All Media Is Sexist. Admit It And We Can Make It Better
Coming back from a climbing trip is always a shock to the system, partially because of a backlog of emails, and being out of the media loop. Catching up after an off-the-grid week, I was rather excited to see an article on the topic of sexism and niche media in Climbing magazine. Sadly, with every line I read my excitement was fading, and when I got to the part where the author quoted my article, clearly without understanding its point and taking my words out of context, I was rather disappointed. So, although I hoped I had made myself clear in the post written two years ago for Outdoor Women’s Alliance, I will attempt to make myself even clearer here.
Allow me to start by pointing out that this article written in 2014 can’t be a reaction to this Sasha DiGiulian picture taken last week. I know it’s tricky without a date above my post, but dates of the comments are a good hint.
The editor goes on:
Miss DiGiulian (who is a champion for women in sports) posted this innocuous image of herself on her own personal social media page. Equal rights means having the freedom to post a bathing suit photo without being publicly shamed for it. Didn’t we get past that in the 1950s?
Spot on. Well, maybe apart from the fact that we haven’t yet gotten past that. (As far as I remember, a not so old article ‘shamed’ Sierra Blair-Coyle for her image choices.) So, no, the world is not past understanding ‘equal rights’. The media is sexist. And, so are we all.
As I wrote last year, and the Climbing magazine kindly quoted last week:
...the dominant discourse goes something like this: Girls are pretty, but they can’t really do sports, so let’s put a token girl in here and there. Make sure she looks really hot. After all, it’s not about her skills, it’s about her cute face. She will make men buy the magazine and make other women want to be like her, because men find her attractive. I mean, what other things could a woman possibly want from doing sports apart from finding a guy?
Simplistic and colloquial as it may be, I believe it to be a rather accurate description of the mainstream media. So, to calm the troubled consciences of the few climbing journalists writing to me on social media, no, I didn’t just say something bad about you. You don’t write for the Daily Mail, and your climbing magazines don’t feature page three models.
However, decades after the emergence of adventure sports, there’s still a great imbalance in the number of male and female participants, and it’s clearly reflected in the media coverage. As climbing becomes more and more popular, this difference is much less pronounced amongst climbers than, say, BMXers. But initially when the participants’ numbers started growing rapidly, the media didn’t catch up. We saw very few newsworthy reports on women’s achievements, and many ‘bait’ covers showing a pretty girl. As was the case with mainstream media, niche media portrayed female participants in passive, fake poses. No action, no struggle, just a sweet smile. The famous Corey Rich image (hold your fire, I didn’t say I didn’t like this image, but that’s frankly irrelevant) which appeared on the cover of Climbing magazine in 1997 is a prime example.
In the realm of mainstream media, Sports Illustrated was one of the magazines that received severe criticism for the above. And they, like many others, changed. We saw real women on the covers. Muscle, sweat, and awkward faces. A great win for the case of feminism in sports. (Then there was this fail. But there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right? *sigh*)
As numbers of female climbers kept growing, they began to demand media that would not only represent them, (I invite you to skim through some ‘90s climbing magazines. No women. Zero. Pretty much as bad as it is today with many MTB magazines), but represent them fairly. So, they started making their own, or remaking the existing ones by becoming media professionals. The outcome is that in comparison with other adventure sports climbing media is doing pretty freaking great. It just takes a quick look at the EpicTV page: click the climbing tab and you’ll see quite a few videos featuring female climbers. Click any other tab, like biking or skiing, and the guys still have some catching up to do. (Although, as I was told by our only female content commissioner Donna Saarentola, in the past, the company was very much guilty of trying to capitalise on the “sex sells” approach. Ironically, having no women on the pages is a small step forward. Donna also pointed out that on the really long list of climbing filmmakers we work with there are only two women.) The EpicTV surfing tab has got a rather large collection of videos about female athletes. Most of them could be described as ‘babes’. And that, to a degree, is another problem.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to ban women from wearing bikinis and having long hair. Bikinis and wild manes are awesome. There are no bad choices; the only thing that matters is for them to be free and informed. So, it’s perfectly fine for an athlete to highlight her sexuality by posting a picture of her butt, but if that’s the only way for her to get media attention, or sponsorship, that’s far from fine. And it’s not her to blame, but the social structure we are all a part of. Whether we like it or not, we’re all subject to the gender power relations that shape our society, and we all perpetuate them.
If we were to believe in the image created by the media, all women who surf are about seventeen, and eight out of ten women who climb have long, blond hair that they don’t tie back to do sports. You can keep calling that fair representation, if you insist.
Climbing is a community of supportive, thoughtful people with a bit of rebellion at heart. That’s why many of the faults of mainstream media have never occurred in ‘our’ niche outlets, but we’re not free of guilt. With climbing gaining wider attention, and both the discipline and its media becoming more and more akin to their mainstream counterparts, we need to be even more wary of objectification, infantilisation, and marginalisation of female participants. We’re doing pretty well, but there’s still work to be done. Admitting that is the best way to keep moving forward.