Nothing like a little skin to get the controversy rolling. This one I’ve had my eye on since it was announced, waiting anxiously to see what reaction it generates.
Bold and Artful or Distasteful?
The Body issue is a yearly project that ESPN Magazine produces where it showcases various athletes in poses reminiscent of their sport genre, totally and completely nude. The idea, is that you see and appreciate the exceptional physique that these athletes have created with all of their hard work.
Many famous athletes have taken part over the years. In the racing world, Helio Castronieves was among the athletes featured. Two years ago, NHRA icon John Force was featured after his critical accident in Dallas. The gritty spread showed John’s scars from the accident and the years of abuse he has seen in his career.
But this year, John’s 25 year old daughter Courtney Force dons the cover of the ESPN Body Issue, and this has started a media frenzy backlash. The issue has barely been out a week, and already the internet is swirling with commentary around her photo spread. Some label it an “objectifying publicity stunt”, while others are appalled that their children’s role model would appear like this and called it a “huge lack of respect for the sport”. The crowd is divided, with just as many quick to defend it as great exposure at the mainstream level as those condemning it a desperate and feeble marketing attempt. The Body issue began in 2009, and has been a very popular edition for ESPN Magazine. Yet despite coming from such a respected news outlet and its overall acceptance in the sports world, the racing community is up in arms about Courtney’s involvement.
Courtney Force Controversy
Some very well respected, elite athletes make up the list of both past and present participants. Household names such as NBA Center Dwight Howard, NASCAR’s Carl Edwards, Heismann winner Herschel Walker, speed skater Apolo Ohno, UFC’s John Jones among many. The women include a wide range of athletes: US Olympic Soccer Keeper Hope Solo, Track and Field’s Lolo Jones, Tennis champ Serena Williams, Professional snowboarder Elena Hight, Roller Derby star Suzy Hotrod, the ENTIRE US Women’s Water Polo team, even a very pregnant olympic volleyball star Kerry Jennings Walsh. Do each of these athletes catch near the amount of backlash? Seemingly not. So why is it such a problem with the drag racing community?
Public Image Scrutiny
Its a precarious line that women involved with motorsports walk. On one hand, you are marketed and heralded for being uniquely feminine in a masculine-dominated sport. The media immediately sees a public interest story in the “pretty girl” behind the helmet, with driving and talent often taking a back seat. The obvious advantage is that marketing partners see instant coverage, where women receive attention and press regardless of finishing order. In a fiercely competitive and expensive arena like racing, drivers will use whatever assets they can to obtain sponsorship deals.
But there is a fine line to that. The pretty-girl dressed up with her helmet photo collage has been played out time and time again. (See, I’m guilty too.) Posters of hot girls in front of high horsepower cars line the walls of shops and tool boxes across the country, but put the girl DRIVING the car in that very same scene, and suddenly we have a problem.
This isn’t the first time this problem has presented itself. Think back to this FHM spread with Danica Patrick. To me, it looks great. Hot girl, cool car, and added bonus that she can drive the wheels off of just about anything. Yet, the release of this photo spread created a massive wake of those who felt it discredited her as a driver and made her just another “novelty”.
Specialty vs. Novelty
The attention gets even more critical once the initial story wears off. Women then are subjected to microscope-like scrutiny, and pressures mount for every rookie mistake they make. Danica had countless demanding her firesuit because she failed to win a race in her rookie IRL season. When has any other rookie been subjected to that type of ruthless benchmark?
Remember Ashley Force’s Seattle incident? It was her first pedal experience in a Funny Car, one of the most difficult vehicles to control in drag racing, and it got away from her while it was spinning the tires. Any other driver would have been told to chalk it up as a learning experience and shake it off, but scores of people questioned her driving capabilities and were calling her a danger to all racers, and whether she even had enough upper body strength to control the car.
That leaves the women involved in racing a tremendous burden to bear: you must constantly prove yourself over-qualified just to be present. I have seen personally how women are first regarded as nothing but a novelty, not taken seriously and pushed aside with a pat on the head regardless of how much tenacity and talent possessed.
A Double-Edged Sword
The age-old question still applies: why the double-standard for women in sports? Courtney Force has more than proven herself in the NHRA Funny Car ranks. She won races in an ultra-competitive class, was voted rookie of the year for her first year, and lead the points chase at several points this season. Why, after all of that, is a photo spread calling to question whether she belongs in the sport of NHRA Drag Racing?
The answer is that the “Good Ole Boy Network” is alive and well, and very difficult to break. Women often are passed up for much needed sponsor support. Lack of sponsor support equals sub-par equipment. Sub-par equipment results in lackluster performances, and lackluster performances equal lack of sponsorship dollars. So the vicious circle lives on. The idea behind coverage such as this is to break the circle, gain exposure for sponsors and thereby attract more support.
John Force Racing viewed the Body Issue as great coverage and exposure for their sponsors. They asked each of their sponsors prior to her involvement if this was a decision they would approve of, and all signed off on the idea. But what about other potential sponsors?
What do you think about the Courtney Force controversy?
Was this a good choice for Courtney or could this potentially hurt her image? Do you think that this will hurt her sponsorship quest in the future? How will this impact her image in the long-run?
Comment below with your views!
Great article Erica! Well done!
Personally I don’t think that this will hurt her image at all. She’s a good driver and this could potentially bring in more sponsors. In motorsports, and other things(think morning weather girls, lol), in my humble opinion, sex does sell.
Great Article Erica!!!
Horsepower & Heels
This comment came in via Twitter and brings up another angle I didn’t even think about.
A very dirty way to present, without cloth a dirty angel 😉 its a pornography .
This was a very well written article. As a motorsports marketing coach I deal with this issue with my female racing clients constantly – to be sexy or not to be sexy. My answer always is: BE YOURSELF, BE REAL, BE TRANSPARENT. BE AUTHENTIC. Do not sell out because you think it’s the popular thing to do if you, especially if you do not feel comfortable doing it.
Attracting sponsorship is all about showing who you really are and the marketing partners will want you based on what the fans perceive you to be, which in turn sells their products and services if you match up with their branding message.
Here is the deal. If you do not want to be perceived as sexy, and that is NOT who you really are, then you can make that choice. If you want to be taken seriously as a racer, then be careful how you put yourself out there – once you have made the choice, this is how everyone will perceive you for a long, long time. Danica is back-peddling on the ‘sexy’ because she wants to be taken more seriously. Each pro driver or aspiring pro driver has to think about the long term repercussions of everything they do – ask themselves the question, is this who I really am? Is this how I want my fans to perceive me? What kind of marketing partners will this attract? Will this cause me any disrespect with the organizations I race with and my peers? Will thins bother me personally later or am I going to be OK with this because this is who I really am?
Let’s take a moment and understand that times are changing too. Women are becoming more empowered on all levels if sports and business and Courtney is the daughter of a larger than life character – if this is her way to stand out in her own life and career and this is her way of showing her authenticity – then I say this choice was a big one for her ….and I am sure as long as Dad has been in the business he advised her to really think over this decision.
I advise my female clients to always be true to themselves and have good mentors that can help them with big choices and decisions such as these – so each female racer needs to take a minute and put themselves in Courtney’s position and say, would I do this? If not – then find something unique and authentic about you that makes you stand out, it does not mean you have to pose nude, or half naked. Bare your true soul and your heart and you will never go wrong.
Great piece Erica, I remember thinking what a great writer you are when I read your Blog about Roller Derby a couple of years ago! As for Courtney posing nude… I’m curious how this will promote NHRA or Drag racing? NHRA has had marketable Female racers for years from Shirley on down! In the 1990’s the Good Morning America crew was at Topeka to interview Shelly Anderson, she even did a burnout on the air! A few years ago CBS Sunday Morning did a feature on Melanie Troxel, around that time Courtney’s sister Ashley won a Yahoo online “Hottest Female” poll! Has any of it worked? last time I checked NHRA’s event ratings remain in the .03-.07 range as they have the past 15-20 years! In the Marketing world that is Unsellable, so my guess is it hasn’t!
Now Danica has made a statement in regards to the issue.
Excellent article, Erica. I will definitely be covering this on my blog after the races at Laguna Seca this week-end.
Personally, I love the nude photos (both men and women) that emphasize the athlete’s strength. For example, the one where she’s holding the parachute. It’s beautiful, and ties in the whole strength-for-the-sport idea. As for the rest of the shots, who are we kidding here? They’re pure cheesecake that any wimp of a fashion model could pull off. Dumb, juvenile, and reminiscent of a billion “here’s-my-girlfriend-posing-with-my-hot-rod” shots that so colorfully adorn the internet. In my opinion, these are nothing BUT a sellout. Unfortunately, women in powersports don’t have much in the way of publicity opportunities, and I don’t blame then one bit for “selling out”. They’re trying to stay competetive and that takes money. I blame ESPN for a total lack of creativity, and a thinly veiled ruse of integrity. There’s got to be a photographer out there who can come up with more than one pose to display the beauty of an athletic body. Clearly, they’re just not that into it.
Agreed that this is an excellent article – Cheers to you Erica!! .
As a female racer myself, I am often asked what I think of this kind of sexy publicity, and I think it boils down to a few very simple factors:
1.) there is a difference between using sex to sell promote or advance your career, vs. celebrating athletic physiques and professional accomplishments in a magazine like ESPN.
2) personal choice – it seems clear to me that Courtney Force is comfortable in her decision to pose nude. She owns it, is confident, and has already proven she’s a successful racer. Good for her!
3) With regard to a double-standard for women in racing, there most definitely is one, will always likely be one, and intense micro-scrutiny goes along with competing in a male-dominated sport, so if you are thin-skinned, choose something else to do.
That’s all folks!
Well Said Sunny!
Great post, Erica! It all comes down to what we as women choose to do with our bodies and as AnnaMarie said, being true to yourself. I choose to use my racing to inspire women to take risks, be adventurous, and to be the best they can be. I choose to do that through my strong personality, not with my banging bod (although that is there too!). 2014 will be the second year for my Women of Off Road Racing calendar, featuring female desert racers in hero card style poses, with an emphasis on strength and driving talent. The calendar features ladies of all sizes and all ages. Many dads bought a 2013 calendar for their young daughters as an inspiration.
It does frustrate me that women often feel they need to take off their clothes to get attention but it’s their choice. It’s just not how I want to present myself to the motorsports world.
However, if some hott racer dude would like to do a photoshoot with my 2/1600, shoot me an email! I’m an equal opportunity sexist!
SHAMLESS PLUGS BELOW!! PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK!
If you are a female DIRT racer and would like to be considered for the 2014 calendar, upload a pic here: https://www.facebook.com/EmmeHall/app_162850930432266
If you’d like to pre-order a 2014 calendar, go here: http://megamonkeymotorsports.com/pre-order-your-2014-women-of-off-road-racing-calendar/
Proceeds go to get my team to the Gazelle Rally in Morocco in 2014, an all female, 9 day off road rally with no GPS. Yeah…you read that right.
So here is the thing. Earlier this season, there was an article on Competition Plus about how the NHRA broadcast team makes a big deal when Ashley Force became the first women driver to win in FC. Then again a big deal was made when Erica Enders became the first woman to win in PS. They make big deals about Courtney Force and Lea Pruett too. The gist of the article was this: What does it matter if the driver was a woman? A driver is a driver is a driver. The car doesn’t know the difference and if we are really going to respect women for their driving skills then we need to stop making a big deal of the fact that it is in fact a woman behind the wheel. It was a good article and a very good point. Now, we have the whole Courtney situation. I believe that she has just forced woman to take a step backward in the sport of racing. The photos weren’t cheap or dirty, they were tasteful. However, she is not a figure study model and the ESPN body issue is not one that you will ever see hanging on the wall of an art gallery. I have a 5yo daughter who I hope develops an interest in the sport of drag racing. Would I show her this as an example of a successful woman in the sport? Hell no! So I have to ask, why did Courtney need to do this? She already gets TONS of exposure, not just because she is attractive and the daughter of a legend, but also because she can actually drive the wheels off a race car!!! In my opinion, she didn’t need to do this.
Saddened that the Force family would give thumbs up on there daughter doing this. I know John said when Ashely started racing there was not going to be any photo shoots with any skimpy clothing, or bathing suits, I guess they have changed there mind, it has to be about keeping there sponser;s on the front line and money. I think some day they will regret this move. I think the photo’s are so stupid looking anyway. I’m suprised that Courtney has a Racers for Christ sign on her car, I think she should take it off.
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Everyone loves what you guys are up too. This kind of clever work and exposure!
Keep up the great works guys I’ve added you guys to my blogroll.