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.
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.