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Not Saying Much

Brass Tacks

By Melissa I. Weissberg

WHAT WAS MOST disturbing about yesterday's "Butting Heads" debate in this column ("What Is So Exciting?") was not that Mr. Ross found himself "mildly disgusted." Nor that Mr. Zucker refuses to feel guilty. What was most disturbing was that yet another discussion about (sexism) has chosen for its subject the annual swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated.

No wonder neither side makes a lot of sense.

For a debate about the objectification of women, one could hardly have chosen a less worthwile example than SI. Not because it has nothing to do with these questions, but because an examination of this particular American "institution" adds little to any comprehensive social debate.

Is the SI swimsuit issue "objectionable"? Yes. Is it "harmless"? Yes, on the surface at least, as an isolated example of the fulfillment of the "American male adolescent fantasy."

But to say this is thus far to say nothing.

This American phenomenon, of itself, is simply not a worthy battleground for a debate about pornography. Why? Because there will always be something less tasteful, more objectifying, more degrading than the "tasteful" photographs of women-on-the-beach that the weekly sports magazine sports once a year.

Of course, some feminists would argue, we cannot ignore an example of pornography simply because others exist which are more offensive. New extremes will always outstrip the old. But drawing lines isn't the point; I'm not interested in rating SI on any absolute scale of offensiveness.

Whether or not any such scale exists, any point along its line participates to some degree in the dehumanization of women--and sometimes of men--which is so obvious in Screw or Hustler. It's not a question of "having a sense of humor" about America's favorite sporting magazine. It's a question of facing what it is that's objectionable.

Of course, there will always be many more offensive publications, films, and attitudes in American culture. So many that by comparison, SI looks pretty innocent.

But to say this, without context, is still to say nothing.

Sure, compared to Screw magazine and the underground porn film industry which sometimes gets its "talent" by kidnapping, drugging, and then raping women on film, any mention of SI as "sexist" or "harmful" can be seen only as misplaced zeal, making the mag a victim of the anger and resentment it never imagined it would engender. And there are those who will find SI's title, "Ornaments of Society", a lighthearted, self-conscious joke--a joke on all who would take it seriousy as anything other than a shot of midwinter warmth, not to mention an ad-revenue extravaganza.

But again, it's the context that's significant. It's true, as Mr. Ross says, that SI's swimsuit issue is pornography. It's also true, as Mr. Zucker says, that SI is relatively harmless. The fact remains that this single photo spread is getting blown far out of proportion by both sides (and perhaps, therefore, this response is doomed to futility).

A male acquaintance, finding himself in the midst of this newly chic debate, was confused, rather rightly, about why there was such a furor over SI. He asked, "whom does this issue hurt?" As a single, sans-nudity, sans-violence "tribute to swimwear," probably no one in particular. Elle Macpherson was not only willing and happy to pose; she probably made a mint. And as Mr. Zucker suggests, those who don't like it aren't forced to read it.

Zucker is right when he says that SI has "just given us what we asked for." And the fact that this harmless issue is, in fact, so harmless, by comparison, is closer to what is truly wrong with our society.

Is the swimsuit issue "pornography"? Yes. Is it "heinous"? Maybe to some. Not to me, nor to many others. But such a sentiment requires a context. It is hypocrital to deny that the issue objectifies women's bodies in a way that art does not.

"WHY PICK on SI?" asks Mr. Zucker.

I agree. We shouldn't "pick on" SI when there are many more worthwhile objects of accusation, anger, and debate. But to say that Sports Illustrated and its 20-year-old annual swimsuit issue are somehow outside the realm of scrutiny is absurd.

Judgments that draw lines of offensiveness, that attempt to compare degrees of objectification, or intent of the publishers, don't address the real questions of how and why our society finds it acceptable to present women's bodies as "ornaments," beautiful or otherwise.

Maybe, Jeff, you have no qualms about buying that magazine. Maybe, John, you wouldn't buy it at all. But the issue isn't about Sports Illustrated, after all.

Whom does the swimsuit issue "hurt"? No one in particular.

But to say this is, once again, to say nothing.

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