The Second Sex at the Super Bowl

The Second Sex at the Super Bowl

The Tim Tebow commercial is no departure at all for viewers of the big game.


On Sunday, as nearly 100 million Americans gather to watch the New Orleans Saints take on the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV, they’ll be treated to something they’re probably not expecting: an ad speaking out against abortion. The spot, produced by the extreme right-wingers at Focus on the Family, features Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow and his mother, who claims she was advised by doctors to abort fetal Tim but “chose life” instead. Their message? You should, too.

The ad has caused quite a stir, as neither CBS nor the Super Bowl has ever before accepted a so-called “issue advocacy ad,” and CBS just last week turned down an ad for a gay men’s dating site. Public outrage from the left generally and from a coalition of more than thirty progressive organizations coordinated by the Women’s Media Center has resulted in a firestorm of press coverage. More than 100,000 e-mails and phone calls have been made to CBS and related parties urging them to pull the ad.

While it’s easy to see how this spot breaks new and unwelcome ground for the big game, the (more troubling) fact is that in many ways, the Tebow/Focus on the Family ad is just a new expression of a longstanding Super Bowl tradition in which women are valued only in direct relation to their usefulness to male athletes and fans.

I’m hardly the first to point out that the Super Bowl’s fans, athletes and institutions aren’t always friendly to independent women. The commercials that air during the game seem to actively compete for the Most Jaw-Droppingly Offensive Ad Award, and they feature only two kinds of women: one the one hand, sexually available and easily manipulated hotties in various states of undress, (as in this ad, in which men can literally control elite racecar driver Danica Patrick and compel her to take off her clothes, get into a shower and make out with another woman); or, on the other hand, unlovable shrews who make men miserable (as in this ad, in which we discover that football refs know how to keep their cool under pressure because they’re already used to their wives screeching at them at home). For decades, these spots have appeared to target either 12-year-old boys, or men with the equivalent level of emotional maturity. This, despite evidence that the actual Super Bowl audience is now nearly 40 percent female. By the time the world was introduced to Janet Jackson’s nipple jewelry during the 2004 Super Bowl’s halftime show, it was hard to see the ensuing faux-scandal as anything but the ultimate win in the annual female-flesh-for-watercooler-buzz exchange, the only real offense being that Jackson, the female whose flesh was in question, may have had a role in the orchestration of the whole kerfuffle.

As the most popular sport in the country, football is a boys’ club from day one. At least on the school- and kids’-league level, designated girls’ teams allow young women the chance to play basketball, softball or hockey. If they want to be involved in football, however, they can either be cheerleaders or they can fight a long and sometimes violent battle to be accepted as the only girl on the team, as 13-year-old Kacy Stuart had to do in 2008 when the Georgia Football League authorities disqualified her because of her gender, only to reverse their decision once Stuart’s mother launched a letter-writing campaign and the story made national news. And much like the struggle of Katie Hnida, who quit football at University of Colorado after being sexually harassed and assaulted by her own teammates. In 2003 Hnida became the first woman to score in an NCAA Division I-A football game, playing for the University of New Mexico.

When it comes to the NFL, things get even worse. The 2007 New York Times expose about the routine harassment of female Jets fans at home games inspired male Jets fans to whine that if the girls couldn’t take it, maybe they shouldn’t be there. At last year’s Super Bowl, the two biggest stars of the day, Santonio Holmes of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals, had both been accused of domestic violence. Is it any wonder that the mythic connection between the Super Bowl and domestic violence is so hard to debunk? For the record, there’s no evidence of an overall spike in domestic abuse on Super Bowl Sunday, but new research suggests that there may be an increase in perpetration of same by male football fans when a home team suffers an upset loss at any point in the season.

And who could forget the treatment of sports reporter Erin Andrews, whose victimization at the hands of a peeping-Tom videographer (and the millions of people who sought out the video of her walking around nude in what she believed was the privacy of her hotel room) has been simultaneously blamed on her willingness to exploit her own sexuality to get ahead as a sportscaster (the “what did she expect, dressing like that?” argument), and her unwillingness to exploit it enough (the “if she didn’t act like she was better than other girls, she wouldn’t have seemed like such forbidden fruit” critique).

Enter the Focus on the Family ad, thirty seconds of squeaky-clean “family values” that make the astonishing claim that women shouldn’t have abortions because they might be gestating a future male sports star. There’s a lot wrong with this argument, not the least of which is the statistical reality that it’s significantly more likely that women who choose to carry their fetuses to term will give birth to rapists or murderers than to Heisman Trophy winners. But what makes it such a perfect fit for the Super Bowl is its blatant cynicism about the role of women when it comes to the big game. It’s not enough that we be always available, conventionally beautiful sex-objects. Now we have a CBS-sanctioned ad telling us that if we get knocked up as a result of all that (relentlessly heterosexual) sex, we have only two choices: have the baby, or become an enemy of Football Nation. Though perhaps we should be grateful that Focus on the Family’s commercial adds a third acceptable role for women in Super Bowl advertising: alongside available hottie and repulsive shrew, we apparently can now be hero-incubators.

The ad becomes even more disturbing when we consider who it’s trying to reach. Assuming that Focus on the Family operates with the same mindset as most Super Bowl advertisers (and there’s really no evidence to suggest otherwise), it’s also safe to assume that men are one of the primary targets of this spot. So now what we’ve got is an ad telling men that it’s wrong for women to abort their potential children, lest those children not get the chance to grow up to be famous quarterbacks who paint Scripture references into their eyeblack. In light of new research revealing that about a third of women who report partner violence also report that their partners try to pressure them into pregnancy and motherhood (as do 15 percent of women who had never reported relationship violence), this male-targeted argument is particularly chilling.

As long as CBS is turning down Super Bowl ads because they feature two men kissing (CBS originally told the producers of the gay dating ad that they were sold out of ad space, but when pressed admitted that the ad was “not within the network’s broadcast standards for Super Bowl Sunday”), they certainly have no business running ads that promote fetuses as more important than the women who carry them. But all the work being done to get the ad pulled should really be viewed an opening salvo, not any kind of ultimate victory. There are few events in the American calendar that bring together more people than the Super Bowl–nearly as many people will watch next Sunday as voted in the 2008 presidential election. If it really is the love of football, friends and family that brings us all together, then it’s time to stop helplessly accepting an event that treats half the population like expendable fodder for the other half’s entertainment. If the fans, advertisers, networks, bosses and athletes can’t make room for women to be equal participants in this grand American tradition, then it’s well past time to abandon it and start a new one with a truly level playing field.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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