Test For Women in Bike Ads

Alice White, circa 1931

One of my favorite writers in the bicycle realm is Elly Blue. Last week at the National Women’s Bicycle Summit organized by the League of American Cyclists, Elly presented the Bike Test that could be used by both media creators and consumers to evaluate images of women in cycling. The test has three criteria:

  1. Are women present or represented at all?
  2. Are the women presented as active subjects rather than passive objects?
  3. If the gender were reversed, would the meaning stay more or less unchanged? (Or would the image become hilarious?)

You can read more about the test on Elly’s blog, Taking the Lane.

 

How do you think I did selecting the photo for this blog entry? It came from Rides A Bike on Tumblr which features photos of Hollywood stars on bikes.

By the way, if I was starting a new media conglomerate covering bicycle culture, riders and industry, Elly Blue would be at the top of my list of serious writers to hire. Alas I am …

– Just Another Pedaler

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  • greencannondale

    I’m not condoning objectifying women. I’m married to a labor and delivery nurse, and she is one of the strongest women I know, who has guided me not to talk down to a woman in a professional setting, but not to talk to her like I would a man.

    Applying this in a bike shop has been a bit daunting at times. As with any job dealing with mechanical items, it has traditionally been male dominated. I have seen exceptions, like a bike shop in Aiken, SC, but never a “normal” thing to see as women working on cars, trucks, tractors, motorcycles, and bicycles.

    This probably goes back to old world thinking of what women should do and what men should do. My grandfathers never changed a diaper, did laundry, cooked, cleaned the kitchen, or even went grocery shopping unless they absolutely HAD to, as that was considered “women’s work”. Times have changed, but some attitudes haven’t.

  • greencannondale

    When you usually see this, the ad is aimed at men. Sex sells and you can’t argue that. Is is appropriate or ethical? Probably not, but advertising is results driven, not moral driven.

    • We all know that; alas, the point is that the sex they portray doesn’t sell to women. Women have been ignored or insulted by the cycling media and manufacturers, and that needs to change. Women hold the purse strings to the majority of household decisions. (From http://www.godfreyfinancial.com/holding-the-purse-strings comes this quote:
      “Earlier this year, cable television’s Oxygen Network surveyed women about finances. The study found that 92 percent of women contribute to – if not make entirely – their household’s financial decisions.”) Now…factor in that (depending on the city/region/area), women make up 20-30% of the overall bicycle riders. That’s a large percentage. Yet, you can look through most of the cycling magazines and not find a single ad showing/featuring women…nor directed at women.

      The marketplace has been asleep. Yet us women have been telling them, “um, hello?! We’re here! We’re making buying decisions! So, why aren’t you thinking about or talking to us?”

      So, what’s been happening? They are ignoring us. So, we’re ignoring them. We’re making our own decisions based upon word of mouth and personal experience. Companies that could be on our radars aren’t. It’s been happening so long that at this point, “they” will have to do a great deal of work to build trust with us. The smart ones will. The rest….well…let’s just say they won’t be doing as well as they could be.

      • This would make a great topic for the podcast, btw. Thanks again, Jack, for sharing this. Really appreciate it!

  • This was submitted to reddit a couple of days ago, and as I noted there, I do agree with most of what was written there, though there are a few points I disagree with. The main one being this:

    Go on, imagine a man trying to parlay his sex appeal in the same way as racer Liz Hatch has controversially, if successfully, done (in my mental image, the helmet is further down on the page). It becomes a parody. You don’t lust, you laugh.

    That really depends on the man in pictures. Michael Rasmussen? Yeah… not so much. But Spartacus, or Tomeke (he’s already partway there)? I know plenty of ladies who would buy that calendar in a heartbeat (and a bunch of guys as well).

    And of course there’s Cipo, who already walks around like this in real life.

    Another point that I’m not sure if I disagree with or just can’t view from the right perspective to tell if I agree with it or not is her “extreme gem” example of the male gaze. Personally, I think this ad is a better example of the male gaze in an ad that might well pass her three part test (especially if it is viewed with some of the other ads in the campaign. Note that I don’t disagree that the male gaze is a pervasive thing, just that that was a bad example of it. Perhaps the women here can tell me what I’m not seeing there.

    And finally, there’s that waffly bit about Victoria Pendleton’s photos. I can’t really tell what she’s trying to say there (excluding the bit about the naked on the bike photos). I assume that she’s speaking about the Esquire and FHM shoots that Pendleton did that raised a few eyebrows. and about which Pendleton has said:

    I’m a girl and I do like glamorous things so I don’t mind being viewed in that way. I don’t want to change.

    People tried hard to change me in the beginning because they felt me doing my hair or wearing make-up showed I wasn’t committed. I felt like I shouldn’t have to compromise on what I think is me.

    (warning, NSFW photos ahead)

    Does Elly feel the photos like this fail the test and are thus suspect? Because one could easily argue that that style of media routinely publishes photos of men that are quite similar, thus busting rule 3.

    Furthermore, how does Elly feel about photos of Pendleton like these from GQ? Or other, similar, photos of other athletes from ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue (especially if she were to compare that first shot of Rob Gronkowski to the shot of Liz Hatch that she chose to highlight. Does it really become a parody?

    Like I said, I really do agree with most of what she says there. And I can tell you that at least in corners like reddit, the best known female cyclist, Liz Hatch, is certainly not know for her riding which is marginal at the pro level, which is sad. It’s a shame that someone like Kristin Armstrong, Judith Arndt, Emma Pooley, Evelyn Stevens, or even Marianne Vos couldn’t be picked out of a lineup, even by most cycling enthusiasts simply because they don’t cheesecake it up, sut sometimes I think their sport might be in a better position right now if a few more of them did.

    It’s a bit of a sad thought, but I know of a lot of guys who got into cyclocross because of photos like these (and who later stayed because cross is crazy fun). Get a few guys watching women’s road racing for the cheesecake factor and they might just stay because of how awesome the races are (I mean did y’all see todays World’s race? Tell me that wasn’t awesome).

    Anyway, I’ve totally lost the plot here, so in closing, I’m just going to point out haw awesome the Sweetpea Ladies Auxillary Cycling Team kit is. I love that orange X on the back shoulder.

    By the way, Hi guys! It took me three tries to post this because I forgot to log in — yeesh, I’ve been away too long.

    • Well the difference with the helmet strategically positioned is that you can do this successfully with most of the female cycling racers, but you can’t with the men. I think that’s her point.

      Yes, there are some pictures of males shown in a somewhat sexual manner, but they do NOT dominate the ads out there…and certainly NOT by any long shot in the cycling realm. Let’s keep it to that – the cycling realm – b/c that’s the point in Elly’s article – the bike culture, not the culture at large. Also, she’s pointing out that men by-in-large do not lose their stature for posing in these situations. Whereas, women who pose in sexual poses do risk losing the station they’ve built for themselves and being dropped too quickly to “just a sexy girl on a bike”, rather than the honor and seriousness of the level they’ve attained through difficult competitions.

      As to the male gaze “example” Elly posted – look again. The link was to an entire article educating the reader about the male gaze, not to the 1st picture in the article. (There’s other examples in that linked article, too.)

      Regarding the one ad to which you linked, yes…it’s subtle but no doubt. It’s there. While the girl isn’t a “stellar” example of the female form, the focus almost dead center in the photo is her ass. They could have made other choices – better ones but didn’t. No, I don’t think that photo would pass Elly’s test. She’s reduced to an object in that photo. The other one to which you linked, yes. It would pass.

      I don’t happen to agree that the sport would be in a better position if the girls “cheesecaked” it up. Your comment of “I think their sport might be in a better position right now if a few more of them did” only goes to make the point that if the girls aren’t making sexual objects of themselves in today’s culture then, we don’t “reward” them. Except being female and being a sexual object is a double-edged sword. Sure, you get attention, but is it the right kind? Most of the time, it isn’t.

      In close, I want to reinforce what Elly wrote in the first paragraph of her post: “Is that photo of a sexy woman on a bike sexist, or is it empowering? Objectifying, or compelling? Tokenizing, or inclusive?”

      As I’ve mentioned in other replies, women in cycling magazines (and other cycling media) are either non-existent (despite the fact that we comprise a good share of the overall market) or we’re portrayed in sexual manners that disenfranchise us as a gender and insults us to boot.

      Btw – Hi Will !!! WTH have you been?

      • Will

        Warning: just assume all images herein are mildly NSFW

        Well the difference with the helmet strategically positioned is that you can do this successfully with most of the female cycling racers, but you can’t with the men. I think that’s her point.

        Sure you can.

        Or are you talking from the standpoint that most male riders don’t fit the current standards for male “hotness”?

        Yes, there are some pictures of males shown in a somewhat sexual manner, but they do NOT dominate the ads out there…and certainly NOT by any long shot in the cycling realm.

        And I absolutely agree with this. It’s especially sad when you have an ad like this from Cervélo when Gerard Vroomen is one of the biggest supporters of women’s racing out there. I don’t know if he was involved in the vetting of that ad, but, yeesh.

        Whereas, women who pose in sexual poses do risk losing the station they’ve built for themselves and being dropped too quickly to “just a sexy girl on a bike”, rather than the honor and seriousness of the level they’ve attained through difficult competitions.

        The problem with this thought is that it’s an assumption on one end (there really aren’t any guy taking shots like that, that I know of), and thus far unfounded on the other end. Victoria Pendleton certainly hasn’t lost any stature thanks to the photos – she’s still thought of as one of the baddest women on the track. Heck, it’s been my experience that Liz Hatch is thought of as a better rider than she actually is thanks to her exposure.

        The link was to an entire article educating the reader about the male gaze, not to the 1st picture in the article.

        No, I’m talking about this photo, which she called an “extreme gem” and said this of it:

        Or to take a real-life, non-sexualized but oh-so-gendered example of what it feels like to be a woman in the bicycling world, an image search for “bicycle advocacy” turned up this extreme gem, on the site of my local advocacy org no less. Through the lens of the male gaze, this photo just looks like a normal meeting, nothing special to comment on. When I showed this photo at the Women’s Bicycling Summit, on the other hand, a lot of women in the room were nodding and groaning in recognition.

        I just don’t see the male gaze present in that photo.

        I don’t happen to agree that the sport would be in a better position if the girls “cheesecaked” it up.

        For me, it’s one of those “I hate to say it, but…” type things.To me, cycling is one of those rare sports, like tennis, where the women’s version is at least as exciting as the mens version. Unfortunately, it’s also a sport that relies far more heavily (almost exclusively) on outside sponsorship to fund the teams themselves that compete, and the sponsors want eyeballs on their names. The team owners are not billionaires (as in the major team sports), there is no revenue sharing in the cycling “leagues” (though it’s reported that the “breakaway league” will offer this, so the money has to come from some notion of getting eyes on the sponsors’ names. If you can get a sponsor’s kit into a mainstream magazine spread, you might just have a bit better chance to keep your trade team alive for another year.

        Furthermore, there does exist the “come for the boobies, stay for the awesome damn racing” factor. You can’t deny that sex sells, and if it can get some extra bodies watching some races then there’s a good chance that some of the people who were drawn initially by the prospect of seeing the women will actually get into the sport and start supporting it more.

        I wish the UCI, USAC, etc. would do a better job of presenting women’s racing along with the mens events (like the ATP and IAAF do), but sadly, they don’t and it’s really on the racers to do it for themselves. Whether this is a good way to do it, I don’t know, but I’m not sure it would hurt – long or short term.

        As I’ve mentioned in other replies, women in cycling magazines (and other cycling media) are either non-existent (despite the fact that we comprise a good share of the overall market) or we’re portrayed in sexual manners that disenfranchise us as a gender and insults us to boot.

        And on top of that, there’s the fact that most of the women’s design in cycling is the good old “shrink it and pink it” school of design. So they don’t actually actually design for women, and then they try to sell the bad products in bad ways. It’s a double whammy.

        Btw – Hi Will !!! WTH have you been?

        I’m still getting settled in here in Minnesota. I wasn’t able to get nearly as much riding in as I had hoped this year because of that as well. Fortunately, things are starting to level out and I can get back to my old routine.

  • Great post. Wonderful to see a male bring up this issue b/c it amazes me how much the bicycling industry ignores and insults women…yet, we comprise a large share of the over all market! We are not the majority but it’s still a large enough percentage that to ignore us or treat us like after thoughts (or worse) is foolish…and dangerous to bottom lines.

    Now…on to the photo. At first, I would say ‘what is it that you are trying to convey”?

    However to move on to the feeling I get from seeing it (without waiting for your answer), and my gut feel is that it’s not a good choice. Why? Well, it might seem to adhere to the 3 rules but there’s another factor at play, here. That’s the issue of the time period in which this photo was taken and what it portrays as a result. Plus while the woman in the photo is not well known to today’s everyday crowd, she IS in with the Hollywood realm. That takes it out of “believability” out of the picture. Take a closer look at her. She’s wearing a lovely ensemble you might find her wearing while playing in her huge backyard garden of the day before dinner is served (which she does not cook). Those shoes are not meant for riding. The bike is a cruiser which adds to the “la la la” factor. (Real women ride road, mountain and cross bikes…in addition to commuters, cruisers and more.) Then back to the period the photo taken, it has an airy kind of feeling as you look at it. Plus, women in this time period were almost never taken seriously in any realm. So as you look at her now, you still don’t take her seriously.

    What might be a good photo? One of a woman dressed in her bike gear. She isn’t looking at the camera. She’s too busy changing her own flat tire on her road or mountain bike. She doesn’t have her hair flowing out behind her conveniently in the wind. Her helmet stays on. She’s not wearing make-up. Her jersey isn’t conveniently unzipped to a certain level, and her ass is poking toward the camera, either. That’s real. We don’t have to show her as taking apart her bottom bracket. It’s not likely many women will learn how to do that. (Same goes for men, btw. I’m the odd person on this one b/c I’m geeky. I can fix your computers – hardware, software, handle certain wiring issues within the house…and even work on older cars. I like biology, chemistry, physics, and math, too.) Btw, the woman in the “proposed” picture wouldn’t be wearing a stitch of pink, either. It’s actually rare for me to see any of my female friends wearing pink as they ride. Most are wearing blue, red, black or green. Purple is an okay color to portray, though…as long as it’s not “light purple” (aka lavender-ish) and as long as it isn’t taking over the picture, either.

    So…that’s my humble 5 cents.

    Btw, I’m going to share the Elly Blue article with my local women’s advocacy group. Thanks again for posting that!

    Lastly, it will be interesting to watch and see if ANY of the bicycling media and manufacturers wake up and realize how they have been treating us.