One answer seems to be this: Sell female athletes as sexy bodies. Whether the extra audience thus captured is the audience that female athletes would prefer to have for their events is a very different question.
I came across a website, before the Sochi Winter Olympic games began, where several of the Russian female athletes were portrayed in skimpy lingerie. A few of the strongest examples:
This is not just a Russian idea. The Sports Illustrated annual swimsuit issue has included various female athletes:
Several female athletes have appeared in swimsuit shoots, though not on the cover. Steffi Graf appeared in 1997. In the 2003 issue, tennis player Serena Williams and figure skater Ekaterina Gordeeva were featured inside the magazine. Anna Kournikova appeared in an inset on the 2004 cover, and had a photo spread within its pages.
In 2005, Olympic gold medalists Amanda Beard and Jennie Finch, along with Lauren Jackson and Venus Williams, were featured. Maria Sharapova appeared in an inset on the 2006 cover and had a spread inside. In spring 2006, Sports Illustrated chose music as the theme for the 2007 issue.
Race car driver Danica Patrick appeared in 2008. She was featured in a four-page spread set in Singer Island, Florida.
For the 2010 issue, four female Winter Olympians appeared in swimsuits: Clair Bidez, Lacy Schnoor, Hannah Teter, and Lindsey Vonn as well as Ana Ivanovic. Criticism of Ivanovic's appearance in the magazine shortly surfaced, as the Serb was suffering a decline in form and confidence and subsequently dropped out of the WTA's Top 50 a month after appearing in the magazine. However, since November 2010 Ivanovic has re-entered the World's Top 20 and regained her old form and confidence.
And now the fun and games begin! Let's unpack all this, my friends!
This means feminazis-with-hairy-armpits-and-prudish-values on one side, strong-and-sexual-women-who-love-showing-their-bodies on the other side! Or reverse that, if you wish: We-who-know-how-all-women-should-live on one side and the-poor-deluded-other-women on the other side.
I'm disgruntled with the choice feminism ways of looking at the world. From the UK Telegraph article about the Russian pinup pictures:
As far as the Sochi team go, good for them, if that's what they want to do. Who are we to judge?Why would that disgruntle me? Let me count the ways:
First, because we judge all sorts of choices people make all the time. As an extreme example, should I decide to murder my neighbor for dumping snow across my driveway I would not be making a feminist choice and my choice should certainly be criticized.
Second, because pure "choice feminism" can easily turn feminism into a nihilistic exercise. I have been once told that a woman who chooses to subjugate herself to her husband is a feminist because she made a choice.
Third, because the whole concept of "choices" is meaningless without understanding the culture within which they are made. A woman in, say, Afghanistan, does not have the same menu of choices available to her than a woman in, say, France, but neither of the two can be said to be "choosing" in a sense which is independent of the culture they live in. Thus, Russian women's choices are influenced by the Russian culture's views about women, men, sex and so on, and the same is true for American women's choices. Indeed, this is true about the choices we all make.
Fourth, pure "choice feminism" leaves out men altogether. It doesn't ask how the experiences of individuals differ because of their gender. Thus, we get articles written about the sexy pictures of female athletes which don't ask why we are not getting similar sexy pictures about male athletes in those same cultures*. Aren't they strong individuals with beautiful bodies? Aren't they proud of their sexuality?
Let me hasten to add that real gender equality, on average, would increase the menu of available choices for both men and women, and having more choices can be a sign of a better world. But that increased menu of choices for women (and men) is a consequence of more relaxed gender roles and different expectations about men's and women's proper roles. If we detach it from any basic theories about the role of gender we will arrive at all sorts of weird conclusions, including the idea that anything women choose to do is feminist and should be supported.
To return to the question in the title of this post: Would the soft-porn treatment of female athletes help to increase the audiences for those events? And if it does, how about extending that to any field where women compete? Female candidates for a political office could wear swimsuits in the debates, for example, or mud-wrestle. And would all this be just fine for the curmudgeony type I represent if male athletes and male politicians and so on also provided us with plenty of underwear pictures?
More seriously, I get that a deeper and more foundational debate is harder. It would turn to the question of possible innate gender differences in sexuality, the question of societal influences and the norms about how women are supposed to not be interested in visual sexy images and so on and so on. It would also turn to the question of power differences in the media representations of men and women.
But we could get into a debate about what it means to be a woman who is excelling in some field not linked to sexuality, how we view individual famous women not only as individuals but also as representatives of their gender and how that translates into the need to verify that female athletes, say, are still sexy, still feminine.
It might be the case that the more societies get used to seeing female politicians, female scientists and female athletes, the more dexterous they become in decoupling those concepts from the concept of women as somehow being the human beings who carry all sexual appeal and who must be ranked by that.
*Well, we get this picture of Putin, but somehow it's not very sexy