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The Year of the Butt: Olympic (Un)Coverage

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This Olympic season, coverage of women’s sports has gleefully emphasized a certain female body part. President Bush has been photographed numerous times grinning dizzily at its wonders, cameras linger as it moves.

It’s the year of the butt.

Specifically, the beach-volley-ball butt, made available through the wonders of the bikini. According to one beach volleyball Olympian, women play the sport in bikinis because bikinis are “more comfortable.” (She did not say what specifically they were more comfortable than.) Surely, this answer was not meant to be taken seriously. Women play volleyball indoors wearing shorts and t-shirts. They dress like athletes, not supermodels. They look like athletes, not women who spend hours after practice doing endless squats.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? Volleyball alone does not produce beach-volley-ball butt so attentively documented each night by the cameras. And beach volleyball players are not pretending to be simply the exceedingly talented athletes they are. They also want to look hot. That’s cool. They are grown women making that choice; I just wish they wouldn’t pretend otherwise, as if those of us watching weren’t too bright.

More disturbing to me is the camera work during female gymnastics competition. The problem begins for me in the fact that virtually every female gymnast is underage, and looks very young, very much like a little girl. Yet camera crews track their movements as often as possible from behind and at lower than necessary angles. Male gymnasts tend to be more fully clothed—pants, even!—and less invasively documented. Female gymnasts wear considerably less, are asked to expose considerably more of their bodies. And they are not adults. They are children—are they incredibly fit? yes. talented? of course. world-class? absolutely—but they possess undeniably child-like features and dimensions and all of this butt- coverage (my humble addition to media lexicography) is just disturbing.

Is this the most important story of an Olympic games being staged in a totalitarian country? Probably not. And butt-coverage in an election year like this one might not seem too terribly alarming. Fair enough. But in an election year where women and their treatment in the media have been discussed and debated, and have been considered with unprecedented seriousness and frequency, I can’t resist pointing out these persistentoffenses to women.

Trivial or prickly as my comments may seem, my complaints are in fact more than that. The Olympics demonstrates how women live with sexism on a global scale, how their bodies are at the heart of that sexism, and how the media's relentlessly sexed up images never quit.


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Kellie Bean has been a Professor of English at Marshall University, an Associate Dean of Liberal Arts, and most recently, Provost of a small New England College. Author of "Post-Backlash Feminism: Women and the Media Since Reagan/Bush" (McFarland (more...)

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