Anyone who watched the Rio Opening Ceremony could not have failed to notice the shirtless, well-oiled, well-sculpted Tongan flag bearer, either because you yourself did a double take or because of the sheer wave of articles and pictures now strewn across the internet. He glistened, he rippled, he completely distracted the attention of basically every commentator as far as I can tell. And then the divers – have you seen the size of their speedos? And don’t even get me started on the men’s rugby players, phwoar.
But it’s 100% unforgivably disgusting that a MALE reporter should even LOOK at a female athlete’s body. SEXISM.
Obviously (I hope) I’m being facetious here. But only a by a little bit given the scale of the angry articles flying across the internet. I have a lot of time for many of them, particularly ones like the Guardian’s piece (link below) which demonstrates that it is really very, very easy to talk about female athletes in a respectful manner, awestruck by their physical prowess rather than their prescribed attractiveness. Sadly, for every tactful commentator who praises the power of the women in Rio, there’s an undeniably sexist, sweeping statement which completely overlooks the talent and dedication of the athlete in favour of their husband or their physical appearance.
And yet, increasingly in the age of the internet, the same seems to be happening to male athletes. There are numerous articles with names like ‘Top 10 Hottest Olympians’, accompanied by faintly concerning taglines like ‘If you’re telling me that you tune into men’s water polo or gymnastics purely for the love of the game, I’m going to call BS.’ And yet, these are appearing on the very same sort of websites that champion feminism and decry the evils of sexism in the media.
So. Is it hypocritical to condemn men for only talking about how fit a female athlete is whilst simultaneously ranking the USA men’s gymnastics team? Absolutely.
Is it problematic for two female presenters to not allow Pita Taufatofua (for that is the Tongan flag bearer’s name) the chance to answer a question about his Olympic journey because they wanted to literally oil him up? Oh my goodness, yes. It was painful to watch.
Is it therefore sexist to drool over the thousands of male athletes competing? Well…not really…
Bear with me here.
I strongly believe that in still male-dominated fields, men simply cannot experience sexism in the same way that women do. They can be harassed by individuals, they can be denigrated, they can be the unlucky losers in quota-driven promotions. But they will not be treated in the same systematic, deeply ingrained subordinate manner as women, because men know how it is acceptable to treat other men (generally).
And it boils down to the key problem with how women in general are treated in the media – their appearance is held as the single most important aspect of their personality, it is what defines them. There is simply not the same level of systemised aesthetic reduction for men. A recent Cambridge study (link below) found that consistently, female athletes are referred to in a manner less than equal to their male counterparts. Being mentioned half as often is bad enough, but the fact that their personal lives, families, and appearance is more important to broadcasters than their athletic achievements is deeply troubling. Women are ‘aged’, ‘older’, ‘pregnant’ and ‘unmarried’ while men are ‘strong’, ‘big’, ‘real’ and ‘great’.
When male Olympians are ogled and drooled over, it is because of their athleticism. Their strength, their muscles, their V-shaped torsos are what make them attractive. This means that their athleticism is celebrated at the same time as their physical appearance, because they are intrinsically linked. Women, on the other hand, are not supposed to be athletic and strong; they are the nurturing type with curves, tiny waists, and wide, child-bearing hips, and that is what makes them attractive.
This may well be evolutionarily true, and I have neither the scientific understanding nor the desire to prove this, but it highlights the general bollocks surrounding media coverage of sport again. Women should be attractive. And when reasonable human beings (who make up the majority of the population, but, alas, not that of the world of internet comments) request that we stop talking about female athletes as sexual objects and start talking about their achievements, the angry minority take this to mean that they aren’t allowed to find female athletes attractive. This is also the cry of such commenters in articles about female scientists, or actresses who’d like to be considered for serious roles based on their talent rather than their looks, or lawyers who get creepy comments from strangers, or any woman who dares to suggest that catcalling isn’t actually appreciated.
‘But what happens when men aren’t allowed to find any women attractive?!!’ they blaze, angrily, ‘you won’t like it then!’ Or a particular favourite from the comments of a video which said that female athletes should be treated in the same way as male athletes, which I quote anonymously but in full below:
Physical beauty demonstrates that you will be able to bear children without death or miscarriage. That’s why men don’t want mucho macho women with six pack abs; that would only cause a miscarriage. That’s why men don’t want mucho macho women with six pack abs; that would only cause a miscarriage.
Physical beauty in men is far-more straight-forward; if you have 8-pack abs and iron-fists, then you can work harder and provide for the family.
Nobody is ‘brainwashing men to like pretty women’. That’s ridiculous. If that were the case, other animals would be incapable of reproducing.
Now, there are certain people that could theoretically be sexually-attracted to you; liberal beta-males. They want a butch, masculine female like you, because they will inevitably abandon you, and you will need to be aggressive to provide for the children.
And if we’re perfectly honest with ourselves, that’s what you want in the first place, isn’t it?
All that said, I am very uncomfortable with Cosmopolitan magazine’s assertion that ‘it’s only fair that both sexes are objectified equally’ (Feb, 2014). It’s not. Or at least not in the way which such a mentality seems to have been taken. Realistically, yes it is only fair that both sexes are objectified equally as long as the level of male objectification is taken as the norm and female objectification is reduced to that same point. Instead, this mentality that it’s time for the men to see what it’s like to be degraded, which seems to be depressingly common, is deeply unhelpful and remarkably unfair. Quizzes like Buzzfeed’s ‘Can You Guess the Country Based on The Speedo?’ and Cosmo’s ‘Guess the Male Olympian Bulge’ are in really bad taste and make me cringe a bit, as well as undermining every reasonable request to stop asking female tennis stars to ‘give us a twirl’.
It would be a massive lie to tell you that I don’t find a frankly worrying number of male athletes attractive. It would also be a massive lie to claim that I haven’t had faintly confusing thoughts about some of the female athletes, but that isn’t the point. With tight lycra and Speedos everywhere it’s basically impossible not to notice the physical assets of Olympians, male and female, and I’d be surprised if, aside from the asexuals among us, there isn’t someone for everyone in the Olympics. Hell, there’s a reason that there’s enough condoms in the athlete’s village for each athlete to have 42 for their two-week stay.
But here’s the thing: there is nothing wrong with finding Olympians attractive. There’s nothing wrong with having dreams about some of them. Maybe. But it’s a private, personal reaction that should only really be shared with friends, or gossipy chatrooms, or random people on the train. As soon as articles get published and quizzes get made reducing any athlete to the size of their bulge (an inaccurate measurement anyway) or the pertness of their bums, or any other purely aesthetic quality, it legitimises the ideal that their value is aesthetic, not athletic. And that is obviously (no pun intended) bollocks.
[This entry was hugely inspired by this video – https://www.facebook.com/ajplusenglish/videos/777978542343655/]