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"Sexism Illustrated"?
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

swimsuit.jpg
Sex sells... and everyone's buying

SI's Swimsuit Issue: Sexist Dinosaur or Proud American Tradition?

Spring is almost here, and all the ballplayers who aren't involved in contractual disputes have reported to training camp. The Super Bowl champion has been crowned, and the groundhog has seen his shadow. It's a joyous time of year, a time of rebirth, redemption and romance.

Oh wait, almost forgot. It's time for sex-crazed males of all ages to shell out a few bucks for the latest edition of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue!

That's right. America's respectable alternative to pornography is back, making its annual appearance on newsstands across the country, waiting to take its place under your mattress next to old, battered copies of Playboy, Penthouse and the Victoria's Secret catalogue.

Like the James Bond saga, the swimsuit issue is a cultural dinosaur, a relic from another era that has survived the passage of time on the strength of its sex appeal. From year to year, the names and the faces change, even if the measurements stay the same. Cheryl Tiegs passes the smoldering torch to Christie Brinkley, who eventually hangs up her bikini and makes way for a younger generation of underwear models. (This years cover girl, Elsa Benitez, is a model who would like to pursue a career in acting. How original.)

It's only slightly different from the Bond formula. Bond, of course, is the secret agent who never loses his boyish charm thanks to a series of actors (Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan) who keep him fresh. But he's not so much a character as a hyper-masculine fantasy; hes the personification of the Alpha Male, a slick, sophisticated predator who always wins the sexy, salacious girl. The swimsuit models who appear in the pages of SI represent the other half of the equation: female props whose most valuable attributes are their bodies. Sports Illustrated puts them on display like dogs at the Westminster Kennel Club and lets the reader pick the prize of the litter.

Not surprisingly, there are many who would like to see the swimsuit issue sink to the bottom of the Dead Sea. Linnea Smith, an outspoken critic of "Sexism Illustrated," has launched an internet campaign to promote female athletes as something more than feather-brained sex symbols. Meanwhile, the Americans for Fair Sports Journalism share her contempt for the publication.

"Time Warner claims that Sports Illustrated is committed to serious sports journalism and respects the ability and dignity of women in sports," they write. "But the female models in the swimsuit issue wear garments that no one could swim in competitively. And the women are depicted not as athletes of strength and skill but as sexual playthings."

The boys at Sports Illustrated believe its a non-issue.

"We respect their opinion, but we don't agree," said Rick McCabe, the magazine's public relations manager. "We cover sports 52 weeks a year, and once a year, in the dead of winter, we give our readers a respite by bringing them the most beautiful models in the world from the most beautiful locations in the world. There's nothing wrong with that."

The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle.

It's hypocritical for a magazine that rarely features women's sports to devote an entire issue to lingerie models -- as long as theyre semi-naked and covered with strategically placed beads of sweat.

But the reality of the situation is that sex is used to promote everything from potato chips and toothpaste to jeans and automobiles. There will always be a market for beauty, and there will always be models both male and female to exploit that market. Besides, nobody is forcing these women to pose. They're getting great publicity and laughing all the way to the bank. They're proud of their bodies, and why shouldn't they be? Despite the puritanical values that still dominate our cultural tastes, the human body is a thing to be celebrated, not hidden.

That doesn't mean that the objectification of women is acceptable, but its hard to imagine why Sports Illustrated, an intelligent, upstanding publication, has become a prime target for feminist rage.

Perhaps it's because the swimsuit issue, like Super Bowl Sunday and KISS reunion tours, is a staple of our culture. It has survived the advent of Internet porn and the rise of Skinemax. Its a patriarchal tradition that has no place in the 21st century, but it still represents a traditional rite of passage for each new generation of adolescent males.

In other words, it's here to stay. For better or worse, the swimsuit issue is as American as apple pie. -- Rossiter Drake

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