Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Sexism and Body Snarking: Olympics Edition

As I recently mentioned, I kinda love the Olympics. I'm a sucker for them. I'm not sure what it is, because I do not enjoy any other sports related thing. But every two years (winter/summer) I'm stuck at my TV.

I think one thing that I particularly enjoy is that women seem to receive as much attention and almost as much legitimacy as men's competitions. That's a rare thing. For example, I'm so used to people going gaga over the NBA and totally forgetting that the WNBA exists. (PS, why isn't it the MNBA and the WNBA--oh right, men are considered the standard. *Eye roll*)

But NBC is really crushing my spirits with their coverage. Last night, I turned into the late night segment and caught a discussion between Bob Costas, Shaun White, and John McEnroe. Apparently, McEnroe is at his first Olympics and White is there for the first time as a spectator. So they were chitchatting about their experience watching women's beach volleyball. And of course, it dissolved into a dude bro yuk yuk session about the women's bodies. Objectification to the max. (And LITERALLY while I was writing this, another male NBC commentator just talked about how when he went to the beach volleyball game, it was "sensory overload" because of the women's bodies.)

I stewed for a bit and then moved on. I wish I could say this is the end of it, but of course there's more. The media takes every possible opportunity to comment on women's bodies, and Olympians are not exempt.

This morning, while watching men's swimming, I caught a NBC Olympics promo for their upcoming fall show "The New Normal." The show's premise is that a woman becomes a surrogate mom for a gay couple, and they all become a big family. In the promo video the woman is talking to her unborn daughter about how she could be an Olympian some day. At the end, the grandma pops in. As far as I can tell from this and other promos, the grandma is portrayed as a stereotypical lush, critical, rich older woman (think Charlie's mom in the despicable "Two and a Half Men.") Anyway, the grandma pops in and says that swimming is great "if you wanna bulk up like some Eastern European man-woman." (You can watch the whole thing here, if you'd like.)

I'm not even going to touch ALL that's wrong with that statement (and there is a lot.) I'm just going to focus on the main message: Even Olympic swimmer's bodies aren't good enough. It's really not shocking to me that this promo is playing on sexist body hate, but it is surprising to me that it's going after a group of athletes whose bodies are generally accepted and admired. You really can't win, huh?

But of course, things are much worse for women who are bigger. I've already covered how Sarah Robles, Olympic weightlifter, receives much less attention than other Olympians because she isn't a "sexy" athlete. And I actually unfollowed Conan O'Brien for a tweet the other day about Holley Mangold, another Olympic weightlifter. As Mary Elizabeth Williams reported at Salon:
There are no worshipful Bleacher Report features devoted to ranking her hotness. Instead, Holley Mangold, a woman who can do things with her body that few women – or men – can accomplish, gets to be the butt of a joke. On Saturday, Conan O’Brien snarked on Twitter that “I predict 350 lb. weight lifter Holley Mangold will bring home the gold and 4 guys against their will.” It was retweeted over 2,000 times. Poorly done, there, Coco.
It's all around overwhelming. Everywhere I turn, some sexist comment is being made about the female Olympians.

To be fair, the NBC reporting has been generally terrible. For example, one pool side reporter asked Michael Phelps which "side of him" would show up at the next competition...huh? And then there's the terribly exploitative shots of Jordyn Wieber crying as she was shut out of the individual all around competition. But the particularly sexist spin on the discussion of women's bodies from NBC and celebrities like O'Brien are making my blood pressure shoot through the roof.

Knock it off, people!

And before everyone jumps all over this, talking about how Olympic male athletes' bodies are also objectified, let me clarify. I'm not saying that we can't enjoy the physicality of Olympian bodies. The problem for me comes when we 1) generally body snark and 2) ogle female bodies (like those of the beach volleyball players) without  more comments about their athletic feats and accomplishments. That's something the men rarely face. Because the mainstream media narrative is so often set by men, the appreciation of male athleticism comes first and foremost. Any body related comments about them are an afterthought.

Seriously...how often are celebrities tweeting about how the male weightlifters can't get dates? It's just really, really old. If Olympic athletes can't be appreciated for--or at least left alone about their bodies--what's the hope for the rest of us?


  1. The best comment I've heard about body objectification in the Olympics was from Francis Lam, via twitter: "Watching men's swimming once every 4 years is like finding out what it's like being a woman looking at a magazine stand every single day."

    So at least a few men are realizing the type of objectification women deal with every day.

  2. I found this blog via searching for "Eastern European man-woman" to see if anyone else besides me was startled at seeing that commercial on NBC during the Olympics (apparently not a lot of people were). Not only is it bizarrely sexist and just a downright weird thing to say, it came off to me as extremely xenophobic. Aren't the Olympics about uniting different nationalities and cultures? I couldn't believe NBC would air a clip like that. But then again, I can believe it...


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