For some, the World Cup field looks like the pinnacle of international soccer competition. But for others, it’s an explosion at the mancandy factory. From Jezebel to Elle, in Queerty and in Out, images of the World Cup’s sweat-drenched, thick-thighed contestants are being converted into masturbation material at an alarming pace. For years, Jezebel’s long-running thighlights series has inspired its female gawkers to admire the hamstrings, adductors, and quadriceps of the players on the pitch. But this season, BuzzFeed is making a bid to become the sport’s Most Valuable Ogler by drawing out the sexual objectification of male soccer players into so many drool-stained listicles that they have now inspired their own listicle compiling the site’s efforts. Since the World Cup kicked off earlier this month, the site has celebrated the competition’s “most bootyful butts,” ranked its “best bulges” on “a scale of zero to five David Beckhams,” and invited readers to “match the six-pack to the soccer player.”
The 2014 World Cup marks a bizarre and exciting time in the gender politics of professional sports. When female athletes attract press coverage, we scour their magazine pictorials for signs of sexualization and pick apart their courtside interviews to identify chauvinistic lines of questioning. And yet, we revel in GIFs of Cristiano Ronaldo posing in his tighty whities and Moritz Leitner lifting his jersey to reveal his abs. When Buzzfeed writes of French soccer player Yoann Gourcuff, “I’m too distracted by his beauty to hear what he has to say,” everybody’s too mesmerized by the lip-licking GIFs to throw out the “sexism” flag. These days, clicking through a slideshow of the world’s hottest female soccer players makes you look like a bit of a creep. But admiring the abdominals of male footballers? That just means you have a pulse.
On first (uncomfortably lingering) glance, it appears that we’ve swapped one sexual double standard for another. But the trade-off isn’t actually so clear-cut. “We know that commenting on women’s bodies is fraught in a way that content appreciating male … assets … isn’t,” BuzzFeed Deputy Editor-in-Chief Shani Hilton said in an email. “No one assumes a male athlete is only noteworthy because of the way he looks.” And it’s true that if you can bear to look away from the beefcake slideshows, BuzzFeed offers full coverage of the World Cup; you’ll have to page through dozens of posts about FIFA politics and fan celebrations to even get a taste of its more provocative material. When it comes to coverage of male soccer, sexual objectification is the icing, not the cake.
That’s the big difference. Even when Sports Illustrated isn’t putting actual swimsuit models on its cover, it treats female athletes like they’re models, often photographing them in sensual poses and dressing them in revealing clothing instead of snapping them in the action poses typical of male athletes. And corporate endorsements of female athletes are still disproportionately awarded to the thinnest, prettiest, blondest competitors, not the most skilled. Women’s sports are so underattended and oversexualized, it often seems like female athletes are valued more for their bodies than the feats they’re capable of performing with them. BuzzFeed’s Dorsey Shaw has slyly suggested that his site’s coverage of soccer players’ butts is powerful enough to justify his own editorial obsession with the posteriors of female beach volleyball players. Not quite. Even amping up our objectification of male athletes won’t level the playing field between men’s and women’s sports.
No, embracing the titillating potential of male athletes is no dour affirmative action exercise, and thank God. Instead, it is a radical re-imagining of a spectacle that’s been controlled by straight male viewers for far too long. When female and gay gazes are applied to the soccer pitch, the results are fun, goofy, and even campy. After every match, Jezebel and BuzzFeed compete to pun faster and harder on sweating and stretching. And Slate’s Simon Doonan has elevated the ogling into an art form. “Brazilian David Luiz is the preeminent pre-Raphaelite beauty of the global soccer scene,” Doonan wrote. And “Can’t you just see Cristiano Ronaldo gobbling down Portuguese grapes whilst flitting across the stage in a revival of L’Après-Midi d’un Faune?” (I can now.) But commentators need not pack an encyclopedic knowledge of French literature to queer the sport: Just drop some video of a blatantly homoerotic celebration into a gay sports blog, and you’re done. It doesn’t hurt that the World Cup offers up an international cornucopia of masculine expression, parading out the metrosexuals alongside the macho to suit every conceivable taste.
Is there any hangover to this revelry? Perhaps. All of this obsession over thighs and abs can create the illusion that women and gay men aren’t actually keeping their eye on the ball, and help fuel the stereotype that they don’t constitute “authentic” sports fans. Indeed, the playful, even absurdist tone adopted by soccer gawkers often deliberately obscures the ostensible point of the game in order to ramp up the camp. “Over the past couple of days some people lost soccer games and some people won soccer games but everybody worked up a sweat, whether they were watching a game or playing in it,” Jezebel’s Kate Dries wrote in her latest thighlights photo celebration. “In case you haven’t heard, there’s a sportsball match going on. It’s called ‘The World Cup,’ and it is not an international goblet conference. It’s soccer, a game beloved by the British and almost never won by them,” wrote Queerty’s Matt Baume in his guide to hunting down “sexy pics” of World Cup players.
But unapologetic leering is also an announcement: Hey, we belong in the sports bar as much as straight men do, and we don’t have to parrot typical bro behavior in order to claim a barstool. “Women who love soccer are so often asked by male fans to ‘prove’ that they belong,” Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan wrote as the World Cup kicked off this summer. Some even feel pressured to downplay “their female-ness in contexts when it could be used against them,” leaving the skirts and mascara at home. Calling out the sport’s hotties is a way for fans to telegraph their rightful place in the fandom. And if straight men are forced to wade through a few slideshows of extremely attractive men when they’re searching for the score? Everyone wins.