Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Serena Williams' ESPN cover: Adulation, objectification, both?

Hat tip to Sociological Images

What do you think of the cover of ESPN's "Body Issue," featuring a naked Serena Williams. Lisa Wade at Sociological Images writes:
Why is it that a woman rarely makes it onto the cover of ESPN and, when she does, she’s freakin’ naked? And, of course (*sarcasm*), it’s for “The Body Issue” (because women’s bodies are where it’s at, right fellas?). I did a google image search for “espn cover” and the first page of results includes only two women. One is naked (Williams) and the other is pregnant.
On the other hand, here is Serena Williams, so often demonized for her large, muscular body and branded "ugly" and "unfeminine" (demonstrating inherent sexism and racism in our society), being celebrated on the cover of a national magazine in a shot that seems not to hide the parts of her physicality that make people so uncomfortable. In this "Body Issue" athletic bodies are represented by a black woman whose body is usually disrespected.

Me? I'm torn like the folks over at Sociological Images. But I suspect I should ignore my initial thrill at seeing a black woman's body celebrated, because what seems like celebration is often objectification. If Williams can't rate a cover for exceptional athleticism, should we cheer that she gets one for her exceptional body?

I'd like to see female athletes on the cover of ESPN with their clothes on, being lauded for their skill and strength and tenacity, not just for their bodies. Did Lisa's Google search miss something? Anyone know whether there have been any naked male athletes on the cover of this mag?

Until female athelete are lauded like male ones on ESPN's cover, and male athletes are ogled for their rockin' bods like the female ones, women are still marginalized at this publication, allowed to shine only when doing appropriate "lady things" like posing for naked cheesecake photos or being pregnant. In that context, the Serena Williams cover isn't progress.

What do you say? Can any regular readers of ESPN clear up my questions?


Jess said...

While my gut reaction is, wow, she's gorgeous, my next thought is that it's so unfair that femininity and beauty are only being validated by nudity. Why isn't being an amazing athlete feminine or beautiful?

danny said...

it's the body issue. supposed to rival SI's swimsuit edition. a bunch of atheletes are included. all nude. if she were the only one or if it were only women, i'd be offended, but i'm taking it as a celebration of the athletic form. i'm guessing they focused on serena so they could cash in on all that press she just had for spazzing out on that ref and to generate sales/subscriptions for their mag.

Cindy said...

I have similar conflicts.

In of itself, I have no problems with this picture. It's a beautiful photograph of a beautiful woman. If this picture had been on the cover of Vogue, I think I would have had less disquiet. That would have been a celebration of a strength and power as beauty in a forum/context where this style of photography is commonplace. On SI it has the essence of T & A. There are plenty of photos of Serena that demonstrate her body while having her in the role of an athlete. Do we really need her naked? Would this have been easier to take with a naked Tom Brady on the cover and Serena on an interior page?

Where do we draw the line between the clear sexism of the publication and the responsibility of the female athlete to say no. This is not a true situation of victimization. I realize this could mean no cover for most women, but shouldn't we be educating women to hold themselves in higher esteem? Shouldn't a strong independent woman of today actually care she is being objectified?

GoldenAh said...

I'm weird, I was looking at her hair: I thought a big afro would have looked better.

However, I still think she looks beautiful. It's nice to see brown skin in all its glory for a change. I thought the photo was lovely.

Kelly Hogaboom said...

Well put, Tami / Sociological Issues.

Anonymous said...

While your point about the lack of fully clothed women on the cover of sports magazines in general is well taken, there are actually six covers for this particular issue--three are men and three are women.

See them here:


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