Evidently the Internet is not ready for this jelly. This Instagram post by Beyoncé, appearing in all her Foxxy Cleopatra glory astride a bicycle, made some tremors in the cycling community after Momentum Mag reposted the image with the simple comment “Guess who’s riding a city bike?”
After a maelstrom of backlash, the magazine defended its post with the following statement.
“Our main goal at Momentum is to get more people riding bikes, and a large part of that work is making bicycling seem practical, stylish, fun, and yes, sexy… There is nothing inherently objectifying about sexuality. Sexism tends to come into play when women are automatically perceived as victims or morally dubious just because they did something explicitly sexual. Beyoncé is a feminist, and as part of that has chosen to embrace her own sexuality. What she chooses to do with her body, her brand, her clothes or lack thereof are all her choices, and it isn’t up to us to decide how she should feel about that.”
The Beyoncé image may be many things, but scandalous isn’t one of them. Ridiculous, sure – Beyoncé looks about as comfortable on that bike as I’d be in that dress. And Momentum is obviously leveraging the sex appeal, not the bike, to carry the message. Take a quick look at the pic and ask yourself, what make of bike was it? Was it step-through or diamond frame? Now, was Beyoncé wearing pants? There you go.
But the image doesn’t use Beyoncé, it is Beyoncé – her body, her dress, and for all we know, her outdated Ross commuter. More than likely, much of the acrimony is timing. This kerfuffle comes on the heels of a tumultuous run of promotional gaffes this year within the cycling industry, all involving sexually suggestive ploys to draw attention – the E3 Harelbeke poster, the Chrome Industries naked flier handout, Colnago’s “Ready to ride?” Tweet and of course, the Interbike (may the phrase never be seen again) “Sockgate scandal.”
In each case, followers, readers and riders were quick to condemn the images as spurious gimmicks that objectified women in a sport where they are still fighting for the opportunities, rewards, and recognition they so rightly deserve, benefits long enjoyed by their male counterparts.
So why doesn’t Beyoncé’s image deserve the same harsh criticism? Well, ask Beyoncé. In an interview with Out magazine last year, she spoke out on the issue of women’s sexuality:
“There is unbelievable power in ownership, and women should own their sexuality. There is a double standard when it comes to sexuality that still persists. Men are free and women are not. That is crazy. The old lessons of submissiveness and fragility made us victims. Women are so much more than that. You can be a businesswoman, a mother, an artist, and a feminist—whatever you want to be—and still be a sexual being. It’s not mutually exclusive.”
The great and wise Child of Destiny hits it on the head, she owns her inherent sexuality, it does not own her. She is not defined by it, but she does not shy away from it. And in so doing, her followers number millions of increasingly empowered, confident women. Disparaging Momentum for echoing that is off-base.
Cali Jirsa, owner and operator of the independent Minneapolis bike shop Cherry Cycles, and one of the very few female shop owners in the country, acknowledges both the inherent sexiness of cycling and the double standard applied to female riders:
“Sexuality and cycling can’t be separated. People’s bodies are exposed when riding a bike with or without spandex. These advertisements use today’s stereotype of ideal sexiness while alienating women who don’t fit [that] standard… In the US women are routinely told to cover their breasts while feeding, but are being treated as sexual objects. This difference between sexual freedom and sexual objectification is what makes women feel discouraged to be free and comfortable with their bodies.”
The fact that the Beyoncé image was so roundly criticized is not inherently bad. The cycling world, more than most, is influenced by its constituents – changes often occur from the bottom up. For cyclists – many of whom are young, middle class (or lower), and/or progressive – gender equality is less an ideal and more the norm. By vociferously demanding recognition of that fact by the powers that be, they are self-policing and working to ensure an environment that is safe and accepting to all.
Perhaps the most prime examples are the annual calendars put out by bike messenger associations across the U.S. and Europe. Both the London Courier Emergency Fund (a cooperative bank account that aids bike couriers injured on the job) and the Minnesota Bike Messenger Association (MBMA) have begun publishing mock pinup calendars that feature real messengers in their skivvies (or less) in funny and faux-provocative poses.
The calendars spotlight tattooed, farmer-tanned, scruffy men; in all likelihood, the exact demographic companies like Colnago, Chrome, and Interbike are courting when they launch their coquettish campaigns. That’s how the MBMA subverted the paradigm of women as sexual objects, by explicitly objectifying the men these companies were attempting to sell to. And what industry ads playfully suggested without saying, these messengers came right out and said:
“The girlfriends of the Minneapolis Bike Messenger Association (MBMA) are proud to offer up their men and announce the debut of a project so delightfully erotic, you may be enticed to hop in the saddle for a nice, long ride with the next strappin’ young cyclist that bikes by.”
When it’s right there in black and white, this type of marketing becomes blatantly absurd. By mocking industry attempts to exploit the lowest common denominator, these exposés become endearing, not offensive. It’s silly, but at least it’s authentic.
The point Beyoncé makes about the double standard between men’s and women’s sexuality is a crucial one, particularly for a culture like cycling where the push for gender equality has far more momentum than mainstream sports. There needs to be room for women to be respected, period. For the myriad reasons anyone deserves respect – skill, intelligence, dedication, heart, compassion, and yes, sexuality. We have to recognize that there is a difference between what is offensive and what is powerful. It can be a fuzzy line, but we should know it when we see it.