KU Football

On #KUboobs and choice feminism

KU FootballOn Friday, BuzzFeed posted a soft-core porn display of University of Kansas football basketball fans Tweeting pictures of their cleavage “to support their college team.” Apparently #KUboobs, as its called, has been going on for some time, and the trend has spread to other schools. Yet, given my lack of expertise in both college sports and searching for breasts on the Internet, I’m new to the story.

If we forget about the athletic context for a second, the pictures strike me as a non-event (except for all the news sites that get to put the word “boobs” in a headline and see the page hits roll in). I’m never, ever going to tell women to put on more clothing because the patriarchy is already doing plenty of that. And I won’t get into a debate about whether self-objectification is personally empowering: I wouldn’t want to Tweet pictures of my chest to strangers, but, as Eve Sedgwick once said, “people are different from each other.” So, again, whatever.

What does bother me, though, is how these pictures are being used. Taken in context, we see these breasts offered as good luck tokens and prizes, which promotes the idea that women’s bodies are due rewards for male athletes. Without this kind of encouragement, we already have enough people who believe football players deserve sexual access to women.

The “KU Boobs” organizers seem to have anticipated this criticism though, and are claiming a feminist mission. A statement on the site says:

It’s all about who’s in the driver’s seat; and in the case of #kuboobs, it’s the ladies all the way. #kuboobs has emerged from the throes of March Madness: a frenzied, cultish worship of the male body and its physical prowess. Its a masculine sphere that traditionally excludes women (just like those pricks who assume girls don’t watch the games!). But with #kuboobs, ladies are here to announce their fandom, loud and proud, and to seize their own place among the Apollonian body worship that’s synonymous with the NCAA basketball tournament. Its our answer to the phallic act of putting the ball in the hole.

The first problem that jumps out at me here is the unconvincing analogy between bodies doing things and bodies being looked at. Yes, March Madness constitutes a “cultish worship of the male body and its physical prowess.” And I think it’s understandable and pretty cool that female fans would demand recognition of their often ignored dedication. In some ways, #KUboobs is a testament to just how much and how many women want to be included in the football sports community.

But the content of the crowd’s admiration for male athletes’ bodies—their ability to run and jump and throw—strikes me as a wholly different than the adoration of the #KUboobs women’s form. The boobs aren’t really doing much except existing for a presumably male gaze.

The #KUboobs statement insists, though, that the actual content of the act doesn’t matter because “It’s all about who’s in the driver’s seat.” In other words, Tweeting pictures of your boobs is feminist because you chose to do so. This argument is one we’ve seen often within feminist debate over the past half-century: so long as a woman is acting freely, pursuing her own fulfillment, her deeds must be feminist. At heart, #KUboobs asks us to determine the legitimacy of “choice feminism”—and I’m not a fan.

Many feminist bloggers before me have written strong pieces deconstructing choice feminism and the idea of agency, so I won’t tackle the whole issue. I do want to revisit an often-overlooked tension within this debate, though: the conflict between feminism as personal tool and as group struggle.

Feminism, for me, is a deeply personal issue. My views are informed by my own experiences with violence and discrimination, and my own particular way of thinking; sexism is not some abstract idea, but a pernicious force in my life and the lives of the women I love. Similarly, feminist thought has provided me with profound and life-altering private support. Yet, despite the intimacy of feminism, it is inescapably a social movement. However fragmented, feminism is unified by the drive to eradicate misogyny for all. Although personal fulfillment often strengthens the movement, positioning us as badass allies to others and soldiers against the misogyny in our own lives, doing what feels good to me isn’t always good for women at large (this isn’t so surprising given that my desires are shaped by the sexist culture I live in). Choosing to act this way doesn’t change that fact.

Whether women have a responsibility to forgo personal pleasures for the movement’s good is a question I’m still struggling to figure out (though, I’ll admit, I’m leaning toward “yes”). But I definitely don’t think that these pictures are automatically feminist because the women chose to post them and, presumably, enjoyed doing so. In this case, though I absolutely believe that the women of #KUboobs and its rivals are as self-determining as any people can be and had no malicious intent, I think their Twitter campaign promotes rape culture. And that doesn’t sound feminist to me.

Washington, DC

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at Feministing.com. During her four years at the site, she wrote about gender violence, reproductive justice, and education equity and ran the site's book review column. She is now a Skadden Fellow at the National Women's Law Center and also serves as the Board Chair of Know Your IX, a national student-led movement to end gender violence, which she co-founded and previously co-directed. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she is the co-editor of The Feminist Utopia Project: 57 Visions of a Wildly Better Future. She has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice at campuses across the country and on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, ESPN, and NPR.

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at Feministing.com.

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