Miesha Tate created a controversy on Tuesday evening when she called Ronda Rousey a hypocrite. This was based on Rousey's chastising ring girls for posing in Playboy while she herself posed for an obscured nude spread in ESPN: The Magazine. The motives for Tate's criticism are certainly suspect, but she might have a point.
"With all these ring girls and their vaginas, – all of this goes back to advice my mom gave me. She gave me this one piece of advice, which I still hold dear. She said, 'Look, whatever pictures you put out there are gonna be out there forever, so just think that one day your 12 or 13-year-old son or daughter is going to see those pictures. Whatever you want your son or daughter, or even your 13-year-old little sister to see, keep that in mind.' So, whatever I'm not gonna show on a beach, I'm not gonna show in a magazine. These girls are going to have to explain to their kids one day why mommy's ass and vagina are all over the place.
Tate's resentments aside, how does one reconcile Rousey's criticism of ring card girls posing for Playboy and her appearance and subsequent star turn in ESPN: The Magazine?
The primary argument leans on context. While there's no mistaking the focus and intent of Playboy, ESPN: The Magazine's overall focus is more journalistic in nature. This brings us to the second argument, which is that Rousey's participation in the pictorial focused on the athletic endeavors of those involved and obscured certain parts of the body that would otherwise be shown in a publication like Playboy.
But that argument ignores an undeniable fact: ESPN sells "The Body Issue" on sex. It's their version of Sports Illustrated's annual "Swimsuit Issue," except under a slightly more cynical pretense of not really being a skin mag. They include male athletes to both bolster their claim of focusing on the athletic and pseudo-artistic aspect of the spreads while simultaneously expanding their demographic to include straight women and gay men.
If one has any doubt as to where their focus lies, just look at the history of "The Body Issue." When the first edition came out in 2009, most media attention focused on the inclusion of fighter Gina Carano and tennis star Serena Williams, the latter boasting the most popular of the six alternate covers offered that year. The retort would be that ESPN can't control the coverage of other outlets, but that relies on an outrageous assumption that they didn't know how the issue would be received and where most of the attention would be drawn. 2010 featured even more female athletes who received more media attention and scrutiny than their male counterparts, and as if you needed further evidence that it wasn't about examining athletic prowess, one of its primary subjects was professional billiards player (!) Jeanette Lee.
This is not to lay any opposition towards ESPN's "The Body Issue" or any nude pictorial. I'm not condemning Rousey for posing for the magazine. I think it was a shrewd and her handling of it has been another example of why I consider her the second-best self-promoter in combat sports (right behind Chael Sonnen).
I do object, however, to Rousey and others determining that there is somehow an inherent moral high ground in her pictorial versus those of ring girls and the various other women who have posed in Playboy.
One of the more famous quotes regarding what is and isn't pornography comes from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in the landmark 1964 case Jacobellis vs. Ohio. In response to determining whether or not the film "The Lovers" was obscene, Potter admitted the difficulty in determining what does and doesn't constitute hardcore pornography and wrote "I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that." The quote is often cited by many, even if they miss the primary point that no matter how far we progress as a society, the determination of what does and does not constitute pornographic, obscene, or offensive material remains a wholly and inherently subjective endeavor. The same can be said for determining artistic merit, as one man's art is (often) another man's smut.
Yet there can't be any doubt what ESPN's motives are when they put out "The Body Issue," particularly in light of all the attention given to the inclusion of the talented but also beautiful Rousey. The question becomes: what exactly separates Rousey's photos from, say, UFC ring girl Brittany Palmer's spread in Playboy? The answer from a purely objective standpoint is perhaps some lighting, airbrushing, and whether or not certain parts are exposed. Subjectively speaking, the waters are a bit muddied. I maintain that the distinction is almost, if not outright, arbitrary.
There's also the problem that Rousey's spread is cynically presented under a false pretense. Playboy, for what it's worth, shows you its hand. It doesn't hide what it is and what it's selling.
So while it's impossible to ignore the sparks flying everywhere from the axe Miesha Tate is grinding, her viewpoint bears some merit. Regardless, I have to give both of them kudos for this whole dust-up: Rousey for continuing to engage pop culture to increase her mainstream presence, and Tate for making everyone talk about her even though Rousey is defending her title against Sarah Kaufman in a few weeks. Whether they're on twitter or posing in ESPN: The Magazine, they both deserve credit beyond their skillsets in the cage.
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Rousey Image: Esther Lin/ Forza LLC/ Getty Images