FIT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE

Crotch shots, upskirts, sports reporting, and the objectification of female athletes’ bodies

A front page figure skating picture in the Globe and Mail recently caused a stir. You can read about it here and here and here.

Here’s a brief run-down of the events: The front page of The Globe and Mail last Monday  featured 17-year-old figure skater Kaetlyn Osmond of Marystown, Nfld. Osmond came in eighth place overall at the World Figure Skating Championship here in London, Ontario over the weekend. Some critical comments on Twitter about the selection of the photo were followed by a response from Globe public editor Sylvia Stead: “Photo on #globeandmail front today is not acceptable in my view & readers. More later.” Eventually the story died down after Osmond herself tweeted that she liked the photo and a few of us were left wondering what the fuss was about. See the “not acceptable” photo for yourself at the bottom of this post.

Personally, I don’t mind the picture. I guess I wouldn’t have included it below if I did. And I think it’s odd that the Globe was so quick to apologize and so adamant in its apology. Kaetlyn is smiling, happy, excelling at something she loves. It doesn’t seem to me there is anything particularly scandalous about it. No one actually says what’s supposed to be wrong with the picture but I gather the complaint is that it’s a ‘crotch shot.’  In this case though the view is one you’d have if you were watching her compete.  I think that’s different from the ‘odd angle’ crotch shots of women athletes that are so common and so awful.

Another sport that’s known for scandal around the way it’s photographed is, of course, beach volleyball. See What if every sport was photographed like beach volleyball? and read Jezebel on the leering Olympics sports reporters. No one denies that athletes have striking bodies but it’s the emphasis on body parts rather than athletics that makes feminist blood boil when it comes to reporting on women’s sports. Why can’t we care about what those bodies do, rather than on what they look like? (See our past post Athletic versus Aesthetic Values in the Pursuit of Fitness  for some discussion of this distinction.) Now beach volleyball is controversial not just for the photos but also for the uniforms female beach volleyball players are required to wear and there’s some argument that in that case, that’s where the battle should begin.

Crotch shots seem worse yet when they are photos taken at peculiar angles with the resulting image, captured for all eternity, being nothing like one would have seen watching the sport in question. Something that flashes by quickly is frozen in time, blown up, and displayed in a manner to which the photo’s subject would not have consented. The issue of crotch shots of female athletes is addressed by feminist philosopher Carolyn McLeod in her paper “Mere and Partial Means: The Full Range of the Objectification of Women” published in the  Canadian Journal of Philosophy (Volume 32, Issue Supplement, 2002, Feminist Moral Philosophy) McLeod’s philosophical aim is to defend the idea that there can be degrees of objectification and that lots of the objectification of women in contemporary Western society that contributes to oppression is “partial objectification.”

In the course of her argument for the degreed nature of objectification (about which I think McLeod is importantly correct) McLeod tells a story about her experience as an athlete and the subject of a crotch shot photo, as an example of partial objectification:

“When I was a teenager, I was in a  tennis tournament in a small town where the McLeods of my family first  settled in Ontario. I was in the finals of “ladies singles.” The next day, a picture of me appeared in the sports section of the local newspaper. I  was lunging for a ball, and like a good “lady” of tennis, I was wearing  a little skirt. Clearly the photographer had taken the shot while lying on  his back, for the most prominent feature of it was my crotch. (It became  known in town as “the crotch shot.”) My Aunt Fern fumed (my mother laughed), and Fern almost boiled over when she found out that some  men at a nearby hydro plant (what we call “Hydro”) put the picture on the wall in the men’s change rooms. The whole thing was discomforting  for me, especially becoming a target for the sexist jokes and fantasies  of men at Hydro. (I’d worked at Hydro, so I knew about the jokes.) Never before had I imagined myself so thoroughly as something that could just get men off. I was angry with the photographer, although I later found out that it was a photographer’s trick to point a camera  upward if you want only one figure in a shot and no background objects to distract attention from it. It is possible that the photographer did not intend to produce a crotch shot. “

Crotch shots in the context of sports reporting seem to me to be on a continuum with the loathsome phenonama of “upskirting.” If sports photos are often partial objectification, then upskirt photos are the full blown thing. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the “upskirt.”

Upskirt refers to the practice of making unauthorized photographs under a female’s skirt, capturing an image of her crotch area and underwear. The term “upskirt” can also refer to a video, illustration or photograph which incorporates the upskirt image. The term is also sometimes used to refer generically to any voyeur photography – i.e. catching an image of somebody unaware in a private moment. The practice is regarded as a form of sexual fetishism or voyeurism and is similar in nature to downblouse. The ethical and legal issue relating to upskirt and downblouse photography is one of a reasonable expectation of privacy, even in a public place. The victims of the practice are almost exclusively females, including teenage girls. Women feel harassed or humiliated when they realise that they have been a victim of the practice. This is especially the case when such images have already been disseminated on the Internet and they are identifiable.”

Let me end with some advice: If you should search either “upskirt” or “crotch shots of female athletes” be prepared for an avalanche of tumblrs. Sigh.