Print and Go Back Commentary [Print without images]

Monday, June 4, 2012
Updated: June 5, 5:55 PM ET
Misrules of attraction

By Jeff MacGregor

Another bad week for good manners.

Brittney Griner
All too often, comments about Brittney Griner focus on something besides her basketball skills.

If you've ever been to graduate school, you know all about the "male gaze," in which the world is presented and then understood from the narrow viewpoint of the heterosexual male. You'd also know about the male gaze if you've ever seen a beer commercial or been to Hooters, and you'd save $100,000.

Anyway, the male gaze often manifests itself in sports as that series of boorish comments you find tacked to the bottom of an online story about women in sports. Doesn't much matter what the woman in question has done or been or said or achieved, the commentary devolves into a hot-or-not referendum on her looks. Two recent examples here at the dot-com would be stories about Brittney Griner and Holley Mangold. Both strong women, beautiful and accomplished.

The worst of the comments are moderated away, but the phenomenon abides everywhere and persists whether we're talking about Lolo or Solo or Danica or Serena, Natalie or Natalie or Babe Didrikson Zaharias.

That men feel safe making their judgments public is an ungentlemanly tribute to Internet anonymity and mammalian biology. The clueless genius of the male animal from the beginning of time is that nature programs every one of us to believe we have a fighting chance with every woman on the planet. That every bad-handlebar bro and fur-bearing midlife crisis and library-bound, 80-Gig neurasthenic believes deep down he would be with Helen or Cleopatra or Fiona Apple if only Fate had brought her into range long enough for him to run his game. Such is the delusional power of DNA and the dire imperative of the species to reproduce itself.

Women make all the same judgments, of course, but mostly have the good sense and good manners to make them privately. Or at least on harder-to-find websites and message boards. And certain sportswomen count on that leering male gaze to sell sugar water or golf balls or domain names in order to feather their own households.

Helen of Troy
In Greek mythology, Helen of Troy's abduction by Paris started the Trojan War.

We're all hardwired for this, programmed to recognize symmetry and strength and all the constituent parts of beauty and suitability. The rules of attraction are immutable and irresistible, so sex and sexism run both ways, and we're helpless against ourselves. Maybe that's why the most entertaining thing about the HBO series "Girls" is how it throws the gaze back at men. Whatever its other cultural flaws or omissions, the show is a ruthless mirror of postmodern sexual manners. Even if you don't find the show funny, Lena Dunham's fearlessness is remarkable.

And whatever the state of the union in the bedroom, gender inequities in the boardroom and the newsroom and the counting room remain unresolved. Why should the locker room be any different?

To the extent the occasion presents itself, we're perfectly willing to rip the appearance of male athletes, too. Take this, for example. Or this. Please.

But it has to be said the male-dominated zombie sports media is generally less willing to make special note of the physical attractions of a Tim Duncan or Blake Griffin or Bubba Watson or Eli Manning or a thousand other male athletes when writing up their heroics. Sexuality is the third rail in daily sportswriting. Still, in another 10 years or so we'll have spent almost as much time parsing Lolo Jones' virginity as we did decoding A.C. Green's.

Maybe somewhere in the tangle of real science and junk science and social science we'll find a little truth about ourselves. In the meantime, if you can't say anything nice, it's most polite not to say anything at all.

To ignore human beauty is to ignore the founding premise of sports, which is itself human beauty. So everything changes and nothing changes and beauty is as beauty does.

But it sure helps to be good-looking.