Sports Illustrated published its first swimsuit issue in 1964 to fill space in the winter months. “Filling space” was to be done with a beautiful model, and it birthed a massive tradition of combining articles about mostly male athletes with pictures of mostly female models that continues to this day. Never mind the dubiousness of any tradition that came out of the Mad Men era. This is a major enterprise, and the only thing that gets some bros through February.
Speaking of bros, let’s talk about that idea. “Bro” is in a tight race with “hipster” for the title of “The Term That Means the Least” of the early 2010s. Both words are easy ways to demonize people you don’t understand and whose peer group you have no access to. “Bro” and “hipster” mean whatever you want those words to mean, and you don’t have to worry about getting to know who exactly it is you’re hurling epithets at. Here, “Bro” refers to 18-24 year old heterosexual men who like sports and have no trouble displaying large posters of supermodels in their homes.
While I don’t subscribe to SI, I read a lot of their Internet content, along with ESPN, their excellent spin-off Grantland, and The Score. A lot of my time is spent on sports websites. I’ve also seen a few SI Swimsuit issues. Yes, I’m fully aware that a magazine filled with nothing but impossibly thin and big-breasted women lying on beaches in swimsuits that can’t be seen without a magnifying glass doesn’t exactly promote the healthiest view of women. It’s degrading. But I haven’t completely averted my much-maligned male gaze.
What is troublesome about this monster that SI has unleashed is the blurring of the two types of content. Supermodels are slowly ingratiating themselves into sports websites. This isn’t to say women don’t belong there. It just normalizes the idea that the only woman who should interrupt your sports time is a beach-dwelling near-nudist with a perpetual “come hither” face. SI models are more famous than actual female athletes.
One year after posing for Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue in a painted-on “swimsuit” that didn’t even bother to cover her breasts, Brooklyn Decker made SI’s cover. She also starred in a terrible Adam Sandler movie that probably made her a lot of money. I didn’t see Just Go With It (2011, 19% on Rotten Tomatoes), but the early trailers (like this Super Bowl ad) seemed to suggest the movie was nothing but Decker emerging from the ocean in slow motion. You were encouraged to “tell your girlfriend it’s a romantic comedy.” You’d think Decker would be poised to take over the sports-bro blogosphere, but it didn’t happen. The following year, she wasn’t even in the Swimsuit Issue.
So what happened? How could SI not feature a thin, big-breasted blonde who’s also from North Carolina and a huge sports fan? Not featuring last year’s cover model in this year’s issue is like a team winning a title and then trading away all its players. You just don’t do it. Sure, maybe she had a scheduling conflict. Maybe the demands of Battleship (2012, currently 36% on Rotten Tomatoes) and What to Expect When You’re Expecting (2012, 22%) were too much. Personally, I think there’s a different answer: Kate Upton.
Upton burst onto the scene the same year as Decker’s cover issue. She was all of 18 (yep, she still can’t legally drink, bros) but very ready for fame. She became an Internet sensation when a YouTube video of her doing the Dougie surfaced. It’s cellphone footage, taken at a Los Angeles Clippers game, so obviously she was okay with it going online.
A video like that can launch a career, if that’s the kind of career you want to launch. She went on to star in the latest incarnation of Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr.’s repulsive series of ads where a model sensuously eats a giant burger. Later, sports blogs exploded with links to Upton doing the “Cat Daddy” for photographer Terry Richardson during a shoot.
One can’t help but feel like Upton is nothing but a bro tabula rasa, willing to do whatever a photographer tells her or what commenters ask of her. Jessia Danielle and Kate Perkins discuss that idea more fully over at The Classical, and they’re not wrong—ever since she was 18 years old, Upton has been told to take off her clothes and act sexy but modest for cameramen. Maybe I’m ignorant of the profession of super modeling, but it seems like it wouldn’t lead to the most well-adjusted adult.
In case you didn’t watch that Cat Daddy video, it ends with Upton saying “that’s all you get.” Let’s examine that for a second. “That’s all you get”—a statement that implies she’s not dancing in a less-than-negligible bikini for an Internet photographer because she couldn’t wait to be asked. She’s offering something—her bouncing, voluptuous body—to the public in exchange for a paycheck and sports website fame.
What does this all have to do with Brooklyn Decker? They don’t look all that different, really, and it’s not like they’re born of different eras. Why didn’t Decker lead the charge into the .gifs-gone-wild-but-not-topless movement? She didn’t understand the “that’s-all-you-get” corollary. She married tennis star Andy Roddick. She posed topless for photographer Mark Squires just after her SI cover. She’s married and already showed the Internet her boobs? Boring. Give us someone younger and more willing to act like a stripper.
So she’s trying acting. Just Go With It was basically billed as an Adam Sandler movie with a lot of Brooklyn Decker walking slowly on the beach . . . until the trailers sifted into “wait, this is a standard rom-com with Adam Sandler and America’s Sweetheart, Jennifer Aniston. Nothing racy here.” She’s barely even in the Battleship trailers, overshadowed by Rihanna. And to be honest, I had no idea she was in What To Expect . . . until a friend found out I was writing this column and mentioned it. Can she even act? I don’t know. She hasn’t been in any critically acclaimed roles or films. In an interview with Esquire’s Tom Chiarella in 2011, she even admitted a lack of confidence in her acting ability. She calls herself a model, and Chiarella interjects with “Aren’t you a model and an actress?” to which Decker responds, “Well, come on. How cheesy does that sound? I can’t say ‘actress’ unless someone says I’m halfway decent at it.”
This seems to suggest she wants to be known for something other than being photographed without her clothes on. She also doesn’t have any formal training, has been in nothing but eye-rollers, and will be pressured by another male-dominated industry (Hollywood) to continue existing for nothing but the male gaze. It seems like basically the same career path, except with more mainstream visibility. Judging by the Esquire interview, that’s not what she wants. So what’s the next step? Acting lessons? Relying on blockbusters for big paychecks?
Modeling and acting are strange, awful, and unforgiving industries. It feels weird to watch a 24-year-old already fighting to avoid the glue factory. Maybe that’s not what’s happening, but it feels like it. So, Brooklyn Decker, while I won’t be seeing either of your films that opened last weekend, I’m rooting for you.