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Laurel R. DAVIS (1997), The Swimsuit Issue and Sport: Hegemonic Masculinity in Sports Illustrated

Albany, State University of New York Press
Diana Ambrozas
p. 167-170
Référence(s) :

Laurel R. DAVIS (1997), The Swimsuit Issue and Sport: Hegemonic Masculinity in Sports Illustrated, Albany, State University of New York Press

Texte intégral

1The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue makes for an ideal case study of media representation. It is very popular with men and not at all with women. And Davis’ analysis is worth reading as it may be a book that can change your practice as well as your thinking. Because the book contains no pictures I deliberately sought out the magazine for the first time. I couldn’t find the swimsuit issue in the university library. As Davis predicted I had to ask the librarian to unlock her filing cabinet and show me the often looted material. If anything I was surprised only to find that the women’s poses are all too familiar from my regular consumption of advertising. Beautiful young women in skimpy outfits and submissive sexual postures are commonly pictured in glossy magazines and on television today. But of course having a collection of such representations for one’s personal use is a highly saleable commodity.

2Producers and consumers agree, as do men and women, that the swimsuit issue is the most socially acceptable pin-up genre. Sports Illustrated is a successful magazine with a subscribership of 3.3 million that is primarily (91 %) male and middle-class showing an average household income of $64,000 (American). The annual swimsuit issue is even more popular with a circulation of about 5 million copies. (Though only about 4 % of Sports Illustrated readers are Canadian there are undoubtedly more Canadians in the latter figures). There are also Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue calendars, diaries and videos available.

3Davis’ study is a qualitative empirical project combining producer, textual and audience analysis to present the case that Sports Illustrated is not a sports magazine so much as a men’s magazine. The strongest asset of the book, in my opinion, is the argument for this thesis rather than her rich methodology which actually yields some predictable results : the producers and texts structure a reading of the swimsuit issue as representing ideal feminine beauty while the audience has varied reactions. Using historical information about the magazine from its founding in 1954, Davis shows that the swimsuit issue has always been and continues to be relevant to the Sports Illustrated content. For its first decade the magazine devoted itself to a broad definition of sport which included leisure sports such as golf and swimming as well as the so-called hard professional sports like football or basketball. It also featured articles on travel, sport fashions, food and bridge in line with this leisure theme. In this context the coverage of women’s swimwear in tropical locations, which appeared sporadically since the magazine’s inception, fit in well with the fashion and travel features. Unfortunately for the owners of the magazine this broad road was not profitable. In 1964 came a change of direction which saw the definition of sport narrow to focus on the « hard » spectator sports. (Unfortunately for us, Davis does not disclose whether Time Inc. initially owned the magazine or whether they took it over at this juncture or later.) Today Sports Illustrated offers only occasional coverage of « soft » sports, like figure skating or bowling, and women’s sports. The «  hard  » sports are further associated with a virile heterosexual masculinity because of their emphasis on strength, size and aggression. With the new framework, Davis argues, Sports Illustrated readers could identify with and reaffirm this masculine ideal, and in a social context of gender confusion this allowed the magazine to turn a large profit. Sports Illustrated sells more copies than men’s magazines like Esquire. Davis concludes that the swimsuit issue, with its overwhelmingly beautiful, young, curvaceous, blond and blue-eyed models, presents a complementary feminine ideal and therefore continues to fit right in with the spirit of the magazine. « Hard » sports and « sexy » women combine in Sports Illustrated to deliver a message of gender norms.

4Davis has assembled a small but diverse (n = 39) sample of Sports Illustrated readers and she documents a variety of reactions to the swimsuit issue : approximately 30 % (13 men) are positive, 25 % (5 men, 4 women) are neutral and 45 % (2 men, 15 women) are critical. The critics cite a variety of reasons for their dislike of the issue ranging from its alleged incongruity to sports to a perceived marketing ploy, or from its overt sexualization of women to the specific type of sexualization as young, white and heterosexual. The latter is Davis’s own position. She does not criticize sexualization per se as do neopuritans, nor does she agree with liberal feminist criticisms that sexual representations of women would be fine if they were accompanied by an equal number of male pin-ups. Instead Davis argues it is the specific type of gender ideals propagated by Sports Illustrated that functions ideologically to arrest social change by legitimating existing power relations. As a result, hegemonic masculinity is « politically dangerous » (p. 84).

5Davis’ feminist critique is broadranging and encompasses critiques of heterosexism, racism and neocolonialism. The first and last of these are the most compelling. Her analysis of racism, however, neglects to look at the way race structures masculinity. While she addresses the exclusion of coloured forms of female beauty, she does not ask how black masculinity may differ from the hegemonic norm ; or similarly how working class masculinity may differ. According to Segal (1995) working class masculinity is more vulgar and violent than middle-class masculinity. But Davis omits the issue of class entirely. I find this surprising given that Davis hints that she is sympathetic to « socialist » aims (p. 83). And class is constitutive of the twin themes of Davis’s project : gender and sport. Bourdieu (1978) and Gruneau (1983) among others have shown how class structures the type of sport pursued by various groups as well as whether one is more likely to play or to watch. Class also informs the hierarchy which gives more social prestige to tennis and golf than to football or basketball and which places boxing and wrestling at the bottom of the pyramid. This has interesting implications for the Sports Illustrated readership. One might investigate whether the mid-sixties move away from leisure toward coverage of spectator sports is a move down the social ladder to a wider middle-brow audience base. While I admit that it is virtually impossible for any individual researcher to cover all the bases, perhaps Davis could have acknowledged her own limits here.

6A related and more serious weakness of The Swimsuit Issue and Sport is its lack of a strong theoretical base. Davis’ discussion of reception theory from cultural studies is good, but a discussion of her central concept, hegemony, is lacking altogether. Davis relies on R. W. Connell’s (1987) adaptation of Gramscian hegemony to masculinity. But she does not explicate the notion adequately. She writes « [...] hegemonic or (normative) masculinity refers to the dominant form of masculinity in United States society at the present time. Hegemonic masculinity tends to reflect and reinforce, rather than challenge, the present gender order » (p. 53). There is no sense here of Gramsci’s original idea of social struggle and consent. Nor is there any discussion of the relation of hegemony to ideology. Instead Davis employs a decidedly neutral definition of ideology from Justin Lewis (1991) that is at odds with her own critical perspective : « a widespread system of ideas used to make sense of and define part of the world » (p. 140).

7A final flaw of Davis’ account is the conclusion where she leaves her reader in a stalemate. She rightly holds that progressive social change needs feminist action as well as feminist cultural criticism. And she acknowledges the difficulties that feminist media activism has encountered. In particular the campaigns against the swimsuit issue, such as the annual demonstrations in front of the Time-Life building led by Women against Pornography as well as Linnea Smith’s advertiser targeted campaign, proved ineffective in making any editorial changes at the magazine (p. 120). Davis concludes that feminist action is no match against capitalist profit and leaves the matter there. This is defeatist and short-sighted and again far from Gramsci’s « optimism of the will. » It is simply not true that feminist interests are always unprofitable. In fact, former MediaWatch president Shari Graydon has suggested that it will be the rule of the bottom line that ultimately prompts some progressive change in advertising representations of women as women are increasingly recognized as an important market segment. She also credits MediaWatch with the removal of overly sexualized representations of women from billboards and bus shelters if not (yet) from ads on television or in magazines.

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Diana Ambrozas, « Laurel R. DAVIS (1997), The Swimsuit Issue and Sport: Hegemonic Masculinity in Sports Illustrated  », Communication, vol. 19/2 | 2000, 167-170.

Référence électronique

Diana Ambrozas, « Laurel R. DAVIS (1997), The Swimsuit Issue and Sport: Hegemonic Masculinity in Sports Illustrated  », Communication [En ligne], vol. 19/2 | 2000, mis en ligne le 08 août 2016, consulté le 20 janvier 2018. URL :

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Diana Ambrozas

Diana Ambrozas is a doctoral student in Communication, Simon Fraser University.

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