Jon Bradfield gives us his view on the widespread objectification of the Olympic athletes, both male and female.
I can’t have been the only one watching the men’s synchronised diving last week and thinking ‘how is this pre-watershed?’ And this was at work, glued almost literally to my monitor in the equally – if differently – enthusiastic company of straight male and straight female colleagues (I work in the arts, admittedly, but even in this liberal industry we keep porn for Fridays. And then only in return for a donation to WaterAid).
Because this is the sexy Olympics with the sexy Olympians. We sit on our sofas mumbling ‘Arms! Shoulders! Thighs!’, sounding for all the world like Father Jack. Not to presume, but have you noticed porn stars don’t look quite so hot right now? Those buff, topless clubbers seem a little faux-phwoar in comparison with Louis Smith, whose every muscle fibre has been honed, not in needy desperation for our erotic gaze, but to swing himself skilfully over that lucky, lucky pommel horse. These guys are the real deal. Then again, why should that be? Brent Everett seems to work just as hard for his career as Tom Daley does, and I don’t see that intricate diving has any particular merit over the erotic arts. Why is it a sport when ballet isn’t? Is it because the clothes in the latter are too modest?
So far, so unsurprising: most gay men I know could sexualise a casserole. Could sexualise air-con. But it’s not just us. From Boris Johnson who is among those ‘celebrating’ the female beach volleyballers, to prominent journalists compiling Tumblrs of the ’50 hottest Olympians’. We all seem to have had something of an awakening, becoming more open and almost un-British, with Londoners reportedly striking up conversations with complete strangers on the Tube.
However, surrounding all of this a discourse of objectification has sprung up, picking up on the differences between objectifying women and men: from Harry Coles (of the Guido Fawkes blog) defensively claiming that the treatment of Tom Daley is equivalent to that dished out to the volleyballers; to, more recently, pieces in the Guardian and the Huffington Post. Additionally, many spin-off conversations on various social media platforms.
It strikes me that there are differences: firstly, while we openly treat men’s diving, or gymnastics, or whatever, as an excuse to ogle, we don’t dismiss the sports themselves in the way that the ‘Carry On…‘ humour about beach volleyball arguably does. Secondly, for men there is no disparity between sexy and sporty – it just so happens that the physiques of male athletes match our supposed ideal of the male form (does Gaydar still have ‘athletic’ as one of its optimistically abused body types?) and behaviour, while it challenges pre-conceptions about women. This is, after all, in 2012, the first Olympics at which all competing nations have women in their teams.
I have no issue with any of this objectification. Abs, arses, tits, thighs, whatever your bag: these things are sexy, and we’re looking at high achievers, in a very physical arena. What’s not to blush at? The very fact that these bodies are, supposedly, not there for our arousal both legitimises the looking at them and makes it feel subversive at the same time. Where the erotic association (actually, that sounds as though it could be a lobbying group) is damaging is when we expect athletes – hell, anyone – to live up to our own limited erotic expectations, and sneer when they don’t.
This might be found in the double-edged and disingenuous articles about Jessica Ennis being called fat; or in the ‘hilarious’ comments about female shot-putters that I thought had finished with Fatima Whitbread’s career, however, I did see one yesterday from a gay man on Twitter. This is what reduces women to sex objects – and failed ones at that. Or, in a more complex way, it might be found in strange attitudes to women’s boxing – still a prejudice to the extent that when Gaby Logan asked Denise Lewis about the sport last night, Lewis assumed she was being asked to justify its existence. As, perhaps, she was.
People don’t like having their prejudices challenged, their world-view altered. Women athletes do this to some people as much as effeminacy in men does, and these prejudices seem to be as prevalent among gay men as anyone else. This is likely in part because when someone doesn’t conform to the role you expect of them, it raises questions about your own position in life; furthermore it is, I would argue, superficially disempowering to be confronted by someone who appears to not care about your attraction towards them (see this fantastic, articulate post from a female weightlifter). Is any group more casually barbed about lesbians than gay men? We only live once: why spend that precious time bowing to others’ flimsy judgments? As the wonderful Penny Arcade says to her audience in her show ‘Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!’: ‘if you don’t get up to join us for a dance, that’s fine; but if you don’t do it because you’re worried that people will sit there and judge you, well, that’s what people do’.
But let’s not allow genuine issues of disparity and objectification, or juvenile unease with sexual attraction, to muddy good, honest, erotic enjoyment of these sports, whatever our sex or sexual preferences. It’s healthy, it’s refreshing, and it’s fun.
Follow Jon Bradfield on Twitter: @jonbradfield