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.

New Haven, CT

Alexandra Brodsky is an editor at Feministing.com, student at Yale Law School, and founding co-director of Know Your IX, a national legal education campaign against campus gender-based violence. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, and NPR. Through Know Your IX, she has organized with students across the country to build campuses free from discrimination and violence, developed federal policy on Title IX enforcement, and has testified at the Senate. At Yale Law, Alexandra focuses on antidiscrimination law and is a member of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic. Alexandra is committed to developing and strengthening responses to gender-based violence outside the criminal justice system through writing, organizing, and the law. Keep an eye out for The Feminist Utopia Project, co-edited by Alexandra and forthcoming from the Feminist Press (2015).

Alexandra Brodsky is an editor at Feministing.com, student at Yale Law School, and founding co-director of Know Your IX.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/kcar1/ kcar1

    I have never gotten the arguments that self-objectification is feminist. No, likewise, I would not tell a woman to cover up because everyone should have the agency to choose how they present themselves to the world — just because I don’t like your choice, as feminist, I support your right to make that choice… just don’t tell me that presenting yourself as a sex object is feminist.

    For the record, sex object and sexy are not synonymous.

    • honeybee

      See my problem with this attitude is that it’s literally a – you’re free to make whatever chouices you want as long as it’s choices I agree with.

      You can’t pick and choose what choices to support. Either women are free to make choices or they aren’t. And frankly, as long as you aren’t forced to make the same choices how is it right to look down on (even if you don’t openly show it) other people’s choices? If a woman is deriving happiness from a choice they made con sensually we should be celebrating her not educating her on why it was a bad choice.

  • http://feministing.com/members/smash/ smash

    I agree. Choice feminism is highly individualistic, and leaves behind the the class-based analysis we need as feminists. I like what Meghan Murphy has to say on the topic:

    “Choice without politics or theory behind it doesn’t hold power. ‘Choosing’ to objectify ourselves, for example, is not, what our second wave sisters meant when they fought for the ‘right to choose.’ And empowerment, through choice, was never intended to be about individual women, but rather about empowerment on a large scale, and freedom from oppression for all marginalized people.”


    • http://feministing.com/members/smash/ smash

      In case it wasn’t clear, I was agreeing with the OP, and not the first commenter.

  • http://feministing.com/members/athenia/ athenia

    Are there any pics of said boobs breastfeeding? If so, then we’ll talk.

    • fyoumudflaps

      This comment wins the internet dawg, rock on. If I were a girl and went to that school I’d so post the first one.

  • http://feministing.com/members/gibby/ Nina

    “The boobs aren’t really doing much except existing for a presumably male gaze.”

    Isn’t this what Beyonce was/is doing on the cover of the latest GQ magazine, and a ton of writers from this site thought it was just honky dory for Beyonce to pose half naked on a sexist and racist magazine cover, but these students can’t tweet pictures of their own breasts in support of the football team?

    Holy double standard Feministing. I understand the OP wasn’t a part of the Beyonce post I am referring to, but I would like to seem some discussion on why “we” think it’s OK for one person, but not another, to engage is this type of behavior, activity, what have you. I think this is a really, really important piece of the conversation.

    • http://feministing.com/members/azbrodsky/ Alexandra

      Hi Nina–Feministing writers differ significantly in opinion, and we see a value in presenting a variety of perspectives. I hope you’ll appreciate then, that this isn’t evidence of a double standard but instead of our commitment to intramovement dialogue.

      • http://feministing.com/members/gibby/ Nina

        Hi Alexandra! Thanks for replying. I definitely get that, and after I posted my comment I realized I didn’t represent (enough) that I appreciate the diversity of the writers here, and that I understand that not everyone has, or has to share the same point of view. So my apologies there.

        That being said, I would find it really interesting to get weigh-in from the difference voices of Feministing on this issue (not this specific one necessarily, but the bigger issue at play). Maybe a future post? I myself am undecided on how I feel about self-objectification as a choice, or just a symptom of the constraints within which we live in – to give a simplified version. The whole idea of free will is very interesting to me, especially within the feminist context. Anyway, enough blubbering from me! Thanks again!

        • http://feministing.com/members/maya/ Maya

          Hi Nina,

          As Alexandra said, I think we have slightly different takes on a very complicated issue, although in this particular case, I don’t think that they’re really that far apart. On my end, I appreciate that Alexandra, in contrast to Freeman, says explicitly that she does not want to tell other women what to do with their bodies and acknowledges that taking a a photo of their boobs is not an inherently disempowering thing on a personal level. (In this way, I think she avoids the slut-shaming that bothered me so much in Freeman’s piece.) And I agree wholeheartedly with the position that something isn’t automatically feminist just because an individual woman chooses to do it. I mean, that’s just ridiculous. And if Beyonce was like, “I’m a feminist and posing in GQ is a feminist act,” I would call bullshit too. On the same basis as Alexandra does–that feminism is about changing the structures that confine our choices, not simply choosing them. And I think she makes a strong case for how KUboobs, as a whole, supports the exact same ideas about “women as prizes” that underpins rape culture, particularly in the sports world.

          On the hand, I don’t think personal choices (at least ones that don’t hurt other people) are automatically anti-feminist either (and I don’t believe Alexandra thinks that either). And since the question of agency and the complicated pressures women face while navigating the patriarchy are, well, really complicated, I just generally prefer to not weigh-in on personal choices at all, and just focus on those larger pressures that constrain us all. A personal choice.

          I’d also like to think more about self-objectification. I think we all self-objectify ourselves to some extent because it’s impossible to grow up as a woman in this culture and not constantly be aware of how you are being seen, so I think the urge to play with/take control of that is really interesting.

          • http://feministing.com/members/gibby/ Nina

            Thanks for the reply Maya,

            This is a really interesting topic – a lot to think about on my end. I really appreciate your taking the time to respond so thoughtfully. It means a lot as a Feministing reader!

    • http://feministing.com/members/smiles/ Smiley


      Brava, a thousand times!

      I still don’t understand the Beyoncé argument, and I’m pretty sure many people were quite baffled by the post.

      By the way, has no one thought that maybe the mission statement (groan!) is a parody?

      [...] ‘cultish worship of the male body and its physical prowess. [...] ladies [...] announce their fandom, loud and proud,[...] seize their own place among the Apollonian body worship [..] answer to the phallic act of putting the ball in the hole.

      The person who wrote that has a bright future in politics.

  • http://feministing.com/members/lawnwalf/ Whitney

    So what I’m reading here is that an oppressed person- in this case a woman- is unable to commit an act if it just so happens to fall under a category of an oppressive notion? Isn’t that a bit like blaming a minority for perpetuating a stereotype? If that’s the case, we’ve chosen to no longer care about people’s individual choices; and instead we only care about changing the perception of our oppressed group by redefining expectations: We’re not free or equal if we’re unable to do X action because we’re solely concerned about how others view us.

    I’m all for the eradication of the patriarchy, but we’re not going to smash it by just going “Well we can’t do X because it falls under their [read: oppressive majority] oppressive schema.”

  • http://feministing.com/members/hellotwin/ Ami

    On a related note, I just watched this interesting TEDx talk on sexual objectification, including the many negative effects of self-objectification. Food for thought…


  • http://feministing.com/members/bananasuit/ Rachel

    Hi, I’m Rachel, the author of the original article critiqued in this piece. First of all, I’m so happy to see these issues being hashed out on Feministing! Second of all, I want to point out that my piece originally appeared on The Larryville Chronicles (http://larryvillechronicles.blogspot.com/2012/04/bananasuit-offers-powerful-feminst.html), a local satirical blog with a niche audience that really likes literary boner jokes. I think that context bears consideration, although I do stand by every word of my, ahem, Paglian interpretation of KU boobs. Still, the KU Boobs site never asked permission to use my piece as an official blanket statement about the “boobment.”

    Finally, I agree with other commenters who have taken issue with the “Male Gaze” interpretation of KU boobs. I’m a librarian with an advanced degree who joined the fun last tournament season to post a (modest) shot of my own KU boobs, and it wasn’t because I wanted to objectify myself to anonymous male spectators. It was because our whole community was caught up in the once-a-year Carnivale ethos that prevails in Lawrence, KS, during tournament season — dancing in the streets, drinking, chanting, music, ribald physicality, you name it. It was bawdy, brazen, and fun, and I participated because *I* wanted to, as a celebration of my *own* sexuality as a woman and a basketball fan.

    I believe that women can be physical and sexual purely for ourselves, and not just because of some weirdo who gets titillated by looking at us. For me, that’s part of the whole awesomeness of what I think of as third wave feminism — women who embrace traditionally female stereotypes for our own pleasure and power.

  • http://feministing.com/members/perstephone/ Steph

    The major problem with choice feminism for me is where to draw the line with ‘objectification’. Taking a photo of your breasts is in itself not necessarily objectification or pandering to the male gaze – assuming so, if anything, just reinforces the ideas that women’s bodies are inherently sexual. But where does it start and stop? What contexts are okay, what aren’t? When I make a choice to wear a short skirt or take a photo of my body, I do so because I am proud of how I look and it’s an expression of my own self-love and self-care, not with the intention of objectifying myself or appealing to men, but for every person who would agree with me, there are bound to be dozens more who would tell me that I AM objectifying myself because of what they perceive to be the context of my actions. Idk, I’m clearly rambling here, but part of the confusion around this subject is just because what is and isn’t demeaning/objectifying can be very subjective and has so many grey areas.

    That said, I do agree entirely that even if the women taking part in this are personally empowered, I don’t think it’s helping with regards to rape culture and perception of women’s bodies as objects. There are other ways to draw attention to the beauty of the female form – as was their original intention – without just posting a photo of cleavage. Doing so just seems, to me anyway, to play into the idea that women’s bodies exist to be looked at and enjoyed rather than exist in their own right and their own strength.

  • http://feministing.com/members/feminana/ Another Woman

    The theory dumbth involved is overwhelming.

    If it were my daughter wanting to be a KUboob, I’d take her aside and introduce her to the wide world of porn comments, and read them with her until she understood that when she puts her tits on a tray for millions or billions of strange men, she may think she’s being larky and liberated, but what she’s actually done is to prompt a great many horrible men to imagine doing violent, degrading, horrifying things to her body. To her body specifically. Using her. Some of them may go on for years fantasizing in this manner — about her body specifically — utterly without shame, as though they have a right.
    Also that someday, thanks to the whole internet-written-in-ink business, the odds were excellent that a boyfriend or boss or HR person would find this picture, and decide that (a) she was unbelievably stupid; and/or (b) it’s fine to imagine doing violent, degrading etc. The third-wave “it’s for me and that’s what’s important” business is nothing but solipsism, a reaction to “what will people think” taken well past the point of sense. Other people exist and their effects on our lives are real.

    • honeybee

      But what if you flat out don’t care if some stranger you’ve never met and never will meet looks at your body and thinks those thoughts? To me liberation comes from not killing yourself worrying so much about this sort of thing.

      I say that not b/c I think it’s ok to think these things about strange women but b/c these guys are going to do it no matter what. What’s the difference if it’s to a magazine ad, a picture they took themself on the street, or a random anonymous picture posted to KUboobs? Unless you remove all pictures of women, which you can’t, simply trying to stop pictures from being taken is meaningless. It does nothing. So why put so much pressure on yourself about it?

  • http://feministing.com/members/joeliyn2/ Joeliyn

    “read them with her until she understood that when she puts her tits on a tray for millions or billions of strange men, she may think she’s being larky and liberated, but what she’s actually done is to prompt a great many horrible men to imagine doing violent, degrading, horrifying things to her body. ( @Another Woman)

    I agree with your statement (@Another Woman) that there will be men who would imagine doing violent, degrading things when provoked by a nice set of boobies; but there are men who wouldn’t. Similar to the absurd belief that gay men is attracted to all men, or all lesbians are attracted to girls, and at any moment they are going to pounce at people in the locker room. I’m attracted to people, but I don’t pounce on them, because I’m turn on by what they’re wearing. Gay or straight, we are sexual beings and I think people need to realize that.

    I think intention is what’s most important, and for these girls, I think they’re just doing it because it’s fun because it shows their bad girl side. Who doesn’t want to be bad girl sometimes, and forget about society rules.

    BTW I looked at the #KU Boobs, I thought they were showing everything, but it’s just the top, lol I see more live action at Walmart. But, I just want to know, what if it were guys taking pictures of their 6-packs to support their cheerleaders or something? Thus, I think the attention this is getting, is due to women oppression! So I cheer these girls on! Because they will make people get use to the idea that women are sexual and we can chose to have a good time doing activities we think are fun.

    And for those that think these girls need to be role models, please, I bet instead of assuming things about these girls, we should get to know them. Just because someone looks a certain way, we assume the worst, it’s cliche but don’t judge a book by it’s cover. Parents should emphasis that to their children, kids are smart, don’t baby them and they’ll know what to do. And if they messed up, hey, that’s what loving parents are for. :)

  • http://feministing.com/members/silverskin/ caro

    Made me think of the breast cancer awareness t shirts (Save Second Base and the like) that focus on the breasts to be saved- not as a health issue mind, but as a way of ensuring that men do not have to lose important breast leering/ groping time .

    I know it really isn’t analogous, but that is what it made me think of.