For most of January 2018, one of the worst sexual abuse scandals ever in sports dominated the news cycle, as former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to life in prison. During the trial, more than 100 sexual abuse victims testified about the predatory environment Nassar had created. Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman delivered an awe-inspiring 13-minute testimony that received national praise. Raisman, who identified herself as a powerful voice and advocate for all victims of sexual abuse, embodied the persona of feminist advocate and champion for abuse victims. However, Raisman’s credibility as a feminist advocate has come into scrutiny in light of her decision to pose – for the second time – for the 2018 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. This case raises several questions: Can Raisman still be considered a feminist advocate in light of her choice to pose for a sexist, white, heteronormative, and objectifying magazine feature? Where is the line between empowerment and objectification? As a rhetoric scholar, I am interested in how both Raisman’s traditional form of activism (public address) and her embodied rhetoric are compatible feminist discourses. My purpose is to explain Raisman’s multi-modal activism through the lens of feminist rhetorical criticism – highlighting the concept of “power feminism” – in order to complicate what feminist sports scholars and hosts of the Burn It All Down podcast call the “Sports Illustrated swimsuit conundrum.”
Modes of (Feminist) Rhetorical Activism and Power Feminism
Feminist rhetorical activism takes many forms. Traditionally, rhetorical activism has been defined as “public protest,” “confrontation,” or other forms of verbal, deliberative discourse. However, communication scholars Sowards and Renegar advance a more pluralist view of rhetorical activism. In addition to public address, they argue, feminist rhetorical action may manifest as creating grassroots models of leadership; using strategic humor; building feminist identity both on- and off-line; sharing stories; resisting stereotypes and labels; and other visual or embodied forms of protest. Such forms of protest have been used for centuries. Images of women cycling in nineteenth century magazines functioned to resist dominant cultural frames of the “frail” female body whose reproductive parts needed to be preserved. In the twentieth century, second-wave feminism introduced consciousness-raising activities where women could gather to share, listen, and organize. Finally, in our current century, SlutWalks have attempted to reclaim the kinds of clothing traditionally associated with “promiscuity” and resist the rape culture logic that blames assault victims. Such victim-blaming discourse proliferated after the release of Raisman’s Sports Illustrated feature, as exemplified by a tweet directed at Raisman reading, “How can you complain that you were molested?”
Contemporary rhetorical activism is not limited to one of these forms; rather, most activist discourse is multi-modal as well as multiply-mediated. Further, there are competing forms of feminist thought. I argue that Raisman’s rhetorical action is in line with “power feminism,” which focuses on working within the system or “using the master ‘s tools” to affect change in society. Media studies scholar Rebecca Hains has criticized “power feminism” in her analysis of television content, which revealed that “power feminist” characters adhere to normative standards of femininity, making them successful commodities in the marketplace. While such criticisms are indeed necessary, I argue that “power feminist” rhetorical action is still important, even if it is imperfect.
Aly Raisman as “Power Feminist” and Multi-Modal Advocate
During Raisman’s testimony, she said, “I have both power and voice and I am only beginning to just use them.” I argue that both her verbal testimony and her Sports Illustrated swimsuit feature are complementary forms of feminist rhetorical activism. Both demonstrate Raisman’s transformation from a passive victim into an active agent in the form of a survivor/advocate. In her testimony, she chronicled the story of her objectification and abuse. Her direct confrontation (“Larry, it’s your turn to listen to me”) demonstrated Raisman’s reclaimed voice and agency. In the case of her embodied rhetoric in Sports Illustrated – both the traditional poses and the “In Her Own Words” feature – Rasiman displays, rather than hides, her body. She transforms from victim to survivor. This is a “power” move, which stands in contrast to what Naomi Wolf called “victim feminism.”
It is still important to maintain critiques of the patriarchal media landscape we inhabit. Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue is certainly not the epitome of women’s empowerment or feminist discourse; it is unfortunately one of the only times women appear in Sports Illustrated at all. Further, “power feminism” is not without its criticisms. As radical feminists have argued, “the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.” However, this does not undermine Raisman’s feminist activism, and we should not revert to ideals of purity that demand women be passive and modest. In Raisman’s own words (written on her naked body), “Women do not need to be modest to be respected.” That simple assertion says so much. Aly Raisman is no victim – she is a powerful survivor. Raisman’s multi-modal activism depicts a survivor who has claimed her body, her power, her agency, and her voice. For Raisman, both speaking and posing make her a “power feminist” because she both acknowledges the power she has as a woman and a high-profile athlete (the role-model persona), and she participates in an institution (the swimsuit issue) that caters to patriarchal and heteronormative ideals. However, her public testimony and her embodied rhetoric should be viewed as compatible and complementary forms of activism. Rhetorical action can be simultaneously progressive and regressive. Advocacy – and any communication, really – is never just an either/or. It can be, and usually is, both/and.
Rebecca Alt is a doctoral candidate in Communication (Rhetoric and Political Culture) at the University of Maryland. She is interested in the communication of elite sport culture, organizational rhetoric, and advocacy. You can follow her on Twitter at @rhetorbec.