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Sports Illustrated is still exploiting feminism

Credit: Isabelle Vincent/ Credit: Isabelle Vincent/

The topic of women’s issues and bodies has garnered a lot of attention recently. In the case of the 2018 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, we are faced with a conversation involving both. Following the events of last spring surrounding both the controversial political climate and the feminist movement that passionately ensued in succession, MJ Day and her team at Sports Illustrated began working on what would be the 2018 Swimsuit Edition of the magazine with the intention of empowering women and changing preconceived notions about them. However when the issue hit stands, the world had more to say about the problematic implications of the portrayal of female empowerment and how it clashed with feminist ideology than they did about the celebration of women the issue attempted to spotlight.

Editor of the iconic, beloved, and infamous Swimsuit Edition of Sports Illustrated, MJ Day holds a spot as one of the most influential creative heads of the magazine. Having worked at Sports Illustrated for two decades, Day has been a part of the process since before any substantial conversation of change was brought to the table. Day sought to widen the standards of women that were being pushed to be printed on the glossy pages of the magazine by fighting for more diversity and size inclusivity highlighted in their annual bestselling issue. Twenty years later, Day works to make her vision take shape through a project she pioneered, with the help of an all female staff, titled In Her Own Words. The project features nude models posed and painted with words of their choosing, giving them artistic control and agency in how they label and express their personal empowerment. With current events in mind such as the #MeToo movement and a personal ideology formed from years of working as a woman under a male-centric publication, Day had a vision of altering the status quo of the Swimsuit Edition from within through an act of female empowerment in a time of female liberation.

So how have we found ourselves criticizing a project for lack of feminist ingenuity from a woman who claims she is aiming to fulfill that very agenda? The answer lies in the fact that not all ideas translate properly. In this case, the intentions behind the project did not read the same as the final result. In the context of a publication such as Sports Illustrated, the spread sat nestled between other salacious photo shoots curated for male consumers, the promise of change seemed more like a selling point than an honest ideological shift.

The feminist title seemed demeaned and commercialized as it claimed to stand as a fighting testament to misogyny while at the same time being published within a magazine that continuously neglected those concerns. Sports Illustrated has notably capitalized on the marketing of sexual images of women while disregarding scandals against their photographers, such as sexual assault accusations made against celebrity photographer and Sports Illustrated veteran Terry Richardson. Their heavy emphasis on the “progressiveness” of a project fully in the hands of women seemed to only mock the idea further, making it seem as if that were an extraordinary feat which justified their ability to call it feminism rather than truly celebrating it. People are not angry that this project has women finding liberation in their nakedness, but they are angry that they do so in a magazine that is capitalizing off of that freedom by simultaneously giving a platform to standards that oppress them. Woman or not, Day’s idea to reform a magazine with a historically exploitative portrayal of women through a visual narrative seemed naive — if not insulting — to many, and brings us to question feminism in the context of where it is used.

The issue here is not about male-dominated brands or corporations delving into the realm of feminist conversation, but is instead about the capitalization of feminism and the hypocrisy of their ethics in contrast to the ideology they are claiming to promote. It is no secret that female owned corporations have committed these same infractions in the past; Sophia Amoruso and Miki Agrawal, CEOs of Nasty Gal and Thinx respectively, have both been rightly condemned for their false activism after stories arose about their company policies neglecting maternity leave and affordable health plans along with hostile work environments arose. Feminism is not exclusive to any gender and falsifying activism for the sake of good standing is not a new concept, but is feminism in practice not a viable option for successful corporations? Similarly, within Sports Illustrated, the inclusion of feminist perspectives seems impossible to put in action without compromising its credibility. How, in this case, can we applaud the good in bringing forth a conversation on feminism previously missing within their audience while also holding those in power responsible for their deceptive and manipulative tactics of commercializing it? Are we unable to merge discourse on feminism into the mainstream agenda without sacrificing the cause for the sake of exposure in the process? Ultimately, is this a step forward or a step backward for feminism?

Although the progress is tedious, frustrating, and at times heartbreakingly slow, progress is progress regardless, and the small steps forward cannot be taken for granted. It is our job as members of a larger community to shape the conversations of these issues by being vocal on where we stand to make clear the ever changing language of social politics. While the questionable tactics of Sports Illustrated and their nude homage to the feminist narrative continue to be a topic of controversy, it is important to remember that not every person lives their liberty the same way. Some find empowerment in modesty and others find empowerment in nudity, however the final goal of our agency in making that choice is the same. We cannot expect every woman who chooses to share their viewpoint to engender our notion of feminism. Instead we should hold its meaning open to healthy discourse indicative of our diverse views. If any good has come out of the 2018 Swimsuit Edition of Sports Illustrated, it is seen in the conversations that have followed its shocking debut. Sometimes we must weigh the cost of trading in exposure for exploitation and weigh at what cost we may sacrifice these things.