A Continuing Analysis of the Ice Girl Phenomenon in the NHL
When I set out to write “Wherefore Ice Girls?”,1 my intent was not so much to discuss why Ice Girls are problematic, which has been thoroughly outlined elsewhere,2 but rather to focus both on the history of the institution and the effects that the inclusion of an appearance-focused Ice Crew may have had for a team just implementing them for the first time. However, there are some issues that have been expressed both publicly and privately, both in response to my article and in response to articles on the same topic by other authors, that I feel should probably be addressed.
While I may be responding to some comments which could easily be defined as “sealioning”,3 I also know that not everyone has taken a gender studies course, and that for many people, sexualization is simply a part of the background noise of the universe and not a matter of concern. I hope that this will help to clarify some of the issues that may have concerned readers of my first article. This will be a bit long, and there are a lot of footnotes and citations, but bear with me – I think it’s worth it.
What harm does a woman in short-shorts or a low-cut shirt actually do? You’re just being a prude.
It’s not the way a woman is dressed that worries me, but the effects that objectification has on everyone. The concern is not how a woman chooses to dress – your body, your choice – but when women are turned into sexual objects to be placed on display, that’s objectification. Prizing women for their appearance and not for their other traits is objectification. Having women go out onto the ice in cute uniforms just to be looked at is demeaning, whether or not they choose that for themselves. I’m going to delve a teeny bit into theory here, so bear with me. I’ll try to keep it as accessible as possible.
Sexualization is both incredibly problematic and deeply rooted in our society. The American Psychological Association defines sexualization very clearly:
There are several components to sexualization, and these set it apart from healthy sexuality. Sexualization occurs when
– a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics
– a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy
– a person is sexually objectified — that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making
– and/or sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person. 4
This sexualization has many detrimental effects, but most of them are invisible. Depression, low self-esteem, and eating disorders may be the first things that come to mind, but the more that young women and girls are exposed to sexualized mainstream media, the more likely they are to believe rape myths and to accept fault for being assaulted.5 Whether we like it or not, it’s culturally acceptable for men to sexualize women regardless of their age or status.6 This means that no matter what a woman wears, she is subject to be treated in a sexual manner against her will – basically any woman can confirm this, because at some point we’ve all gotten cat called while walking down the street. But it’s not just the overt and one-off events that are the problem. The problem is a pervasive and far-reaching systemic issue that teaches men that it’s okay to think of women as nothing more than their bodies and teaches women that their bodies need to have a particular aesthetic in order for them to have value as people,7 which, of course, is highly problematic. I’m not really here to teach gender theory 101, so forgive me if this all seems a little cursory and without depth. If this is still sounding a little strange to you, Andrea Dworkin may have given possibly the best summation of this issue:
Standards of beauty describe in precise terms the relationship that an individual will have to her own body. They prescribe her mobility, spontaneity, posture, gait, the uses to which she can put her body. They define precisely the dimensions of her physical freedom. 8
What does all this have to do with Ice Girls? There is no vast singular source that dictates standards of beauty in a society, but myriad ways in which women are told how they should look, act, and behave. These messages (which are sometimes contradictory and teach women that they can’t win, but that’s a whole other ball of wax) come from nearly every direction: advertisements, television, movies, music videos, advice magazines, friends, family members, significant others, complete and utter strangers in the street…you get the idea. It’s exhausting. What frustrates many women about Ice Girls is that hockey used to be one area that was relatively free from that messaging. And while Dallas Stars Executive Vice President/Chief Revenue Officer Brad Alberts may say, “I think for the most part women are accustomed to seeing it,”9 that doesn’t mean that we enjoy it. Far from it, in fact – studies show that viewing sexualized female bodies has been shown to raise anxiety in women about rape and other forms of sexual violence,10 as if seeing other women sexualized reminds them that they are at risk of the potentially violent consequences of sexual objectification.
Claims that dressing women in revealing outfits is not objectifying or sexualizing can easily be thrown out with a quick Google search for Ice Girls. The evidence is overwhelming and, for a female fan, often disheartening. There are videos posted on official webpages of women running around beaches in bikinis that are not even in team colors, with only the most tenuous possible connection to the world of hockey. Sexy calendars are made for titillation at home, turning these women into a literal object that can be purchased with literal money. There are officially maintained websites with sexually suggestive imagery.
Rankings of the hottest Ice Girls, as if their worth is solely in their appearance. Fans proclaiming, “NHL FINALLY GETS IT! – NEW SEXY ‘ICE GIRLS!’”11 when the Islanders first announced their Ice Girls, as if sexy women were the sole thing missing from hockey. Fans booing the Ice Guys for not being sexy women.12 Ice Girls again objectified by being termed “human zambonis”13 (which they’re not, technically, because they aren’t resurfacing the ice, they’re just removing snow). Commenters who assume that the Ice Girls are simply groupies and solicit them for sexual favors.
While we’re at it, the name “Ice Girls” is itself very problematic – we’re calling fully grown adult women “girls”, thereby infantilizing them. There are some teams which use other names for their squads, such as Anaheim with their Power Players or Carolina’s Storm Squad, and that’s a positive thing, but by and large these women are “girls”.
But Ice Girls do more than just skate around in uniforms scooping ice.
I addressed this somewhat in my first article, but apparently some clarification is in order because there was some confusion about this topic. It’s true, Ice Girls do a great deal of charity and promotional work on behalf of the teams that they represent. That requires a lot of hard work interacting with the public, travelling to multiple locations, and occasional physical labor. The question is, however, is it necessary to have aesthetically pleasing people do said work? What about that job description necessitates auditions where hair and makeup must be worn a certain way14 or other appearance requirements?15 These functions can be performed just as well by team members, mascots, team family members, front office staff, or fan volunteers without relying on attractive young women to perform them.
Take, for example, the below image, courtesy of the Washington Capitals’ Red Rockers Twitter feed:
Notice, first and foremost, that the Red Rockers are in team jackets and their uniform pants as opposed to their game day uniforms.16 While the Red Rockers are probably one of the “tamer” crews – by which I mean that their outfits are significantly less sexually charged than others in the league – the sexualized outfits which are somehow appropriate for a hockey game are suddenly inappropriate in an elementary school setting. This clearly indicates an awareness that their game day uniform is sexualized to an extent that’s not comfortable for all audiences. If it’s not comfortable for all audiences, why is that appropriate for a hockey game? Along with the representatives from the Red Rockers, we have Wes Johnson (the Public Announcer for the Capitals) and a representative from the Washington Nationals. The inclusion of men in this group shows that aesthetically pleasing women were not required to do the job. There’s also this image of S.J. Sharkie visiting a local middle school:
Sharkie, as you can see here, is an anthropomorphized shark who fails to conform to heteronormative standards of beauty. The point of this is to show that aesthetics are not really relevant when it comes to doing volunteer work. If teams want to hire people to be a promotional or volunteer group for them, that’s fine. But what on earth do aesthetics have to do with it? Why should they be a factor in selecting team members over, say, experience in volunteering or experience dealing with the public?
But Ice Girls love their jobs! How can that be bad?
It’s good to love what you do for a living, of course, and I would not tell a woman she’s not allowed to enjoy something. That being said, whether or not a specific woman enjoys something has no bearing on whether that thing is problematic or not. Even if a majority of women enjoy something, it may still be problematic. Human beings are fully capable of enjoying, partaking of, and even loving things that are ultimately harmful to us. Look, for example, at America’s problematic relationship with junk food – we know it’s slowly killing us, but we can’t stop ourselves from consuming junk food at an alarming rate. The problems here are the same as with the Ice Girls. Whether it’s an issue of not looking at the situation critically (“Whatever, it’s just food.”/“Whatever, it’s just a job.”), justifying that choice to themselves (“It’s not like I eat that much.”/”It’s not like I’m stripping.”), or living in denial about the potential consequences (“Those health effects are exaggerated anyway.”/”Our uniforms aren’t objectifying.”), the problems come from the same place of wanting to feel comfortable with the choices that we make.
Ladies, and I cannot emphasize this enough, what you choose to do for a living is completely your choice. What you choose to wear, how you choose to present yourself, that’s entirely up to you, and I would never presume to tell you what to do. My concern lies not with the women who choose this line of work. My concern lies with the fact that large, multimillion dollar organizations are using sexualized female bodies in a situation that otherwise has nothing to do with sexual behavior merely to titillate and make money. Which leads directly into the next concern:
The NHL isn’t sexist, it’s just trying to make money.
That’s exactly right! Well, half right. Teams in the NHL are just trying to make money, that much is certain. The NHL’s mission isn’t to make women feel inferior – that’s just a side effect of the choices that NHL teams make. Using an irrelevant element as a money-making technique is bad enough, but when that element dehumanizes and belittles half of the total population – that is to say, half of your total potential customers – then that move is simply ill-advised.
Now, I know you may be thinking to yourself that women are enough of a minority that what they think doesn’t really matter. The fact is, however, that women make up 36.4% of the NHL fanbase (as of 2010) 17 and 42% of viewers of the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals were female.18 While this is not at all a majority, it is certainly not a small enough percentage of the fanbase to be rendered irrelevant. Furthermore, assuming that all of your male audience will be titillated enough by attractive women to drive sales is insulting to your male fans as well. It is insulting to the intelligence of men to presume that they will be driven merely by the addition of an attractive woman to purchase more tickets. Even men who do find women attractive may be uncomfortable with the addition of a sexualized element to what is an event which anyone should feel comfortable bringing young children to. This is leaving aside the assumption of heteronormativity; since we do not have good numbers on what percentage of NHL fans are LGBTQ+, this argument, however reasonable it may be, can easily be dismissed by those who (somewhat misguidedly) claim that minority audiences are simply a “fringe” to which the NHL need not appeal.
Ultimately, however, if the NHL wishes to grow its fanbase – and because it is a for-profit business, we know for a fact that it does – the league must begin to appeal to markets other than the white, male, upper-class, heterosexual market that it already has a strong grip on. Clearly, the league is already conscious of the need to appeal to women, judging by the (slightly insulting) inclusion of pink and sparkly merchandise so that pretty ladies can still feel like pretty princesses while wearing hockey gear.19
Using sexualized female bodies is a cheap way to appeal to some of the basest human desires. Now, you may argue that with its violent nature, hockey itself appeals to some of our other base human desires. Yet, we have recognized where that violence has the potential to cause serious damage, and the NHL is, albeit slowly, making changes to reduce that. Helmets are required of all players, and neck guards are required of all goalies, while visors for skaters are currently being phased in. The NHL could have continued to sacrifice the physical safety of players in order to appeal to the base desire for bloodsport, but it instead chose to do the right thing and keep its players safe rather than turn a quick buck for bloody titillation. At a certain point, large companies need to understand that safety comes before money. That should include safety for the fans as well as the players.
Hockey is supposed to be an escape from the real world, why don’t you just relax?
You’re right, hockey should be an escape from the real world. But how can it be an escape for 36.4% of the NHL’s viewership or for about half of the population of the world in total20 if the league creates an environment that is openly belittling them? Placing sexualized women who fit the normative aesthetic on the ice sends the message, “This is here only for heterosexual men. That’s who belongs here. If you don’t fit that description, we’re not worried about your tastes.” How can women feel the same sense of safety and escapism that men do when they are being told not only that their tastes don’t matter, but that their concerns don’t matter? The main point of going to a hockey game or watching one on television is – shockingly – to watch hockey.
Those of us who are concerned by the Ice Girls issue would really rather not have to worry about gender politics or objectification, or anything other than watching hockey. But if the teams of the NHL choose to sexualize women before our eyes, they cannot expect anyone concerned to not say anything about it. It’s true, Ice Girls aren’t the only thing out there making life difficult for women who love hockey. There are certainly bigger and more threatening issues out there than Ice Girls. But the fact that there are other bad things in the world does not make it okay for this issue to remain in place. Having someone shoot you after taking your wallet does not make the fact that they stole your wallet okay because you got shot. It just makes your life even worse.
If hockey can be an escape for those suffering from illness and loss, why can’t we also let it be an escape for women who are tired of sexual objectification?21
- See http://otherhalfsports.com/2015/03/wherefore-ice-girls/ if you need a refresher. ↩
- For two among many such examples, see Melissa Geschwind’s “The institutional sexism of NHL Ice Girls” (http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/nhl-puck-daddy/the-institutional-sexism-of-nhl-ice-girls-184301561.html) or Julia Lurie’s “The Freezing, Hungry Lives of NHL “Ice Girls”” (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/06/philadelphia-flyers-ice-girls-los-angeles-kings-new-york-rangers-stanley-cup-finals), both of which I referenced in my previous article. ↩
- This term is derived from a Wondermark comic (http://wondermark.com/1k62/) by David Malki, and is further explained (along with many other fascinating terms) in “Beyond Mansplaining: A New Lexicon of Misogynist Trolling Behaviors” by Sarah Seltzer (http://flavorwire.com/511063/beyond-mansplaining-a-new-lexicon-of-misogynist-trolling-behaviors). ↩
- Zurbriggen, E.L. et. al. (2007) “Report of the Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls.” American Psychological Association. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Karen Horney, qtd. in Westkott, M (1986) The feminist legacy of Karen Horney. p. 95. ↩
- Fredrickson, B. T. (1997). Objectification theory. Psychology Of Women Quarterly, 21(2), 173. ↩
- Dworkin, A. (1974). Woman hating. New York: E. P. Dutton. p. 112. ↩
- qtd. in Geschwind, M. (2014, March 14) “The institutional sexism of NHL Ice Girls.” Puck Daddy. (http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/nhl-puck-daddy/the-institutional-sexism-of-nhl-ice-girls-184301561.html) ↩
- Watson, L.B. et. al. (2015) “Understanding the Relationships Among White and African American Women’s Sexual Objectification Experiences, Physical Safety Anxiety, and Psychological Distress.” Sex Roles, 72(3-4), 91-104. ↩
- StrangeSports.com. (http://www.strangesports.com/content/item/6612.html). ↩
- Hughes, T. (2014, September 22) “The Flyers replaced their ‘Ice Girls’ with ‘Ice Guys’ and Philly fans booed.” Deadspin. (http://www.sbnation.com/nhl/2014/9/22/6831301/flyers-ice-girls-booing). ↩
- Satriano, D. (2013, October 31) “Meet hockey’s human zambonis.” New York Post. (http://nypost.com/2013/10/31/islanders-ice-girls-have-the-hots-for-hockey/). ↩
- See the San Jose Sharks announcement (http://web.archive.org/web/20140725020257/http://sharks.nhl.com/club/page.htm?id=98848) for one example. ↩
- Laurie, J. (2014, June 11) “The Freezing, Hungry Lives of NHL “Ice Girls”.” Mother Jones. (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/06/philadelphia-flyers-ice-girls-los-angeles-kings-new-york-rangers-stanley-cup-finals) ↩
- The Red Rockers, a dance/cheer team, normally wear low cut ¾ sleeve tops that are fairly form fitting along with the fitted “yoga pant” style pants shown in this image. Here is an example of their uniform: https://twitter.com/capsredrockers/status/577245948402884608 ↩
- Sports Business Daily, “Fan Demographics Among Major North American Sports Leagues.” (http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Daily/Issues/2010/06/Issue-185/The-Back-Of-The-Book/Fan-Demographics-Among-Major-North-American-Sports-Leagues.aspx#) ↩
- Paulsen, “Demo Reel, Part 2: Though Outnumbered, Women Watch Sports in Big Numbers.” (http://www.sportsmediawatch.com/2014/01/demo-reel-part-2-though-outnumbered-women-watch-sports-in-big-numbers/) ↩
- Please read in a slightly mocking and sarcastic tone. Clearly, we do not need to feel like pretty princesses all the time. Occasionally will suffice, thank you very much. ↩
- The World Bank, “Population, female (% of total).” (http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL.FE.ZS) ↩
- A final note: Those of you who are familiar with the term “subversion” may have noticed that, in spite of the title, there was no actual subversion anywhere in this article. So I leave the question to you, dear readers: How can we turn Ice Girls into a subversive force for female empowerment? Food for thought. ↩