If you somehow missed all the fuss, Sports Illustrated, the country’s pre-eminent sports magazine, is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its swimsuit issue, now on sale at newsstands and checkout lines everywhere.
That’s 50 years of school librarians pulling out their hair.
Fifty years of mothers running to the mailbox, hoping to intercept delivery before the kids get home. And dad.
Fifty years of being bombarded by letters and threats of cancellation.
Fifty years of one-piece swimsuits, two-piece suits, topless suits, see-through suits, sequined suits, no suits, painted-on suits, suits no one would ever wear except in an SI swimsuit shoot, and every other variation possible for a few inches of cloth.
It’s also been 50 years of hypocrisy.
Sports Illustrated has been talking out of both sides of its collective face, if not for 50 years then for the last 30-40 years that women have truly arrived on the sports scene. SI champions women’s sports. It carries the flag for Title IX. It promotes the ideal of judging women by their feats, not their (pick a body part).
Then in February it puts out the swimsuit issue, a huge contradiction. Actually, it’s not limited to February. The swimsuit issue never goes away. It’s year-round in the magazine and, especially, the website, offering swimsuit calendars, advertisements, videos and photos of individual models, videos of swimsuit shoot locations, videos of model interviews, videos of artists painting suits on bodies, etc. At SI, as elsewhere, money trumps ideals, and the swimsuit issue is big money. SI is so very PC in every other way, but it is still the old men’s club when it comes to pinups, except with more creativity.
For the current issue, Sports Illustrated sent Kate Upton, its ubiquitous cover girl, up in the air for a zero-gravity flight to see the effects that weightlessness would have on its model as she floated around in a bikini — purely in the name of science, of course. It’s pretty sophomoric stuff, something you expect giggling frat boys would do if they could afford a padded airplane, a pilot and Upton’s fee.
Who’s running this magazine, Adam Sandler?
If the same energy that is spent on dreaming up ways to photograph women in swimsuits were focused on science, we’d all own electric cars and cold fusion would be old news.
Sports Illustrated went even one step further than zero-gravity photo shoots this year by putting Barbie — yes, the doll — on the cover wrap, in a bikini, with the headline, “The Doll that Started it All.” Anyone have any idea what that means? This is the in-your-face reply from SI and Mattel to all those complaints about the sexualization of teen girls and the unrealistic expectations created by the Barbie body. Hence, the name of the ad campaign: “Unapologetic.” A better name: “Creepy.” Barbie also gets a four-page section inside the magazine that’s titled “Anything is possible,” and concludes with this sendoff: “Thank you! Here’s to women of every generation — for breaking boundaries, living life in their own fashion and continuing to prove that anything is possible. — Barbie.”
According to Mattel, the toy company that makes Barbie, the magazine appearance “gives Barbie and her fellow legends an opportunity to own who they are, celebrate what they have done and be #unapologetic.” Whatever. It's really about cash despite such high-minded prose. Be sure to rush out and buy a limited-edition SI Barbie on sale at Target.
The campaign has triggered a public backlash, but certainly SI and Mattel anticipated (and hoped for) all of that in the same way Miley Cyrus anticipated the reaction to her MTV twerking performance. Any attention is good attention. Reuters reported a headline on Mommyish blog: “The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Will Feature Barbie, So Your Daughter Can Feel Bad Too.”
Anyone who checks the website or magazine to read about his or her favorite athletes and teams can’t miss the intentionally sexy distractions or the mixed message. There are photos and come-check-out-this-girl headlines all over the page (one headline for a video: "We defy you to try and maintain a productive workday after watching it."). Good luck finding the sports. In a single day, the home page featured 20 links to swimsuit-related features, most accompanied by photos.
Nice. If this is where the magazine is after 50 years, where can it go the next 50 years?
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.