Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Picturing Hope Solo

Hope Solo survived her fifth week on Dancing with the Stars. I'm glad: she is a smart, outspoken athlete and the challenge of that program requires that she confront the different ways by which her image, as a woman, is regulated. I, for one, am glad she's willing to do so publicly.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, some USWNT fans hate the way DWTS treats Solo: Judges complained for weeks about how unfeminine her movements are, and every week they cite her physical strength as a weakness. I've explained why I don't think that is necessarily wrong. (It's a gendered performance, Solo seems uncomfortable in heels and also unsure of how one executes a routine without powering through it.)

It is worth pausing, however, to remember why fans of women's sports can get very defensive: we've been abused. We've been abused by the media blackout on women's sports, which is interrupted only occasionally by stories of exceptional victories (in lieu of regularly coverage of a season, for example) or by portraits of female monsters. So we flinch when we see the media turn its eye towards us. It's a conditioned reflex.

Add to that the paternalistic attitude with which administrators and even (sometimes especially) supporters of women's sports treat women athletes. Leagues have banned players for getting pregnant out of wedlock (imagine doing that to men! in this case, the athlete filed a suit so she could play,  she won but the controversy ended her promising career); fans tsk tsk when they see players off the court who pile on make up or wear a short skirt. National Federations compel athletes to grow long hair, and prefer that those women keep their opinions to themselves. (Look feminine! But not too much! Play hard! But not like a boy! Or too much like a girl!)

Most of us don't know where to start when talking about the image of the female athlete, because every step seems to take us in a bad direction. So when in 2009 ESPN Magazinefirst produced "The Body Issue," featuring portraits of naked men and women athletes, fans of women's sports started sharpening their knives.

It turns out that a lot of the portraits directly challenge conventions regarding the feminization and sexualization of the female athlete - this is particularly true for the image of Solo used as one of the magazine's covers.

Practical matters make photographing nude women tougher than photographing men: Women are obliged to pose in ways that covers their chests. This means that the poses are more static and defensive. Solo's cover photo is an exception. The pose reveals much about her body while also refusing, aggressively, to capitulate to conventions regarding the female nude. She is in motion, moving forward toward the viewer - her curves (and she does have them) are not hidden so much as engaged, put to work.

I think this must by why a Washington Post writer recently described Solo as androgynous. Hope Solo is as far from being androgynous as one can be: When you look at Solo, you do not wonder if she's a boy. Not even close. If she were androgynous, she couldn't have played the broad shouldered, big haired 80s Bon Jovi bitch so perfectly on this week's episode. (She landed in 4th, her best finish to date.)

But the photographs of Solo treat her body in a way that is very close to gender-neutral. It's not Solo that's androgynous, but the composition of the portraits - it's the way she is being looked at. It the way she is not being looked at.

"The Body Issue" gives us a lot to think about. Those portraits are cool, but when you look at the rest of the issue you'll see a TOTAL absence of coverage of women's sports. The only place women figure in this issue is in the nude portraits. So, the project of "The Body Issue" seems to be completely independent of any effort on the magazine's part to move towards parity in terms of its coverage. The truly sad fact is that the editors of the magazine probably think putting that wonderful portrait of Solo on the cover "counts" as coverage of women's sports. Not in my book. And, I suspect, not in Solo's either.


  1. I'm not sure what to make of this, but I definitely thought of you when I saw it:

  2. OK. That's fascinating. The Chaz v Solo thing? I'm so glad Chaz is all over DWTS publicity, because by doing this show Chaz sheds light on trans experience, even if that subject is alluded to only gently here and there on the show itself. And of course the show is 'rigged' to some extent. It is, after all, television. But fans have a way of derailing things sometimes. For good and for bad. There is something to what this guy is saying: I thought Solo would be all over the DWTS story, but she's not. It MIGHT be that the USSF is ambivalent? Thank you for the link. I'm going to mull over this black-helicopter narrative.

  3. I do not think belly dancers or ballet dancers wear heels. Women in both forms of dance can be feminine and powerful. Until now DWTS has been Ballroom Dancing with the (women) Stars (in heels) so it is cool to see Hope Solo breaking up the bogus constraints of a reality TV show.

    If you have seen the movie Strictly Ballroom, Hope Solo is living the life of the male lead. He was beautiful and talented too but he just wanted to do his own dance steps, not conform to the ideals of the judges. In the movie, the lead doing his own steps against the forces of conformity left him a hero as the credits rolled.

    I hope real (TV) life works out as well for Hope Solo.

  4. It was fun to see Hope's "transformation" when she got to practice with the "dancing girls." (I'd say much more about this, but I'm rushed at the moment). If only they could rig the next dance to have one of the "dancing girls" rush onstage and "punch out" Maks and finish the dance, proper-like. I'd love to see Hope finally gain the poetic upper hand and really claim it.
    DWTS is a bankrupt sham.

  5. HI,

    I've been waiting to see if you were going to comment on the next week when she danced in to "Seasons of Love" from Rent in a weird poncho that reminds me of something I crocheted in the 1970s (although mine was yellow and orange in harmony with prevailing trends not as good as green eyeshadow). Hope's costume to me seemed like a confused way to signal: her gender is off, so let's allude to some gay people, but as if they were hippies. And/or: let's try to show grace by covering her arm muscles.


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