What I learned from the comments thread at Tenured Radical


Why weren’t we on the cover?

Did any of you see Tenured Radical’s post yesterday about the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue 2014, “Happiness is a Cold, Plastic Doll?”  This year it features Barbie on the cover, but the same old soft-core porn inside.

The point of TR’s post was to comment on the cultural significance of SI’s annual swimsuit issue.  She noted her confusion when she first saw it in the 1970s, a decade in which porn was pushing into the mainstream, and Playboy had come to her campus to take some photos for “Girls of the Ivy League.”  (This was 1978; recall that most Ivies hadn’t admitted women until the early 1970s.  Welcome to campus, ladies!)  TR writes that the swimsuit issue wasn’t porn, but yet it “wasn’t not porn, because everything was exposed except, as Monty Python would say, the ‘naughty bits.'”  And yet–

The women were definitely chosen for their porny qualities. No model was included who didn’t have (as they used to say back in the 1970s) a “great rack,”  or was not able to spread her legs, tip her butt up alluringly for potential rear entry, or cock her head back in that time-honored fashion that says, “Come and get it, Buster Brown.”

But like those who reject changing the name of the Washington Football Team, the swimsuit issue is spoken of as a tradition. Hence it is harmless, right? Wrong. The swimsuit issue is the porn that gets circulated in public, as if it were not really porn, which to me – makes it more sexist than the tabletop magazines that just say brightly: “we’re all about porn!” It’s the porn that gets delivered at the office, and it’s the porn that people think it’s ok for little boys to have, like the Charlie’s Angels and Farrah Fawcett posters that were so popular back in the day, because it helps them not grow up to be fags.

This is not what all but four or five of us commenting on the post learned.  Instead, several porndogs wanted to turn the comments thread on this post into a strange personal porny fantasy involving fetishizing women’s bodies and insulting feminists and feminism at the same time.  This is a fair summary of their threadjack:

You might wonder why I bother documenting this.  These are hardly worthy adversaries or important people–no one seems to comment under a real name, or at least not a name I recognize.  (Besides, I’m willing to go out on a ledge here to say these trolls are not in fact the most heterosexually successful men out there.  Aside from the misogyny, who has the time to troll like this?  Not guys who have something real going on, that’s for sure.)  I’m bothering because I think exposure and ridicule are the only ways to combat behavior like this.

Also, I think some intelligent people might like to discuss Tenured Radical’s ideas about the SI swimsuit issue and its place in modern American culture.  (For example, both Flavia from Ferule and Fescue and Dr. Cleveland from Dagblog contributed intelligent comments.)  So consider this comments thread your turn to engage the ideas in that post, or in their comments, or on mine.  Or, just say something takes Tenured Radical and/or feminism seriously.

31 thoughts on “What I learned from the comments thread at Tenured Radical

  1. The other point made by TR that seems to have gotten brushed over by the trolls is the implicit message it sends about women as athletes. It is a magazine dedicated to coverage of athletics in which women’s most notable role is in an issue in which they appear mostly naked, having nothing to do with actual sports.


  2. Great point, ej.

    I think the trolls wanted to make the point to **all** of us, not just women athletes, that we’re just here for their viewing and sexual pleasure. They’re completely on board with SI’s values and priorities!


  3. Thanks for this Historiann: obviously I notice stuff like this because of my research on the feminist porn wars of the 1980s, but one of the things I have noticed is that it simply is not possible to critique anything that has to do with public sexual displays of any kind without getting slammed by both liberals and conservatives as a bad feminist. Inevitably the conversation polarizes to “all porn, all the time” and “no porn – evah!!!” Try to get in the middle and you get shoved aside.

    And yes, porn has consequences: for individual lives, for structural sexism. Some of the consequences we can more or less agree to live with or admit that we enjoy, but others — particularly when practiced by major corporations — need some more examination.

    And you really kind of get it what all the defense of porn is about for some folks when a commenter moves so quickly to the idea of using me as a masturbation object: hates women, particularly when they get out of line.


  4. because of my research on the feminist porn wars of the 1980s. . .

    Which clearly means that you have nothing to say whatsoever about porn that any man needs to take seriously! Egad.

    It’s like online fights about motherhood: you can’t possibly have an opinion about their soft-core porn because you’re not a consumer of it. Their opinion as consumers is the only opinion that counts. Consumerism authorizes them in ways that your careful study of the porn wars never will.

    How about bringing these interests together in a post, and see how many of your creepy commentators admit to being consumers of child porn? I wouldn’t put it past them. It might really frustrate them, because so many were really dedicated to the fantasy that porn and sex work are totally positive, affirmative, and yes even feminist choices for women.


  5. Great posts TR and Historiann. I’d like to raise a question. A friend who is a high-level college administrator told me that course evaluations are now riddled with the kinds of personal and nasty comments that are so common in online comments. This person has to spend a lot of time preparing promotion packets that now explain that these anonymous and ugly comments should be ignored and hoping that higher level committees do just that. I wonder if this is the case elsewhere and I also wonder if there is any lasting cultural harm to the inadvertent promotion of this kind of discourse or whether this will (hopefully soon) die down. (Maybe because we only speak in twitter-length replies)


  6. Praying for the Home Team in Oklahoma City

    By a nice coincidence, the phenomenon that TR called “women dancing on the sidelines” and the prayerful invocation of the lord’s blessing on NBA games in Oklahoma City is limned and illustrated in the NY Times sports page today. The paper lumps the dance stuff under the category of “the usual hoopla…”

    The explicitness chasm between what SI chose to show and what Playboy felt able to show back in the ’60s-’70s was probably a lot narrower than might be imagined today.

    NB: The link in the top line may or may not be live…


  7. Personally, I found TR’s question:

    “what does it say to contemporary kids, mostly girl kids, for whom Barbie is a pre-puberty toy, to make her a sexy cover girl posing for jocks?”

    a really important one, but guess that wasn’t what commentators wanted to talk about…

    The sexualization of pre-pubescent girls and the increasing elimination of childhood through the imposition of adult-like expectations (school, sports, achievement, etc) strike me as major concerns with a particular negative impact on girls.


  8. Shaz–do you think the Duke Freshman porn star story has anything to do with your comments on the sexualization of girls and the “increasing elimination of childhood through the imposition of adult-like expectations?”

    I think it does. I also think she sounds like a very smart and thoughtful young woman, noting that she wouldn’t be subject to the same abuse were she a man.


  9. That’s quite a thread. Personally, I’m still trying to puzzle out the question Flavia posed at the top of the thread. The best I can come up with is that SI is not a monolith, but instead a business employing people with varying degrees of power, ambitions, attitudes toward their mutual subject, etc. I suspect that, even if many at SI are oblivious to the potential meanings of the cover, someone involved in creating it has a delightfully subversive sense of humor.

    Since I did have a (younger) brother, my first encounter with the SI swimsuit issue was sometime in late junior high or early high school. And I (and other girls I knew) definitely compared my own body to those of the models, with predictably discouraging results (but, of course, the hope that we would continue to grow, and/or not grow, in various directions). The Mad Magazine “naked picture of your girlfriend with a bag over her head” feature, though it poses its own myriad problems, was, on the whole, more encouraging.


  10. I notice stuff like this because of my research

    I take TR’s point but would suggest that it’s a sign of the enormity of the problem that she has to qualify and rationalize “noticing” this stuff via academic interest. I mean, come on, mostly nude women not engaged in athletic competition, in a sports magazine–this year represented as a doll dressed by others for the pleasure of others–is pretty f*ing obvious, isn’t it? My 10 year old boys can figure this stuff out without any coaching from the sidelines. How hard can it be?

    Of course I know the answer to my rhetorical question.

    Honestly, I’ve pretty well given up on the boys who should know better. I correct the male students and colleagues with whom I interact when they make bad assumptions or out of line statements but I think my time is better spent saying to female students “no, the way you have been treated is not just the way things are for women, and no, this is not how it has to be.”

    Has anyone here seen the 2003 movie Mona Lisa Smile? It’s about a feminist art history prof and her students at Wellesley in the 1950s. I watched it recently and take the movie entirely differently than any review I’ve read (through Roger Ebert is pretty good).


  11. The Duke story is also fascinating. She seems a bit naive* (or perhaps just idealistic), but, yes, smart and thoughtful as well.

    *perhaps about the porn industry, definitely about how her fellow students would react. The self-protective answer, on any number of levels, would have been something along the lines of “well, they say everyone has a doppelganger somewhere!” But it sounds like she has a sense of sex-positive mission as well as a need and desire for money.


  12. “the porn that gets circulated in public, as if it were not really porn, which to me – makes it more sexist”

    This. Dozens of times. Every. Single. Day. You bet that’s not harmless.

    Women, at least, on some level, are going to try to reject it. I’d say it’s even more toxic for those who absorb it.


  13. truffula, I have seen Mona Lisa Smile recently, and I really liked it. I thought it was a brilliant study of some women’s lives in the 1950s, with a lot of uncomfortable resonances for women today. If I had a teenaged daughter, I’d love to watch it with her. I’d like to hear more about your evaluation of it.

    You know how MG Lord wrote that book about Elizabeth Taylor being a feminist icon? I think one day someone may write that book about Julia Roberts. Her choices as an actor and producer suggest some very clear feminist themes, especially in some of her most recent work (Mirror Mirror, producing the Felicity movie for the American Girl franchise, etc.)


  14. Mona Lisa Smile

    I quite liked the movie too. Nothing was particularly simple for any of its main characters and what defined success for those who we could see to have found it was looking their situations head on and actively making decisions. The movie is about agency.

    The contrast between the marriage gone wrong from the start (Betty) and the marriage chosen over Yale law at the end (Joan) exemplifies this. Joan has an analysis grounded in feminist thought–whether we agree with it or not–about why she makes that choice. Betty does not, though by the end of the movie she is figuring it out. It is excellent that the same analytical framework–a feminist framework–is articulated though these two different story lines. The art history instructor (Katherine, played by Roberts) is a sort of beacon in that she articulates this framework, but I think it is important to the central point of the movie that she does it though her pedagogical approach to art history.

    The one thing I did not like was the need to have a reason for Katherine to leave the Italian language prof at the end. He doesn’t have to be a bad guy for her to choose something else, and it weakens the movie’s central thesis that he is (sort of). At least this point of conflict is left as a minor point in the story.

    I appreciate also that the feminist endeavor is portrayed as that, an endeavor. The women whom we see as having successful story lines are the ones who are defining themselves, rather than being defined through the men in their lives. Some of them are partnered and some of them are not. And even better, there are no enlightened men showing them the way. They are doing it for themselves.

    I agree that there are a lot of uncomfortable resonances for women today. The movie reviews quite poorly in the popular critiques. This does not surprise me at all. I think Ebert is close to the mark in his review. Among other insightful things, he writes, “Unlike the typical heroes of movies about inspiring teachers, however, she doesn’t think the answer lies in exuberance, freedom and letting it all hang out, but in actually studying and doing the work, and she despairs when competent students throw away their futures (as she sees it).”


  15. Or, we might call it “Wannabe Porn.” Porn without the courage of its convictions.

    I’m not saying that because I’m trying to valorize more obvious porn. (Maybe those pornographers *should* lack conviction.) What I’m saying is that while most of us would agree that there is sexually explicit art that is NOT porn because of its approach to the subject matter, there is likewise not-quite-explicit sexual material that takes a basically pornographic approach. It would be porn if it dared.

    Obviously, this is a qualitative distinction that can’t useful be encoded into laws or rules. But that doesn’t mean Wannabe Porn doesn’t have problems. It still teaches a particular way of looking at and thinking about women.

    (And thanks for the mention, Historiann! Cheers!)


  16. Since you have invited mockery of the commenters on TR’s post, check out this picture of fuckewitte right-wing misogynist douche Gerry Harbison on his faculty Web page:

    Nice rod, Gerry!


  17. Eeeew. That’s the guy who wrote “Why you disgusted by the prospect that men might whack off to your bod?”

    I guess we should give him props for posting under his real name.


  18. Truffula–thanks for your comments on MLS. The movie probably wouldn’t pass the Bechtel Test, except for the scenes in which the students gossip about the Julia Roberts character (and her rumored love life) but it was a remarkably thoughtful view of the world of 1953 and the very limited lives that some of the most privileged women had to look forward to.

    Like I said above, I think it would be an interesting movie to watch with a teenaged girl.


  19. Historiann, you had a post sometime in the last year on a similar subject, and I remember one of your commenters writing “the cock must not be blocked.” That’s all I could think of when I read TR’s post yesterday. How dare she interfere with the right of dudes to get turned on. The cock must not be blocked!


  20. I think it would be an interesting movie to watch with a teenaged girl.

    Hopefully not in a “look how far we’ve come” sort of way, but more an uncomfortable resonances way, as you also suggest above.

    I see my own mother in that character Joan (though being lworking class but with a progressive father, she went to a state college). She had a radical feminist analysis bubbling up inside but nevertheless made the deal she thought she had to make. She made the most of it, but that most was a heck of a lot less that what she had it in her to become. Her “new deal” type Democrat husband was at heart far less progressive than her father had been.

    My mother is very clear on how far we have not come. All you have to do is look inside Sports Illustrated to see it.

    From the linked column by gold-medal swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar:

    “If only Barbie had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated as one of her athlete-personas, in athletic poses, where girls could imagine themselves winning in the Olympics through their toy.

    recent study found that between 2000-2011 less than five percent of their covers featured a female athlete, with the amount of coverage unchanged since the 1980s, despite these historic high levels of female sports participation.”

    Hogshead-Makar makes some important points about sports and young women in that column and she includes a number of informative links.


  21. And it goes beyond SI: I once started tracking the number of stories about male athletes vs. female athletes in the NY Times, and it as so depressing I stopped. If you subtract tennis, the #’s drop below 1%.


  22. The New York Times sports page is actively hostile to women’s sports. Their coverage is infuriating.

    It’s interesting to compare the SI swimsuit issue with ESPN’s annual “Body Issue” magazine that features real athletes, naked, of both sexes and a range of races. That’s another retrograde aspect of SI, is how notably white and blonde the models are, especially the fan favorites. I have only glanced at TR’s comment thread, but I think the “must not block the cock” sense is dead on. Men, perhaps particularly older white men, protect their absolute sexual privilege with absolute rage.

    Having said that, as an SI subscriber I get the swimsuit issue (mine actually did not have the Barbie cover). I flip through it, remove the perfume ads, decide once again that these plasticized blondes all look alike to me, and give it to a close male friend. This has been a running joke between us for years, since he is such a buttoned up scholarly fellow. I think that the SI writers are smart enough to apply some irony to what they’re doing, but for a certain type of man the freedom to see women as their personal sex toys is a central part of their masculinity.


  23. Men, perhaps particularly older white men, protect their absolute sexual privilege with absolute rage.

    I agree about the rage part (clearly!), but are the d00ds over at TR really defending “absolute sexual privilege,” or their rather sad and lonely wankery? My sense is that guys who are actually getting it on with actual women wouldn’t really care what some internet feminist scholars think about soft-core porn because they’re getting it on with actual women.


  24. Sexual privilege is the privilege to gratification without reciprocity; it is a set of social arrangements that enable one to attain sexual satisfaction without satisfying or arousing someone else.

    In that sense, the privilege of the sad lonely masturbator is absolute. A man having heterosexual intercourse with a steady partner exists somewhere on a spectrum of privilege, equity, and negotiation, with the biggest variable how much he has to attend to his partner’s desires and needs. The Hefners and Trumps occupy one end of the scale, where it’s hard to imagine that many of their sexual partners would choose them for strictly erotic reasons. On the other end, you have men who a great deal of investment in attracting, arousing, and pleasing their partners,

    Yes, being with an actual person is vastly more satisfying than looking at a magazine. In terms of payoff, it’s much superior. But if we measure privilege by how much someone gets out of something but by how little he has to put into it, then consuming porn is completely an expression of privilege. You can get off strictly because you want to, without bothering about what anyone else wants or even what they conceivably might want.

    Sexual privilege means not having to be sexually attractive. It also means never submitting yourself to someone else’s evaluation of your attractiveness. And that, I think, explains the defensive rage you’re seeing on TR’a thread. It’s the sad wankers who need their privilege most desperately. It’s the primary way to meet their own sexual needs, and it protects them from having to face the knowledge of their own failure to attract or please women.


  25. Three points (sorry).

    1. I’m glad northern barbarian cited the ESPN’s “Body Image” issue, which strikes me as a healthy celebration of the human body—and one that neither precludes erotic responses nor is reducible to them. If, as I think is true, this sort of thing was much rarer in popular culture thirty or more years ago, then the really curious thing about *SI* is how much of a throwback it is, and how critiquing it demands replaying old debates from the 1980’s.

    2. Critiques of pornography often involve both issues of production (e.g., exploitation of participants) and issues of reception (the responses of consumers, spectatorship, the possibilities for against-the-grain reading, etc.), and they sometimes conflate these two classes of issues unnecessarily. The discussion on TR’s blog shifted to production issues even though that was not TR’s original focus, and while some very good points were made (for example, in the discussion of the Duke student), the production critique is the least compelling part of the critique of SI. Let’s acknowledge costs that we know these models bear, but we should not talk about them as if we were Andrea Dworkin discussing Linda Marchiano/Lovelace. By the way, the most objectionable and disturbing “production” issue involving pornography today is the emergence of so-called “revenge porn.”

    3. I suppose I understand why people want to do it, but I don’t think it is right to gloat over the (inferred) failures of guys who look like Seth Rogen, even if they are fuckewitte douchebags.


  26. Who better to mock than the f–kwitte d–chebags who go on feminist blogs to write about their fantasy lives? I’d leave ’em alone if they kept to their own weird porny corners of the internets. (But they didn’t.)

    I take your point about the different levels of exploitation in the production of porn, absolutely. But I don’t think those issues are entirely erased even with highly paid supermodels.


  27. Pingback: This Week’s New York History Web Highlights | The New York History Blog

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