Thursday, April 7, 2016

More Cycling Commentary - Is This Poster Sexist?


In my last post, I analyzed the scandal following the Milan-San Remo road race, and determined that a) the winner, Arnaud Démare, is a douchebag, and b) there are better things to debate than whether or not yet another pro cyclist cheated.  In this post, I take on a far more worthy question:  is the following poster sexist?

The poster, advertising the Euskal Emakumeen bicycle race in Spain, was withdrawn from distribution by the race organizers after a women’s advocacy group, the Basque Women’s Institute (aka Anderebide de Iurreta), filed a complaint, calling the poster “sexist.”  (Click here or here for more on this story.)

Well, is it sexist?

Is the poster sexist?  Good question, and one worth posing, far more so than my last polemic.  There is one right answer to the question “Did Démare cheat in the 2016 Milan-San Remo?” and Démare, at least, is certain of the answer.  But sexism is a huge grey area.

I have to admit, when I first saw the article about the retracted poster, I thought, “They shouldn’t have retracted it, because I enjoy looking at it.”  This was a basic brain stem reaction.  But then, isn’t giving too much authority to the brain stem a big part of how sexism manages to persist in civilized society?

I looked some more at the poster.  It’s certainly very strange, with the closeup of the braided hair in the background.  But can the poster really be called sexist?  I asked my teenage daughter if she thinks so.  “It’s really weird,” she said.  “But I don’t know about sexist.”

Would the poster be particularly sexist if the rider shown, rider Katarzyna Niewiadoma, weren’t last year’s winner, but had been chosen simply because she’s attractive?  Or is it sexist because she’s blowing a kiss?  Does it matter if she was asked to blow a kiss so they could put that on the poster, vs. the race organizers finding a random photo of her blowing a kiss to the camera and deciding to use it?  After all, racers blow kisses to the crowd all the time during victory salutes.

Is it even a kiss?

But wait, is she even blowing a kiss to begin with?  I’ve done a bit of research and learned that she may actually be making “duck lips.”  I’m not on any social media platform, so I’m kind of new to this expression, but I’ve learned that making duck lips, a mainstay of social media selfies, is kind of like blowing a kiss and kind of like pouting.  The question is, do duck lips automatically connote something sexual or flirtatious?

To delve into this question I consulted a Christian website called “Secret Keeper Girl” which is dedicated to raising morally upright girls.  The columnist, Charmaine, took the position that duck lips are okay so long as the intention behind them is pure:  “If ‘duck face’ is just a fun, silly thing [your daughter] likes to do, then by all means, LET HER PLAY!”  On the other hand, Charmaine notes, “Many of the models and celebs who pose like this do have trashy sensual intentions.”

So what was Niewiadoma’s intention in making duck lips for the camera?  Well, she’s not a model and I would argue that even the more famous bike racers aren’t really celebs.  I think we should give Niewiadoma the benefit of the doubt as regards her motives, because five out of seven commenters on the “Secret Keeper Girl” article opined that duck lips are harmless—and remember that these are the kinds of earnest parents that consult websites to make sure they’re doing right by Jesus.  And one comment in particular puts Niewiadoma’s expression in a whole new light:  “20 years ago I use to smile that way. The message was this: I am in control, superior, above competition, it is impossible to compete with me.”  Could that be what’s going on here?

Am I sexist?

If you read my Biased Blow-By-Blow race reports, you’ll know that I generally have no problem quickly making up my mind about people; I don’t hesitate to call a spade a spade, or even a “filthy doping spade.”  So why am I being so careful and hesitant with this allegation of a poster being sexist?

Well, I freely acknowledge that when it comes to sexism, not just anybody can appoint himself or herself an arbitrator.  And I’m feeling particularly vulnerable to assaults on my authority since, not long ago, I discredited a bike racer in these pages by calling him a “douchebag.”  Do I undermine my own credibility by having so recently used a derogatory label that’s arguably associated with the female sex?

On this score I will defend my word choice on the grounds that “douchebag” is used, in common parlance, far more widely to describe a jerk, loser, dickhead, etc. than an actual douchebag, which I’ve never seen in my life and which, as far as I am aware, nobody I know has ever used.

(It’s kind of like the word “hysterical,” which got Johnnie Cochran in trouble during the O.J. Simpson trial when he used this adjective to describe Marcia Clark, the prosecutor.  “Hysterical” was made out to be the epitome of sexist slur, based on its etymology—it derives from the Greek “hysteros” (ὕστερος), meaning “womb.”  But who, among the dim-witted scores of gawkers glued to their TVs throughout the O.J. trial, actually know any Greek?  I never bought it.  Men and women alike are capable of hysterical behavior.)

In my entire life, I have only once used the word “douche” to mean an actual douche.  This was back in the ‘80s, when there was this TV ad running where a teenaged girl asked her mom, “Mom, can a douche help you feel more confident?” Her mom gave her some really supportive feedback on the brand of douche being advertised, and it was clear the two had excellent rapport, far better than I had with my own mom at the time, and they were increasing it through this dialogue.  Frankly, I was a bit envious.  Why should daughters enjoy this special bond with their mothers, when sons and fathers don’t have anything analogous?

So one day, while watching TV with my mom, I turned to her and asked, “Mom, can a douche help you feel more confident?”  She got really embarrassed, and didn’t know what to say, and the whole thing felt really awkward.  Once again, I failed to achieve the close relationship I could have had with my mom if I were female.  So don’t be getting up in my face about “douche” being sexist.  I wish I had grounds to use the term “douchebag” beyond its ubiquitous meaning of “despicable person” and/or “typical pro cyclist.”

The braid conundrum

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Niewiadoma making duck lips in the poster isn’t itself sexist.  But what of this strange ponytail image?  I’m  told that males on social media often make duck lips, but I’ve never seen a male bike racer with braided hair.  Even the long hair that Phil Anderson sported in the late ‘80s was always flowing free.  What exactly is the point of showcasing this braided hair?

I’m not sure the sexiness has anything to do with it.  When a woman’s sex appeal is being exploited—think of a hot model in a bikini sprawled out on the hood of a muscle car—she almost never has her hair in a braid.  And beyond sex appeal, within other realms where an ideal of feminine beauty is held up—like all those female Disney characters—you almost never see braided hair.  (Not even on Rapunzel, who would have had an obvious practical reason to put her hair in a braid.)

My further rumination on this poster’s braid imagery takes me further into the territory of self-doubt.  Is it fair for me, as a male, to try to judge this poster when I cannot truly have the response to the poster that a female would?  Where accusations of sexism are concerned, men are almost never the victims, so it’s easy enough for us to brush it off and say things like “Lighten up, it’s just a head of hair.”  I was on the brink of asking my daughter about the braid in the poster, and about how she, as a female, feels about braided hair, when I realized I didn’t have to.  I already had her answer, in writing!  Check out this paragraph from her recent mountain bike race report: 
All of the other girls [on the starting line] looked like badasses.  They were all muscular and serious, their hair pulled back in tight braids that made me self-consciously pull at my untidy hair in a futile attempt to make it less gross.  Their bikes were pre-muddied, their legs and arms scarred from crashes, and their gear perfectly color coordinated.  They seemed to me to be the heroines of some dystopian action film, their eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses as they smirked at each other and tossed their perfectly braided hair dramatically.
Based on that evidence, it could be that the Euskal Emakumeen poster was designed to show that women, even pretty ones, aren’t just ornaments—that they’re actually totally badass.  Perhaps this close-up of Niewiadoma’s braid is well within the reasonable use of imagery for a bike race poster.  But before I can conclude that, I think we should consider what a bike race poster is supposed to do in the first place.

What are such posters for?

At the most basic level, a bike race poster does what all print media do:  it promotes the product.  And let’s face it, there are very few societal rules regarding product advertisements, the core ethos seeming to be “whatever works.”  Consider this ad, for Reebok shoes:

This ad really makes no sense at all.  Reebok shoes have nothing to do with the Tour de France; nothing to do with Mario Cipollini; and nothing to do with cycling.  (Reebok did sponsor an American bike racing team during the late ‘80s, and intended to introduce a line of cycling shoes, but never actually did.)  This is a blatant example of sex in advertising … but who would attack it?  We just shrug.  Hey, sex sells, right?

Should bike race promotional posters be held to a different standard?  Well, perhaps … after all, a bike race is held on public roads that go through towns, and thus has a relationship with the community that a shoe company does not.  And since I may never get another chance, I’ll take this opportunity to complain about a different bike race poster:

The above poster features your humble blogger.  Why they decided to use this picture of me, I don’t really know … but it certainly is me.  I remember the photo (from the previous year’s Red Zinger Mini Classic) on which this poster art was based.  My issue is, nobody asked for my permission to use this image of me, and I wasn’t paid any royalties.  Nor was the intent of my facial expression considered.  (Oddly enough, I seem to have been way ahead of my time:  in that picture I appear to be making “sparrow face,” which is reputedly the modern successor to duck lips.)

Getting back to the purpose of bike race posters, I suppose if we assume the point of the Euskal Emakumeen poster is to generate interest in the race, so as to attract spectators, the poster arguably is sexist, because it seems to be saying, “You should watch this race because women bike racers can be pretty, perhaps even flirty, and some of them have badass hairdos.”  When I think of why I watch bike racing, it’s not because the men look good (they certainly don’t) or because they have cool hair (ditto), but because I like to watch people suffer, in a way I can relate to, and I like the speed and aggression and the tactical subtleties of the sport.  A good poster should try to capture that, rather than showing a photo of a racer just standing there, making duck lips, and having a certain hairdo.

Should this poster have been yanked?

And yet, even if the Euskal Emakumeen bike race poster was borderline sexist, whether or not to publicly complain about it is a separate question.  What if the poster did generate more interest in the race, and spectators flocked to it (albeit not necessarily for the right reasons), and they discovered that women’s racing is really exciting?  What if the race promoters had yanked the original poster but didn’t have the budget to create and print new posters, and attendance at the race suffered?  Is the Basque Women’s Institute doing anything to promote women’s bike racing, or are they content to site on the sidelines until it’s time to attack somebody?  And is the benefit of this attack worth the backlash it has caused—an almost uniformly negative reaction to their protest?  And above all, couldn’t the Basque Women’s Institute find a more worthwhile target for their attack on sexism?

In case you haven’t already guessed where I’m going with this, I’ll give you a little hint:

Look at all those sponsors, and the name of the community of Catalunya where the race takes place, juxtaposed with superfly “race ambassadors” clearly not chosen for their long-term association with the sport of bike racing.  The racer being celebrated, Nairo Quintana, looks to be enjoying himself a little too much and probably got in trouble with his wife over this.  I myself confess that, upon seeing this photo, I suddenly became peripherally interested in the Volta a Catalunya, but only in skimming the photos for each stage … and only certain of those photos.  I’m sorry, I can’t help it!

Suffice to say, this spectacle of beautiful women kissing sweaty bike racers in front of a crowd is not bringing out the best in male sports fans.  From the standpoint of cultural sensitivity and responsible promotion of sport, the podium girl tradition is about as sophisticated as that of bikini-clad babes strutting around the ring before a “professional” wrestling match in the U.S.  Meanwhile, there’s a double standard here:  women who win bike races are never attended to by hunky Chippendale types as a way to titillate sports fans.

But where is the Basque Women’s Institute on this podium girl issue?  I did a quick Google search, on a hunch that their activism doesn’t extend here:

In terms of bang for the buck, the Basque Women’s Institute arguably did get a lot of reaction from their protest, with the race pulling the poster and issuing a new one.  But if this organization is really looking to promote social change, perhaps they should have repurposed the poster, allowing its widespread distribution but slapping on a sticker that said, “If you find this poster sexist, or even if you don’t, come to our panel discussion on women’s representation in sport, held at such-and-such venue on such-and-such date.”  They could have arranged this meeting to take place right after the race, near the winner’s podium, where they could have drummed up extra attention via hot-n-hunky podium dudes!

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