Review By Mike Gange
The Swimsuit Issue and Sport: Hegemonic Masculinity in Sports Illustrated
By Laurel R. Davis
State University of New York Press, $19.95, 168 pages
Ya gotta just love Sports Illustrated magazine: great photos of sports events, often showing athletic determination or terrific physical exertion; stories about tough contests, and athletes overcoming adversity to get to success, and those lengthy investigative journalism reports into the darker side of sports. And then thereís the fluffy, meaningless swimsuit edition filled with eye-candy for males, that arrives in the mid-winter.
Obviously not everybody looks at the swimsuit issue from the same viewpoint. Laurel Davisís academic work The Swimsuit Issue and Sport: Hegemonic Masculinity in Sports Illustrated, sheds light on some of the concerns that such an edition can raise in an enlightened society. Davis is a Professor of Sociology at Springfield College and for her study she looked closely at SI swimsuit editions from 1964 to 1996. Her work examines the history of the immensely popular swimsuit issue, the reasons for its popularity and its profitability. The average issue of SI , she writes, sells about 3 million copies, while the swimsuit edition sells about 5 million copies. And ad revenue, writes Davis, jumps about 18% for the annual swimsuit issue over regular weekly editions. This kind of revenue places SIís swimsuit edition in the highest of all magazine revenues.
Davisí criticism of the annual edition of the magazine is that it continues to promote stereotypes. The female models are hardly athletic, at least not in the sense of the well-trained, muscular and conditioned athletes that are usually pictured in SI. Further, these models are often posed in a way that would be viewed by sports fans as either amateurish or unskilled athletically, she writes. And, writes Davis, if the models are not posed athletically, they are posed in a sexual way -- with a come-hither look, their heads canted in a provocative manner or their bodies placed in a way that plays up their sexuality. It is ironic, she says, that the magazine does not cover the sport of swimming in any depth through the rest of the year.
Another of her concerns is that the magazine continues to promote a view that males need to be macho. As a result, she says, males feel comfortable and sometimes compelled to read the swimsuit issue in public to show their sexual orientation, whereas some females might not care to be exposed to the magazine because of its contents. Because of this, and the male vision of idealised female beauty, the swimsuit edition continues to promote a hegemonic masculinity. In other words, the swimsuit edition exerts an influence that promotes a domination of one group in society over another. In this case, that would be male domination over females. The SI swimsuit edition is second only to Playboy magazine in terms of male readers, Davis points out. She leaves it to the reader to draw any further conclusions in this regard.
In helping to support her argument, Davis interviewed 39 people on their views about the magazine. That is one of the shortcomings of this work. Such a small sample size could have been obtained at any college dorm, and depending on the gender of the occupants, would have given similar or opposite results.
For the most part, Davisí work is enlightening and makes several valid points. Unlike some feminist writings, Davis work here is filled with more well-grounded facts than vitriolic. Readers can interpret the text of SI swimsuit edition any way they might, but the magazine is about a profit, not a political agenda. And it takes Davis a long time to get to the point where she admits that profit is the motive. Despite the valid arguments, donít expect an easy flowing narrative; her writing is academic and plodding, and sometimes difficult to get through.
Mike Gange teaches media studies and journalism courses at Fredericton High.