With 2015 now in the record books, a look back shows just how busy and…
Sports Illustrated just unveiled this year’s swimsuit issue, featuring Hannah Davis in a bikini on a farm in Tennessee.
Why do photo shoots of swimsuits so far from the sea? Apparently, SI wanted to relate more directly to its readership, who identify with Nashville more than Fiji.
But there is something else noteworthy about this cover: It has pushed the obscenity line. In the United States, obscenity is defined by the average person’s perceptions of community standards of decency. According to an Us Weekly poll, 68 percent of respondents said the cover resembled pornography.
For 41 years, the swimsuit edition has garnered a great deal of customers as well as criticism: it’s not news, it’s not about sports and it’s not even about swimming. Suits have been made of leather, chainmail and even body paint, none of which would be easy to actually swim in. The swimsuit issue has always been about swimsuit models, few of whom are even athletes. SI features “supermodels” including Heidi Klum, Rebecca Romijn and even Beyonce. Photo shoots emphasize super bodies in sexy poses.
If you google the covers, you can discern a pattern. There are four major poses:
- Top on, bottoms being removed.
- Bottoms-only, top visible but not on.
- Entire suit on, displayed with a “sexy pose.”
So what’s different this year? Why, during a Feb. 9 interview with Davis, did the NBC Today show censor the cover photo? Davis’ pose is top on, bottoms being removed. It’s reminiscent of Tyra Banks’s 1997 cover and Bar Refaeli’s 2009 cover.
What’s new is that Davis’ bottoms have been deemed “too low” by the public. Indeed, they cover the bare, waxed minimum.
What’s not new is SI’s use of pornography. Although SI is not a pornographic publication, to compete with top- selling magazines such as Maxim and Cosmopolitan, it does invoke pornographic messages. For example, the 2013 cover featured Kate Upton in a tiny bikini that was arguably as low as this year’s, plus a hefty helping of cleavage, “side boob” and even “under boob.” Last year’s cover sported three topless models grinning back at the camera, hands on each other’s arched buttocks. The covers’ text also invokes porn: “The Not So Virgin Islands,” “Polar Bare,” “Crossing the Line.” This year, SI apparently did cross the line, leading the public to call out the ubiquitous pornographic references.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “sex sells.” For decades, much has been written about the “pornographication” of mainstream media, critiquing the use of women’s bodies as props to sell ostensibly non-sexy things: a naked woman on her hands and knees posed as a shoe rack to sell shoes; a bikini-clad woman sitting open-legged on a set of strategically placed skis to sell skis; a reclining woman, legs spread wide, advertising that American Apparel is “now open.”
Advertisers know that the average person is bombarded with too many images to process on a daily basis, so they must constantly push the boundary of what’s shocking in order to get the consumer to pause. To stop fast-forwarding. To buy. Ads that literally portray women’s bodies as things – as objects – dehumanize women. They contribute to a culture where women are only valued for their bodies.
This year’s Super Bowl ads included some overtly re-humanizing messages about women and girls. In one ad, Mindy Kaling used humor to shine a light on the invisibility of women of color. The powerful #Likeagirl ad from Always critiqued society’s association of femininity with weakness.
Perhaps a culture shift is under way, emboldening the women and men who work at the Today Show to refuse to give this image a pass. The show problematized Davis’ peek-a-boo bottoms by covering them with a red ribbon. Host Matt Lauer asked Davis if the show had been “prudent or prudish” to do so. It might be both. Lauer may have critiqued sexual objectification, but he still treated Davis as if her major accomplishment was being Derek Jeter’s girlfriend. So I don’t think the Today show suddenly embraced feminism.
Nevertheless, this is a moment where people are having conversations about re-valuing women and men as complex human beings. I think that’s a good thing.
Kristen Myers is a Presidential Teaching Professor in the Department of Sociology and director of Women’s Studies at NIU.