down which is about as passive as you can get while still staying tasteful. There’s a little bit of muscle definition going on in her left leg, but come on, that’s not enough to cover up that this is nothing more than excuse to ogle an attractive woman lounging about completely nude. Yeah. Definitely sensing the celebration here. Oh, but it’s okay, see? Because she’s on a beach chair, and I guess all those pebbles could be a beach! Get it?! Because she’s a surfer! ESPN’s cleverness has outdone me yet again.

Surfer Stephanie Gilmore (photo by Luis Sanchis)

The photo of tennis player Vera Zvonareva falls into a similar category of WTF. Her position in the photo is incredibly passive and nothing in this photo has anything to do with the sport she plays or athleticism at all. They didn’t even try to stretch for setting here by laying her down on a tennis court or anything. There’ also something about this photo that weirds me out more than the one of Gilmore. Maybe it’s because Gilmore at least looks happy. Zvonareva, on the other hand, looks like she’s been disturbed from her repose, and she looks much less than pleased. There is just something creepy about feeling as if a lounging naked woman has just been snuck up on. Other than the fact that the person in this photo happens to be an athlete, I don’t see how this picture holds any kind of connection to the supposed purpose of the Body Issue.

Tennis Player Vera Zvonareva (photo by Alex Cayley)

And then there’s Hope Solo with a WTF rating off the charts. I actually was lenient enough to give her an “active” rating, but seriously?! To say this photo puzzles me is an understatement. Does anyone else get the feeling that this is meant to be some kind of bizarre suburban fantasy being enacted for upper middle class men everywhere? She’s a soccer player, for goodness sake! What does this photo have to do with anything? I mean, there’s, um, grass in soccer, I guess. And there’s definitely some forearm strength evident in the photo. Overall, though, this photo is painfully irrelevant. And more than a little strange.

Soccer Player Hope Solo (photo by Luis Sanchis)

Alright, so why am I making such a big fuss? It’s just a few sexy pictures, right? What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that even if the majority of photos in this collection are respectful representations of athletes and their bodies, these outliers are making come pretty sketchy statements about gender.

One of the reasons I like the idea of women being involved in the Body Issue is that I think that female athletes have a lot of power to challenge our society’s very limited view of female beauty. As women, we are told both overtly and subconsciously that we are only beautiful if we fit a very specific (and rare) body type—thin, youthful, big-busted, and usually white. A woman with defined muscles is often squeezed out of this idea of beauty. While our society has started to come around to the idea of women having powerful bodies, it still shies away from the extremes. We are told that women are supposed to be lithe and skinny (but with curves in the right places), and men are the ones who are attractive when they’re chiseled. I’ve heard people be honest-to-goodness grossed out when they see a woman who is incredibly muscular. Or, if they aren’t shunned for being “gross,” women with defined muscles are often just written off as being “manly.” There is a serious disconnect between the potential power of the female body and our society’s beauty ideal. But does there have to be? Why can’t we celebrate what our bodies are capable of doing instead of focusing so much on how they look?

I found the Body Issue so disappointing because while most of the photos of female athletes did a great job showcasing the power of their bodies, some of them fell embarrassingly short. Instead of the Body Issue taking a step forward by showing how beauty, power, and athleticism can work hand-in-hand, it undermines itself by falling back on these very old and tired stereotypes of beauty and sexiness.

My biggest problem with this is that it is gender specific. They didn’t take the men to the photo-shoot and say, “Gee, how can we make them look the prettiest?” They were probably brainstorming shots that would be the coolest, most powerful, and most exciting. For the ladies, on the other hand, “sexiness” was clearly a main goal. Putting a naked woman in a reclining position is the easiest way for a photo to cross the line to becoming sexually suggestive. But why are these women lying down when we are supposed to be viewing them as athletes who spend their lives up and active?! Can you imagine them trying to pull this crap with male athletes? “Oh, hey, Mr. Jackson? Steve? Sweetheart, would you mind lying down on this AstroTurf and giving us your sexy-eyes?” Yeah. It would never happen.

The most irritating part is that photographing the women this way was a choice. Instead of the people behind this project choosing to showcase the athleticism and unique abilities of these women, they chose to photograph them in passive, irrelevant ways. There are other, better paths to take.

Mozo is a golfer, right? So, I’m going to assume that her physical strength is probably focused in her upper back, shoulders, and arms with some core thrown in there. Why not photograph her in a way that highlights these strengths instead of stripping her of that power and athleticism (you know, those things she’s being supposedly recognized for)?

So. ESPN. Step up your game. All the way. I want to see 100% of the images used for the next Body Issue showing active athleticism across the board and regardless of gender. For those of us really paying attention, your perpetuation of this understated sexism simply makes you and your Body Issue seem phony and underhanded. (Feel free to break out your #notbuyingit hashtags, feminist tweeters.) I call for ESPN to reject the stereotypical sexualized and disempowered images of women. If you say you want to celebrate and showcase the strength and perfection of an athlete’s body, actually do it. Treat and photograph your female athletes as athletes and not as mere eye candy without agency. It may seem small, but it does matter. You have the opportunity to do something great with this project by setting aside pre-conceived notions of gender and striving to focus on pure athleticism untainted by sexism. What are you waiting for?

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