Is this thing sexist? Introducing the “Bike Test”

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This post is drawn from a presentation I developed for the first-ever National Women’s Bicycling Summit in September, 2012.

As the influence of women grows across all types of bicycling, there has been quite a bit of debate about the representation of gender in everything from ads to advocacy campaigns, race tracks to board meetings. Is that photo of a sexy woman on a bike sexist, or is it empowering? Objectifying, or compelling? Tokenizing, or inclusive? Is it different if the photo was taken by a woman? What if the woman depicted is an avowed feminist? Does this mean we are never allowed to depict women wearing skirts and heels? These discussions tend to get frustrating, in part, I think, because we don’t always have a shared idea of what these terms mean.

I saw the need for an analytical tool that could be used by both media creators and consumers to evaluate images of women in bicycling. So, inspired by the Bechdel Test for women in movies (still as relevant today as it was in 1985), I created…

The Bike Test:

Here are the criteria:

1. Are women present or represented at all?
2. Are the women presented as active subjects rather than passive objects?
3. If the gender were reversed, would the meaning stay more or less unchanged? (Or would the image become hilarious?)

Going down this list is a surprisingly effective way to evaluate inclusiveness of a wide range of representations and entities, including advertisements, movies, news coverage, organizations, corporate or nonprofit boards, events, conference lineups, curricula…whatever happens to be in front of you. And needless to say, this all applies well beyond bicycling.

Here’s a little more about each criterion, followed by examples — some of the results may surprise you.

1. Are women present or represented at all?
I wish this didn’t have to be on the list. Unfortunately, it still does.

For one prime example, take this (otherwise excellent and fascinating) interview with three luminaries in modern bicycle advocacy, in which they reflect on the history of the bike transportation movement and how it got to be where it is today. It’s full of names — dozens of them. Only one name, however, mentioned in passing, is female.

At the Women’s Summit, someone waved a magazine in the air that had been left on one of the tables in the conference hall — a recently published road bike mag that had not a single woman pictured in it.

It’s also interesting to note that most bike industry ads do not ever portray women unless they are for specific “women’s” bikes and accessories… even if they aren’t specifically for men either.

So yes, we still do need this to be the first criterion. I look forward to the day when we can drop it from the list.

2. Are the women presented as active subjects rather than passive objects?

This one is trickier. One question to help hone in on this is: Are the women actually riding bikes, or just posing on (or near) them? Or better, is the woman the hero of her own story, or is she there to be drooled over?

My favorite all-time example has still got to be these catalog pages presented in stellar contrast by Winnipeg Cycle Chick — her hilarious blog post speaks for itself. Note how the men are conquering nature and seeking freedom and the women…just wow.

It may help to think about this criterion through another excellent analytical tool, this one from the seventies: the Male Gaze. Coined by film theorist Laura Mulvey, the idea is that visual representations stem from and shape our identity, both as viewers and viewed. Mulvey points out that the view of the movie camera often represents the gendered assumptions of a heterosexual, white man, and tends to portray women as passive objects, often serving a similar function in the plot as, say, a pet, a statuette, a sled … or a bicycle.

Take major bike races, for example, like the Tour de France. Women are not allowed to race, but they are front and center as podium girls, on hand to congratulate and kiss the male victors.

Advertisements tend to fail this test in droves at this point. What does a naked female have in common with a bicycle frame? They’re both objects that “you,” the hetero/macho male audience presumed to be gazing upon them, might want to possess, I suppose. Even ads that sell bicycles *to* women often flop here at step two. Take this array of women being endangered while standing near bicycles — in the first one, you’ll notice the woman and the bicycle are such passive objects they are actually tied up to posts.

This second criterion goes beyond visual imagery. For instance, who is the presumed speaker of the former tagline of the Cycle Chic website? Who is the presumed hearer? Notice how the two objects of the phrase are interchangeable.

Or to take a real-life, non-sexualized but oh-so-gendered example of what it feels like to be a woman in the bicycling world, an image search for “bicycle advocacy” turned up this extreme gem, on the site of my local advocacy org no less. Through the lens of the male gaze, this photo just looks like a normal meeting, nothing special to comment on. When I showed this photo at the Women’s Bicycling Summit, on the other hand, a lot of women in the room were nodding and groaning in recognition.

3. If the gender were reversed, would the meaning stay more or less unchanged? (Or would the image become hilarious?)

Perhaps the best, though non-bicycle-related example of this is the hilarious photo series of men in classic female pin-up poses. [Some readers have been concerned that I’m suggesting that it’s funny to represent men in an effeminate manner. That’s not the goal. Pro tip: If reversing gender roles makes a representation seem ridiculous, then it’s already ridiculous before you do so, just maybe you hadn’t noticed yet. That’s all.]

Many bike images that arguably pass the first two tests (though perhaps only by a technicality) lose it at this one, and lose hilariously. Go on, imagine a man trying to parlay his sex appeal in the same way as racer Liz Hatch has controversially, if successfully, done (in my mental image, the helmet is further down on the page). It becomes a parody. You don’t lust, you laugh.

I suppose a determined individual could argue that you can be active while leaning over to taste your suitor’s popsicle, or while pumping up a bicycle tire while sporting a “sexy nurse” costume. But you can’t really argue that these images would be able to sell cycling in the same way and to the same market with the genders reversed. They sure would be funny, though.

Then there’s the famous photo of racer Victoria Pendleton, who has gone a similar route to Hatch in baring it all in seductive poses for magazines. Interestingly, she seems to have caught the most grief for one particular photo — a nude pic atop a bike. But this one, I argue, passes the Bike Test with flying colors: There’s a woman, she’s actively, fiercely riding, she’s naked but not sexualized, and if you reverse the genders you get … Lance Armstrong, famously photographed by Annie Liebowitz (and relatively unharassed for it, as far as I can tell).

I want to point out that these images are not just made and chosen by men. Women are also active in many representations of bicycling that would fail this test, both as willing models and as photographers and producers. My point is not that we’re the helpless victims of sexist men, but that we’re all part of a culture where sexism is normalized, celebrated, and rewarded. I think there’s a widespread sense that this is the game we have to play if we want to succeed. In a way that’s true, but I’d argue that there are inherent limits for women in this game; we can only go so far. If we really want equality we need to change the rules.

It’s also worth noting that while sexist representations actively sideline women, they don’t really serve most men well, either. The macho culture promoted by much of the bike world (not to mention the rest of the world) is a burden to us all; we’d be better off without it.

If you’re reading this, you’re a consumer of media; and you may very well be a producer of it as well, or at least a retweeter of it. It’s up to all of us to be smarter than this — let’s start now.

Update: Having been circularly inspired by a blogger who blogged about this post, I’m adding an embed to this great video that uses the Bechdel test to evaluate 2011 Oscar nominees, just so it’s that much easier for people to watch it and weep. I mean laugh. I mean… get angry… or better yet, get active!

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