Douchebag Decree: Sexist Olympic Advertising

The Olympics started as an über-macho, male-only competition in ancient Greece. While a lot has changed since then, women are still facing sexism when it comes to the Games.

Olympic rings

Much of the hype surrounding the 2012 Summer Games in London (which kick off Friday, July 27th ed.’s note: look for our coverage!) has centered on the achievements of female athletes. The Olympics have been very empowering for women: the U.S. is sending its first ever female-majority team to the games, tennis pro Maria Sharapova is going to be Russia’s first female athlete to carry her country’s Olympic flag, women’s boxing is being allowed for the first time, and—in the biggest news since women were first allowed to compete in 1900—for the first time ever, every single country in the Games is sending women to compete. At the 2008 Bejing summer Olympics, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei were the only three countries in the world that did not send female athletes to the Games. This year, after facing pressure from the International Olympic Committee (I.O.C.), all three countries announced that they’re sending women to compete. Great news! But it’s not all great.  

Even though the 2012 Olympic Games are undeniably making strides for female athletes from all over the world, these amazing steps forward are countered by sexist Olympic advertisements. And, with all the hype that comes with the Games, so too comes the reinforcement of sexism and gender norms.

Beach Volleyball Q.R. Codes

Olympics advertisingIt might not surprise you that beach volleyball is at the top of the list of sexist advertising offenders. Why? The bikinis that athletes wear fuel more lewd comments and creepy spectators than any other sport in the Olympics.

In the qualifying tournaments leading up to the 2012 London Games, two of the U.K.’s beach volleyball players had their butts sponsored by advertisers. Yes, you saw right, advertisers paid to have their Q.R. codes pasted on the players’ bikini bottoms. And if the image of someone watching the TV with a smart phone in hand trying to snap a picture of that doesn’t gross you out already, this Q.R. code takes the viewer straight to a gambling website. Not that if the code took the viewer to a website for charity would I find it any better, but come on, could you make it any easier to bash on this advertising choice? What does gambling have to do with volleyball? 

The I.O.C. forbid the use of these codes on the uniforms in the Summer Games, but the damage has been done—even though the players will not be wearing these bottoms, these images have circulated all over the Internet and are associated with the Olympic players since they wore them in tournaments leading up to the Games. 

ESPN’s “Body Issue”

ESPN’s annual “Body Issue” is out and it features several team U.S.A. Olympians. But as Feministing points out:

over half of the female athletes were shown only as passive eye-candy while virtually all of the men were shown in action shots:

  • 78 percent of the photos of men depict an active pose, while only 52 percent of women’s do.
  • 90 percent of the male athletes had at least least one active pose in the slideshow.
  • 46 percent of female athletes had at least one active pose in the slideshow.”

The issue stays true to sexist sports coverage form by showing men primarily as powerful athletes and female athletes as demure sex symbols. Way to reinforce the idea that women only use exercise to have bodies that feed into the male gaze. And, naturally the athletes chosen are women that fit stereotypical conventions of beauty. 

    ESPN body issue

Don’t get me wrong, I think the “Body Issue” did a couple things right—like featuring paralympic rowing athlete Oskana Masters and, sigh, badass soccer heartthrob Abby Wambach*. But come on, ESPN, could you please make this issue less about trying to make these fiercely strong female athletes look like passive, male-gaze models and spend more time focusing on how talented these women are? Thanks. 

Procter & Gamble: “The Best Job in the World” Ad

Procter & Gamble (P&G) is the company that makes A LOT of household supply brands: Tide, Gain, Downy, Bounce, Dawn, Bounty, Luvs, Charmin, Cascade, Swiffer, Mr. Clean, Duracell, and on and on and on. So in preparation for the Olympics they released this commercial which shows the mothers of Olympians with the tagline, “The hardest job in the world, is the best job in the world.”

I love my mom and I’m sure a lot of you have similar feelings. But the problem with this ad is that it reinforces gender normative notions about parenting and the roles of women as mother figures.

P&G ad

Thanks for washing my unitard, Mom! I couldn’t have made it to the Olympics if you hadn’t!

But more importantly this ad shows that mothers are meant to sit on the sidelines and cheer atletes on—i.e., good thing you procreated cuz you wouldn’t have made it to the Olympics otherwise. Maybe this is getting a little too close to the “Having it All Debate” that you are all probably sick of, but there are a lot of female athletes competing that are mothers themselves. In fact, the 2012 U.S. Olympic includes 11 athletes that are mothers and 53 fathers. P&G, however, plays into the whole “self-sacrificing mother” trope that is used to glorify women and justify sexism by reinforcing the notion of women as primarily mother figures (with no fathers in sight—I guess they don’t cheer on their kids?). If P&G is all about promoting family values, why couldn’t they have celebrated the athletes in the Olympics that are parents instead? Or celebrated entire families and not just moms?

These ads are, sadly, likely indicators of what’s to come once the Games commence on Friday. Seen any problematic Olympic ads? Tell us your thoughts in the comments! 

*This piece originally referred to Abby Wambach as a “badass lesbian soccer heartthrob.” She is certainly considered a heartthrob by many lesbians, but we didn’t mean to imply that she herself is a lesbian since we don’t know how she identifies.

Previously: Daniel Tosh and the “Comedy” of Rape Culture, James Carnell and the Boston Polic Patrolmen’s Association’s Racist, Sexist, Terrible Newsletter

by Morgan Hecht
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11 Comments Have Been Posted

Abby Wambach is not an out

Abby Wambach is not an out athlete, so your journalistic credit is in danger when you print such things. I'm a fan - but trying to keep you guys honest (and credible).

Thanks! To clarify...

Thanks Anonymous! To clarify, I interpreted Morgan's statement about Wambach to mean that she's <em>considered</em> a heartthrob by many lesbian sports fans, not that Wambach herself identifies as a lesbian (though she may—I don't know). I see how you could read it differently though so I made a correction to the post.

Thanks again!

Outfit differences between male and female athletes

I really agree with you, but I wonder why these female athletes let themselves be photographed naked. Part of the blame lies with them.
I also don't understand why in (almost?) all sports women wear tighter and more revealing outfits than men. Why do these beach volleyball women wear bikinis and the men wear huge shorts? Why do female runners wear small, tight, pants/tight tops and male runners wear shorts/loose shirts? why do female tennis players wear tight tops and short skirts while male tennis players wear loose shirts and large shorts? Why do female gymnasts wear no trousers while men do? etc etc.
If male athletes all wore tight and tiny pants too perhaps there would be some nice butts (etc!) to be photographed too.


Well, Annon, the outfits are different because they are STANDARD ISSUED.
Which ever country these women are from have their wears issued to them, much like a uniform.

ALSO: Yes, they're photographed naked. 1 out of 20 shots. Alot of it isnt exactly suggested by the athletes themselves, rather just sprung up on them. (No pun intended).
These women take up to 100 shots, more than 3/4 of them with clothes ON, yet most magazines are only looking for eye candy.
Part of it is self publicity, yes, but it's that way because thats what sells magazines.
Just because a woman gets herself photographed (tastefully) nude, it doesnt give anyone the right to automatically assume that they're only there for something to look at.

I doubt anyone would say anything had a male modeled nude.

Yours is not the first

Yours is not the first feminist article I've read decrying the body issue, so I finally headed over to see all of the photos. I see Maya Gabeira swimming with her surfboard and simply AMAZING shots of Anna Tunnicliffe sailing. I see goofy shots of Gronkowski with an emoticon pillow over his privates and a horse licking Mike Smith's head.

Yes, it would be great to see more action shots of some of the US's top athletes. But each report putting forth the shots of female athletes in repose only paints them as victims. It's an interesting point to ponder, but please, be responsible and also report the shots of the athletes that portray the positive, that inspire strength and individuality.

Article title

I agree with the content of your article but I wish we could stop using the words "douche" and "douchebag" in a derogatory fashion.
While it's likely that fewer women use them today than years ago, a douchebag is a product designed solely for cleaning women's genitalia, thus it's a woman-only-linked product. In a sense, then it becomes "female".
True, because we are self-cleaning, a douchebag is unnecessary, but it isn't innately offensive. Those who promote the idea that women need extra cleansers, deodorizers, bleaches (yes, some companies promote genital lightening products) solely because we're women deserve our vitriol. But it seems calling patriarchy by a "female-only" object is a muted criticism. What about "dickwad" instead?

Ralph Lauren Uniforms

I was really disappointed to see the designs for the US delegation on opening night. It's bad enough that women are required to wear skirts while playing tennis and ice skating, and now they are part of the official uniform. Seems unnecessary to me.

Athlete V. Woman

I was somewhat bothered by the commercial for Pantene Pro-V that featured Natalie Coughlin talking about how she was born to swim but her hair wasn't. She says a little phrase at the end "I want to win as an athlete, and shine as a woman." It seemed to reemphasize to me that we as a culture can't really see athlete as a feminine word. Am I reading too much into it?

The commercial:

I completely agree about the

I completely agree about the Pantene ad. I felt angry that being a fantastic athlete was seemingly not achievement enough. This only compounded the sense that whilst (in the main) male competitors would be focusing on winning gold medals pre-event, their female counterparts would have to be focusing on winning gold medals whilst simultaneously maintaining an aura of standardised beauty. I wanted to shout to our women athletes that I'd rather they didn't condition for a year if it meant they could fulfil their potential on the track or in the pool.

Most of the female athletes

Most of the female athletes on the US Olympic team are moms, especially married moms. There's like 75 of them. Most male athletes don't have kids.

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