Thursday, August 9, 2012

Leave This Iowa Girl A-Lo-Lone

Des Moines cartoonist Brian Duffy sums up how many feel about the media beating Olympian Lolo Jones has taken.

 Dear Rest of the World:

How many times do you have to be told? Do NOT mess with Iowans.

Another season, another smackdown of Iowa. You’re not sure what I’m talking about? First there was University of Iowa professor Stephen Bloom’s stereotype-laden hackjob for the Atlantic magazine. Now, for the latest, just check out the coverage of Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones.

Now, you could make an argument that none of this “let’s hate her ’cause she’s beautiful” coverage has anything to do with Iowa. But that’s where you would be wrong. Lolo is a Des Moines native, who as a high schooler worked at the bagel shop up the street from me and is way faster on the track than she ever was at that bagel shop. She is also the most beloved Iowan since Andy Williams and taking a swipe at her is like taking a swipe at the whole state. Iowans in the social media world have gone as berserk over this as the national sports media has.

And what a swipe it has been. Over the weekend, the New York Times’ Jere Longman wrote a piece questioning Lolo’s worth in relation to her athletic achievements. She sold out, Longman said, because of how she talked about her own personal story and because she cashed in on her looks with a few racy magazine photos. Somehow, in Longman’s world, Jones should have said no to the offers that came her way and let her hurdling speak for itself.

You can make an argument that the Olympic hurdler has, indeed done this. That Outside cover earlier this year made me cringe, mostly because it was so unnecessary and it’s a freaking ugly dress. Telling your life story to strangers and the world? I’d say I don’t understand why people do that, but here I am writing a blog.

This is how the celebrity machine works, and Lolo Jones is just the first in a long line of athletes, actors, singers, dancers to have done that, not to mention victims of heinous crimes that get national attention and eventually TV movies of the week. Discretion is just not part of our culture.

I’ve long been uncomfortable with the way female athletes are portrayed in the media. They have a tendency to think that skin sells, at the same time feeling as if they have the right to show their fit bodies. They do, but it just perpetuates the kind of coverage that never seems to end. They have the power to change it, but, being female athletes, probably need the money.

Holding up Lolo Jones as the poster girl for doing this is frightfully unfair. It’s like slamming Justin Bieber for being a part of the machine that throws out fresh-faced boys – and products with their face on them -- to be devoured by screaming girls. Lolo is just the latest in a long line the same way the Bieber is in a long, long line of teen idols. It’s the nature of the business.

I wish more female athletes would put their foot down about this; I wish Lolo Jones had said “no” to Outside magazine. The rest? If you follow her on Twitter, you know she is an outgoing, funny person who puts her life out there and, like many in social media perhaps overshares – and did this well before most of the world even knew her name.  

It’s a long, long line of female athletes who have opted for the “looks sell” route and somehow have never come under the radar of the New York Times for doing so.

High jumper Amy Acuff, swimmer Amanda Beard and beach volleyball player Gabrielle Reece have all been on the cover of Playboy. Softball star Jennie Finch turned down Playboy but said yes to Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. Soccer darling Abby Wambach graced the cover of ESPN magazine’s annual Body Issue, the same annual collection of nudes that is part of the criticism against Lolo Jones. For the record, ESPN also features men, including NFL players Adrian Peterson and Rob Gronkowski, and I have heard few complaints about that.

Want to buy a house? Call Suzy.
And here in Wisconsin, runner Suzy Favor Hamilton has been cashing on her looks and personal story for almost 20 years and no one seems to think that’s a bad thing. The three-time Olympic distance runner even had a swimsuit calendar of her own in 1997 – three years before she fell during an Olympic 1,500-meter race, a fall she later said was deliberate because she knew she couldn’t win. Along the way Favor talked about her depression and eating disorders and her brother’s suicide, which of course the media lapped up. These days, she is a motivational speaker.

Suzy Favor Hamilton also sells real estate in Madison, Wis., but has in fact made a career out of being Suzy Favor Hamilton. And what’s wrong with that?

Yet Lolo Jones is somehow held up as the one woman in the world who has chosen to do this heinous thing. Go figure.

Many other media outlets are coming to Lolo’s defense or at least presenting a fair look at the rivalry among the U.S. women hurdlers and the role played in that rivalry by the attention paid to Lolo Jones. The snarky sports website Deadspin has taken to calling her, with a virtual tongue in a virtual cheek, “mortal enemy of the New York Times Lolo Jones.”

Lolo Jones has really done nothing to create any enemies, and that’s part of what Iowans love so much about her. There’s always a sense of pride when the rest of the world is paying attention to one of their own because Iowa is a big small town bordered by two big rivers.

Iowans like it when people like one of them.  But it might get ugly when people don’t. Just make sure you never, ever mess with Andy Williams.

Lolo Jones greets the hometown fans at the Drake Relays in Des Moines.