In this third part of Climb Like A Girl, Mick Ryan investigates how images of women have been used in the media.
In 1997 Climbing magazine, under the editorship of Duane Raleigh, ran a front cover of the climber Rikki Ishoy. The photo had no relation to any content in the magazine, it wasn't a photograph of a significant ascent, you couldn't really see the rock, she was two inches off the ground and it was captioned wrong. It was a close-up picture of a pouting half-naked woman in a bikini top, basically a picture of her breasts and her right inner thigh, of obvious appeal to the majority of testosterone-fuelled climbers to buy the magazine, and of course they did. It was a photograph of a woman whose body conformed to the stereotypical images you see in glamour magazines, even if that wasn't what the photographer intended - visual images are almost always pre-meditated and the photographer Corey Rich is a pro - and even though the climber was an intelligent “real” climber. The editorial team voting on whether to use the image was male with one dissenting female voice. Am I complaining? No. The symbolic significance of this image and its planned message did resonate in me somewhere. I'm male, my blood flows with testosterone and I like seeing half-naked females, it makes me feel good. There again I did feel a little uneasy about it, but not that uneasy not to put seven photos of women and no men on the cover of the Happy Boulders guide in the hope that climbers would think that Bishop, California was some kind of girl's bouldering camp. Such is the dilemma of women images where at some level they exploit, on another give pleasure, on another celebrate, on all levels sell, and on another darker side feed the myth that women are the tools of men which can ultimately lead to violence and in some cases lead to death.
The celebrated and controversial cover of Climbing magazine featuring Rikki Ishoy.
© Corey Rich
Ishoy instantly became climbing's "it" girl of the late 90s and more of the same soon followed. The editorial team at Climbing magazine who chose the picture soon defected almost en-mass to Rock and Ice magazine, when Duane Raleigh bought it off the investors of the previous editor Dougald Macdonald. Rock and Ice continued this sex-sells trend almost immediately with a special bouldering issue that featured on the cover a climbing model, who didn't climb outside much, and was posed alluringly and artificially on a boulder problem that she didn't climb. Inside the same issue was a full-page image of the climbing-playboy-celebrity Ivan Greene posed in his signature wife-beater top with an adoring bevy of half-naked studio models surrounding him. No guesses there as to the message being transmitted to the masses. In the same issue they had a fantasy written-piece about a climber at Hueco who stumbles upon a Penthouse mag photo-shoot. Where Rock and Ice magazine trying a tad too hard to pull the urban climber demographic away from the web and new print mags like Urban Climber magazine? Can the climbing media be blamed for using racy images of women to sell to men? They are in business and are they not only following the mainstream media where in an increasingly competitive and fragmented market-place thighs and breasts are exposed, and ethics are thrown aside in pursuit of the holy grail of magazine publishing, the almighty advertising dollar.
A confused Ivan Greene in this studio shot used in a feature article in the bouldering issue of Rock and Ice magazine.
© Corey Rich
As Jeff Achey the new editor of Climbing said to me, "although we wouldn't go down the route that some have chosen, 85% of our readers are male". In his recent tenure at Climbing magazine, Achey has been careful to choose female covers that are primarily newsworthy and sexy second, not just unauthentic covers that only appeal to the primal instincts of the male of the species. The difference may appear subtle to some, but it is significant.
A cover of Climbing under the stewardship of Jeff Achey showing Steph Davis on her ascent of El capitan’s Free Rider.
© Heinz Zak
And phew, all this flesh despite the so-called Janet Jackson nipple-mobilized moral majority in the US where the secrets of desperate housewives are always revealed to titillate the masses between prayer sessions. The success of the "lads" magazine like FHM, Maxim and Loaded in the UK and the US has raised expectations from young males that they will be treated to masterbatory images from the sheets of the glossies whether it be snow boarding or rock climbing. That's despite most of the media owners, who are pushing soft-porn in print and cable TV, being big contributors to the Republican religious moral-majority.
Even older outdoor readers are being treated. Every time I browse the magazines at Barnes and Noble some bikini-clad dirt Barbie (or Ken) shouts sex from the cover of the once staid and serious Outside magazine. As mentioned earlier Outside magazine recently ran a piece about four young women on a climbing road trip and the photos illustrating the article taken by Jeff Lipsky seemed authentic enough. However, for the cover Outside chose to use a celebrity glamour photographer, James White, who has shot Kate Winslet and Scarlett Johansson, and you could tell. The naked cover photo of climber Sara Carlson was pure sex (she wasn't featured in the article inside, but in a special stand-alone gallery). The image was chosen to sell the magazine as efficiently as White sells movie stars. Carlson was in a demur come-hither pose from the shoulders up, a come-inside pose that screamed buy me and you shall savor my inner delights. But surprisingly from the shoulders down however it looked like she was taking a pee standing up with one of those women's' travel urinary devices like Freshette. Outside magazine are a new player in the game of girl-powerploitation as a more mature player would have cropped the photo lower to show the curve of her ass and had her hands exposed caressing the rock and viola! Instantly gained an extra ten to twenty-thousand in news-stand sales and a future payola in advertising revenue.
Another fleshy cover from the outdoor lifestyle magazine, Outside.
© James White
The point is sex sells as always and is at the moment everywhere, and whose complaining, not men surely? And if anyone does complain, male or female, the photographer or editor comes out with a well-rehearsed script that action women are sexy and real, and when they aren't scaling cliffs they are either preoccupied applying make-up, perusing a Victoria's Secret catalog or are filling the coffers of southern California cosmetic surgeons. Not so Dean Fidelman's "warts and all" Stone Nude calendar, an example of a media that isn't focus-group directed, Photoshoped to perfection and isn't inevitably morphing into sameness to attract the almighty dollar.
One of the images from Dean Fidelman’s "warts and all" Stone Nude calendar.
© Dean Fidelman
There are two US climbing calendars devoted totally to women, Fidelman's Stone Nudes that features arty black and white images of naked women climbing in the western USA (that White and Outside magazine copied). Then there is Fred Knapp's Women of Climbing calendar that has a more international flavor. The images in Women of Climbing have no fine art pretensions at all but are similar to the models in swim suite issue of Sports Illustrated. The women are dressed scantily even by climbing standards and are purposely posed in various positions that showcase the attributes that men find particularly alluring, often with a hint of nipple. Both these calendars have spawned several European imitators, including the one by the UK's Mike Robertson and in Germany Alex Wenner's Platinum arts series. Only Wenner's feature both men and women, although Fidelman did run one calendar nicknamed Stone Dudes, featuring just men, it lasted a year despite interest from the gay market segment. It's obvious that these calendar creators aren't making their money by selling to women, but by selling women to men.
All this is, of course, old news to many cynical and jaded Brits who were treated many years ago to both editorial and advertizing images featuring whips, breasts and exposed female nipples in Geoff Birtles' Crags Magazine, a boys-only rock rag, that luckily for Birtles pre-dated the "political correctness" that began in the later 80's. Quite aptly Birtles, after a devoted thirty years of publishing went out with a bang recently when in his final issue of High magazine in January 2005 published a piece written by the shock journalist Jude 'Fluffy' Calvert-Toulmin. This short piece castigated young male climbers as being lonely, undersexed and confused about their sexuality and was illustrated with the breasts and nipples of the good lady author, in an inch-off-the-ground set-up climbing shot. Around the same time as Birtles was getting his start in publishing those vulgar Vulgarians of the Gunks, a group of anti-establishment USA East coast climbers featured on the front cover of their anarchistic magazine 'the Vulgarian' the "glorious naked orbs" of Elaine Matthews, a precursor to Dean Fidelman's Stone Nudes. This was of course balanced when Dick Williams, another Gunky Vulgarian appeared naked in a celebrated shot climbing Shockley's Ceiling at the Gunks that was even featured recently in the Atlantic magazine. Oh the happy days and oblivion of the 1970's.
The Javelin girl from the UK’s Crags magazine circa late 1970s.
The French of course know no modesty when it comes to the unveiling of the female form. Not only did they invent baseball, french fries, give the USA its Constitution, sport climbing and the Louisiana Purchase they also perfected the now ubiquitous and contrived climbing photo. The French Vertical magazine in the Eighties used to feature each month the Vertical girl, usually a photo of a rope coiled over a pert breast or a tight ass draped in a harness. I knew more than one woman, and several hundred men, who found this refreshing and even looked forward to it each month. Then there was the Glenat-published Climbing Girls, a hardcover book that was jammed full of eye candy from cover to cover, today's climbing glamour photographers could learn a trick or two from that volume. The climax came when Vertical magazine's cover featured a climbing model wrapped in a tight one-piece swimsuit bouldering above an azure sea. You turned the cover and there was the same shot, an identical cover except her swimsuit was rolled down to her waist exposing her magnificent womanhood. Of course, the French are allowed to do this because, well, they are French.
There was a lull in the late 80s and early 90s when political correctness cowered the media and there was a brief fashion to be a 'New Man'. New Men pretend to be offended by female exploitation of any kind and would do all kind of mental acrobatics and sympathetic posing in pursuit of fun between the sheets. Once there, they would then recall the instructions from "How To Pleasure Your Woman One Hundred Different Ways" and after, tongue-tired, rolling over and falling asleep was definitely verbatim. Then Bam! Girl Power.
Go back to France? Yes please. A montage of ‘vertical girls’ from Vertical magazine.
© Vertical Magazine
Girl Power's roots were erroneously attributed to the UK pop group the Spice Girls, who marketed the hell out of it to sell records and merchandise. Power feminism or Girl Power states that women can be sexy, intelligent, successful and can wield their power, meaning sexual power, to get what they want. They can even whistle back at the construction worker, wear shorts skirts, bare their mid-riff, wiggle their behinds with confidence and not be called a hussy. Dismissed by such prominent second-wave feminists like Germaine Greer who in her book "The Whole Women" devoted a whole chapter castigating "bimbo feminism" and by Yvonne Abraham, in a piece called Lipstick Liberation, who said that "Girl Power has its limits, take away the sexual freedom and the guiltless push-up bras and you're not left with much." But it was also lauded by the likes of Kathy Acker who wrote in UK's Guardian newspaper "in the 80's feminism had entered a dark age until the constellation Spice Girls arose in the Heavens to show by their radiance that feminism can be fun". This disagreement between third wave feminists on whether to embrace or shun beauty, beauty that is often defined by marketing forces beyond most people's control, often distracts from pressing issues of inequality and can be used as a smoke screen by some to justify the exploitation of women. But enough of the theorizing, Girl Power gave us Maxim, FHM and Sex In The City, and has allowed outdoor magazines like Rock and Ice, and Outside magazines to ride on the crest of this politically incorrect feminist movement and use racy images of babes to sell their product.
Some climbing equipment companies are also making good use of it. Who hasn't seen the Red Chili rock shoe adverts of recent years where in one ad a group of pasty British boulderers dyno upward to a bikini clad girl or where a negligee-clad vamp seduces a boy climber to get his hot Red Chili rock shoes? These ads are the very embodiment of Girl Power, where a woman uses her sex to get what she wants from those silly boys. I suppose she could always go to a climbing shop and buy her own rock shoes but where's the fun in that? Another climbing company in Canada has taken this theme a step further.
In Part 4 of 'Climb Like A Girl', Mick Ryan introduces the marketing strategy of Blurr and Gus Alexandropoulos, revels in the image of Jason Kehl nailed by his hand to a wooden beam, takes a trip to a woman's college to watch Eve Enslers's Vagina Monologues and looks far too closely at lipstick lesbians.