Beyond Bikinis: Women’s Nine New Rules to Land a Sports Illustrated Cover
by Charles Modiano
Before today’s big Olympic victory, the US Women’s Gymnastics Team already won their media gold medal by landing on the cover of Sports Illustrated (SI) . Does this represent a new SI era after a well-celebrated 40th anniversary of Title IX or merely SI’s yearly one-and-done women’s cover quota?
Under Terry McDonell — current Sports Illustrated Group boss — SI’s depiction of women has never been worse. SI is a prime case study in the Title IX paradox: The 1972 legislation has helped bring sports participation of women to historic highs, but related sports media coverage has dropped to all-time lows.
Criticism of SI and women is not new: A 2012 study, “Where are The Female Athletes in Sports Illustrated?” updates a 30-year chorus of studies from 1979, 1988, 1991, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2002, 2003, 2008, 2009, 2010, videos , and you get the point. According to must-see documentary “Not Just A Game” and TV studies, ESPN The Mag and Sports Center are not much better.
Sports Illustrated’s newest low can be traced directly to McDonell’s 2002 arrival as SI’s Editor in Chief. He arrived with much-needed tech-savvy, but also an editorial history dominated by Men’s magazines. His previous two stops at the tabloid US Weekly and Men’s Journal would noticeably influence SI’s direction.
Last year, The Atlantic’s Eleanor Barkhorn kindly treated readers with the nine ways a woman could land an SI cover. In this year’s remix, her special spirit is applied to McDonnell’s 10-year tenure. Under the new rules, breaking the cover barrier is less about “what you play” than “who you are”.
RULE #1: BE A SWIMSUIT MODEL
The Problem: Skin trumps skill. ”Bikinis or Nothing” isn’t just a swimsuit cover slogan, it’s a cover policy. With this month’s Olympic Cover, the score is now tied. Since 2002, ten covers have been devoted to swimsuits models, and ten depicted as actual athletes (*excludes shared covers or “commemorative” issues not mailed to subscribers).
Before McDonell: SI was heavily criticized in the 1990’s, but still had more than twice as many (non-swimsuit) covers of women. With just the slightest reinvestment of swimsuit profits back into women’s sports, SI could easily exceed its 1950′s average of five covers per year.
Big Picture: McDonell counts on “naked women” to move copies, and SI’s swimsuit issue– a multi-media cash cow — sold more copies in 2011 than all other issues in the first five months combined . While these profits have always deafened SI to past well-documented criticisms of sexism, the absence of female athlete alternatives only intensifies that impact which is well-summarized at “Beauty Redefined”:
“SI Swimsuit Issue profits from a philosophy of constructing men as active, women as passive; men as subjects, women as objects; men as actors, women as receivers; men as the lookers and women as the looked-at; and I argue, men as consumers and women as the “to-be-consumed”
RULE #2: BE AMERICAN
The Problem: Country even trumps champion. While last year’s “one and done” solo cover went to USA Soccer goalie Hope Solo, The Japanese Women’s World Cup Champions and heroics of Homare Sawa were “Do You Believe in Miracles?” material.
With their supreme underdog status, incredible grace, and context of Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, they also should have been SI’s 2011 easy choice for “Sports Person(s) of the Year”. But they were just sooooooooo – Japanese.
Before McDonell: Roberto Duran (7), Bjorn Borg (5), and Steffi Graf (3) all received multiple covers for their brilliance.
Big Picture: Unless wearing an American uniform, SI doesn’t care much for foreigners anymore – women or men. The greatest victim has been Roger Federer whose legendary tennis career produced one solo cover and several Sportsperson of Year snubs. Boxing sensation Manny Pacquiao?: Nothing. Same goes for soccer phenoms Lionel Messi and Marta, and the golfing brilliance of Annika Sorenstam and Yani Tseng.
RULE #3: HAIR MATTERS
The Problem: Hair trumps heart. Long is good, blond is better, flowing is preferred, and bleach is a legal performance enhancer. Rule #3 can trump rule #2 but not rule #4. At least Maria Sharapova won a Grand Slam title unlike previous Russian cover tennis princess Anna Kournikova whose 2000 cover predated McDonnell.
“But Women Can’t Sell!”: In 2004, Sharapova was a top-seller who even doubled single-copy sales of Derek Jeter and Kevin Garnett.
…Is it because blondes have more fun?…
Big Picture: Softball great Jennie Finch was covered in a mini-skirt, and skiing sensation Lindsey Vonn’s derriere was bent up high. Unlike the standard tuck position, Vonn is smiling with head cocked sideways, and seems to have forgotten her helmet. Oops.
In “Sex Sells Sex, but Not Women’s Sports”, sports media scholar Mary Jo Kane writes:
“A major consequence of the media’s tendency to sexualize women’s athletic accomplishments is the reinforcement of their status as second-class citizen in one of the most powerful economic, social and political institutions on the planet. In doing so, media images that emphasize femininity/sexuality actually suppress interest in, not to mention respect for, women’s sports.”
RULE #4: BE WHITE
The Problem: White trumps right. In a sports era dominated by African-American women, only Serena Williams has been featured by herself – besides Beyonce. SI ignores women of color today as it once did Black men before 1968 .
Venus Williams’ seven grand slam titles?: Not grand enough. Venus and Serena on a cover together, or Laila Ali’s fists?: No storylines there. The hoops dominance of Candace Parker and Brittany Griner in college, or Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes in the WNBA-Olympics? Not dominant enough. Historic women’s hoops win streaks of UCONN (90-games) or Olympics (35 and counting)? Not long enough.
Before McDonell: In the previous 10 years, SI featured a young Serena, a young Venus, Michelle Kwan, Marion Jones, Jamila Wideman, the Women’s Olympic Basketball team, Gail Devers, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Kristi Yamaguchi.
…Is it because black women are too angry?…
July 12, 2010 July 19, 2010
Big Picture: All Serena did to receive a 2003 cover was win four consecutive Grand Slams. After 13 Slam wins, another came in 2010 entitled: “Love Her, Hate Her”. Why would SI “hate her”?: For berating an official? Should John McEnroe burn in hell? Or at least not profit from it? Let’s debate.
Just how big is the gender-race compound bias facing women of color? Just one week later, SI issued an IPad cover entitled “An Appreciation“ for George Steinbrenner – a man who turned boorish behavior into an Olympic sport when not collecting two felonies. Why can’t SI just “love” Serena?
Serena’s first-ever outburst in 2009 received a US Open record fine – more than the combined total of McEnroe’s first 20 tantrums. The Crunk Feminist Collective summarizes the broader issue that stretches from mass media to mass incarceration:
“White anger is entertaining; Black anger must be contained”.
RULE #5: BE “GIRLY”
The Problem: America’s best two female athletes the last two years went coverless. Abby Wambach doesn’t quite fit SI’s definition of “feminine enough”, Brittney Griner definitely doesn’t, and both violate previous rules.
Before McDonell: SI’s Sexist-Heterosexist-Eurocentric femininity box is not new, and past rule-breaking sports legends like Martina Navratilova and Jackie-Joyner Kersee did not get the attention they warranted — but they still received three covers each from SI.
Big Picture: Concerned citizen Sarah Thomas wants SI to shatter all “artificial barriers” and “corporate beauty standards” by putting Sarah Robles, Holley Mangold, and the U. S. Women’s Weightlifting Olympic team on SI’s cover. In her Change.org petition she writes:
”Sports Illustrated would be making a strong statement confirming their commitment to their true mandate; celebrating the achievements of great athletes… And maybe, just maybe, young girls who don’t resemble swimsuit models either can be inspired by these women’s stories to be physically active, have positive self esteem, and even – who knows? – nurture dreams of future Olympic success.”
RULE #6: GET A MAN!
(especially if you play hoops)
The Problem: Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore each led the UConn Huskies to multiple championships, but can’t land a regular edition cover without male validation. Pat Summitt too! Shared covers would be a great thing if they served as additions and not replacements for solo covers (commemorative issues don’t count).
“I think it’s funny. We’re a team that’s won four [Olympic] gold medals in a row and yet we’re still fighting for respect in our own country. I think it’s a little sad.”
“But Women Can’t Sell!”: The 2003 and 2008 shared college basketball previews (CBP) both had great success, and the 2003 Taurasi-Okafor cover was clearly the highest seller of nine CBP issues studied.
“When big games are shown on TV, people tune in: … The 2010 women’s title game between Connecticut and Stanford attracted 3.5 million TV viewers, up 32 percent from the previous year. Despite this increasing fan interest, though, viewers of sports news and highlights shows still experience what novelist Tillie Olsen called “unnatural silences” about women’s basketball.”
RULE #7: BEAT A MAN!
The Problem: Danica Patrick is the only woman to land more than one positive SI solo cover under McDonnell, but competing against men is not the easiest path to emulate.
“But Women Can’t Sell!”: Patrick’s 2005 cover outsold the previous seven issues including Tiger Woods, Steve Nash, Randy Moss, Shaq, the NFL Draft, and every single baseball and basketball issue that year (non-previews).
Big Picture: If Tim Tebow can receive six college covers without having to compete against the very best men in his sport (i.e. NFL), women should not have to either.
RULE #8: GO FOR THE GOLD!
The Problem: With this month’s Olympic cover preview, Rule #8 has just been cautiously reinstated. In 2008, SI completely ignored women for the first Olympic year in SI’s history despite dominance by US Olympic hoop team, gymnast Shawn Johnson, and swimmer Natalie Coughlin. SI is not alone.
“But Women Can’t Sell!”: Sales of the 2004 Women’s Olympic team not only edged out Michael Phelps from previous week, but also outpaced 2004 covers by men named Brady, Vick, Clemens, Griffey, Kobe, Armstrong, and Mickelson.
“Research… shows that the primary factor in determining what sports getcovered in newspapers is the sports interests of the sports editor. Many sports editors grew up in a time and culture in which theabilities of women to play sports were devalued.”
RULE #9: STRIP FOR SI!
The Problem: The significant majority of woman athletes with solo covers have also posed for swimsuit pictures within its pages. While each athlete certainly has that right, a disturbing pattern has emerged: Williams, Finch, Patrick, and Vonn were all rewarded covers within a few months after posing for the swimsuit issue.
Vonn reflected on her 6-month old swimsuit photo shoot: “Back then I had no idea I was going to be on the cover of the regular SI”. By now, all SI cover aspiring women get the unspoken deal: “If you really want the cover – it really helps to get uncovered.”
Before McDonell: In different decades, Marion Jones, Michelle Kwan, Florence Griffith Joyner, Chris Evert, and Peggy Fleming all made covers without posing in bikinis for SI.
Big Picture: In”Does Sexy Mean Selling Out“, Laura Pappano clarifies:
“Much of the [right to be sexy] debate is a distraction to the fundamental challenge of getting to a more fair place… Seeking real equity for female athletes means learning to appreciate female athletes’ performances on their own.”
This debate has also distracted from SI’s reality that one’s “right” has morphed closer to “requirement”, and individual choice into institutional force. The full scope of Sports Illustrated’s sexism and McDonnell’s mantra becomes clear:
Objectification of women isn’t a swimsuit thing — it’s the only thing.
Mark Ford (SI Group President) and Terry McDonell (Editor of SI Sports Group)
At 2011 Sports Illustrated Launch Party