by Ben Findlay
I’m a self-identifying man, feminist, and hockey fan, and it’s pretty rare for all three of those things to simultaneously intersect in an important way, but it does happen. About six weeks ago, whoever runs the Twitter account of the Detroit Red Wings gave some tough love to a #PuckBunny and reminded us all that “Girls & boys need to be taught that a woman has more value than her physical appearance.” I can get on board with that, but not every NHL team embodies that sentiment. About 2/3 of NHL teams currently “employ” (and I use that term loosely) some incarnation of a cheerleading squad commonly referred to as ice girls. The Detroit Red Wings don’t have ice girls, but the Colorado Avalanche do, and I got to see them first hand last year when the Red Wings came to Denver last fall. My girlfriend bought us great seats in the second row. There were four boys in front of us who seemed to be in their late teens–they reminded me of the boys Mel Gibson’s character kidnapped in Payback. They were chanting things like “Detroit’s bankrupt! [clap, clap, clap-clap-clap]” and oogling the ice girls during breaks in the action. I mean, they were nearly licking the glass. But whatever. They were being presented with team-sponsored sexuality, and they responded like most teenage boys would because most teenage boys are really just semi-sentient globs of hormones at that age.
.@DetroitRedWings Agreed. Can teams get rid of ice girls now? Because that’s exactly what they teach people.
— Sarah Calise (@SarahCalise) June 20, 2014
@SarahCalise We don't have ice girls.
— Detroit Red Wings (@DetroitRedWings) June 20, 2014
I don’t often go to strip clubs, but I am a big fan of women expressing, using, and monetizing their sexuality in whatever way they want. I think sexturants like Hooters are weird, and I feel the same way about ice girls. I don’t want a side of titties with my chicken soup, and I don’t want to be presented with some sexuality to hold my attention during commercial breaks and intermissions at hockey games. I think it would be pretty weird if a girl bagging my groceries at King Soopers were wearing a tube-top and a mini skirt. Unless she wanted to, in which case, fine. I’m not about to police someone’s body because it makes me uncomfortable, but I can usually tell when I’m being pandered to, and it turns me off (pun intended). But that’s just me. There are plenty of other folks who enjoy those things, and that’s fine. The thing is, I can get soup lots of places, but there’s only one place in town that has NHL hockey, which puts me in a pickle.
I get why some NHL teams have ice girls. They’re pandering to their primary demographic: 18-49 year old heterosexual dudes. Hockey tickets aren’t cheap, and they’re trying to make every second of the experience as pleasurable and memorable as possible in hopes that they’ll get some repeat customers. I happen to fit into that demographic, but plenty of hockey fans don’t. You know, like the ones who are women, for instance. Feminism is about respecting women as people, and (most) people have sexuality, so why not appeal to the sexuality of heterosexual women by throwing some beefcake out there with the ice girls? The San Jose Sharks are looking into adding a co-ed ice team for the upcoming season, and they’re running into resistance from some of their fans for a variety of reasons. The Sharks’ proposed ice team uniforms are less sexualized than most other NHL teams’ squads, but there’s still a significant difference between the proposed outfits for men and women. The Sharks don’t care if heterosexual women want a sexy beefcake–or if they’ve been socialized to feel guilty and repress their sexual desires. They don’t care about the sexual gaze of gay men or lesbian women or any other sexual or gender identity, but the Sharks do care that many heterosexual men ages 18-49 explicitly don’t want a sexy beefcake. They know that to many heterosexual men, other sexualities, somehow, are perceived as threats to heterosexual male sexuality–as if sexual attention were a kind of zero-sum game in which an increase in one always results in an equal decrease in the other.
The working conditions for ice girls might not be great (a gross understatement, perhaps), but NHL teams with ice girls are not sex traffickers. We shouldn’t assume that a woman displaying her sexuality is necessarily being victimized and exploited. Feminism is about empowering women to do whatever they want, not repressing their sexuality. If being an ice cheerleader is what a woman wants to do with her sexuality, then I’m all for it. I might not pay attention because I’m not that interested in it, personally, but I’m not going to throw shame at her for making a choice about what to do with her body; however, I am going to throw shame at the NHL team that employs her if her working conditions are shitty or if she has little or no control over how her sexuality is being used. I’m also going to throw shame at them for pretending that their cheerleading team is something other than what it is. I don’t expect NHL teams to be leaders of social change, but if a team is going to include sexuality to augment their fans’ experience, then they should own that shit. They shouldn’t call their cheerleaders an ice maintenance crew and force them to wear bikinis while they shovel the ice. Give them agency over their own sexuality. Compensate them fairly and give them control over what they wear and how they use their bodies.