Sunday, June 03, 2007

Stokke In (Or On) The 'Net

Latest Newspaper Column (the director's cut):

Allison Stokke never set out to be an Internet sensation. She didn't have a weblog where she posted messages about her life for all the world to see. She didn't post videos of herself being silly on YouTube. All the California high school senior wanted to do was be the best at what she did -- the pole vault.

And she's been doing a fine job at it. Shortly after she took up the event in her freshman year, she'd set a new school record. Soon after that, she won her first state championship. She's now broken five national records and earned a scholarship to the University of California, according to a recent story in The Washington Post.

But unfortunately, it's not Allison's athletic prowess people are talking about. It's her looks. More accurately, it's The Picture, a photo taken by a professional sports photographer and posted on a Web site devoted to California high school sports.

It's a striking photograph: Allison with the vaulting pole over one shoulder, looking off to one side, reaching back to adjust her ponytail. There's nothing overtly sexy about it. There's a bit of a heroic quality, somewhat reminiscent of a Greek statue, except that unlike such statues, Allison's arms and head are still attached.

But, since this is a picture of an attractive young woman in excellent physical shape and dressed in skin-tight athletic gear, and it's on the Internet, it didn't take much for a bunch of socially dysfunctional dweebs munching on Cheetos in their mom's basement to immediately begin drooling and howling like monkeys.

It started when a "humor" Web site called With Leather posted the picture, along with the comment "Hubba hubba and other grunting sounds." Things went downhill from there. Most of the comments posted on the original site can't be repeated in this newspaper.

The photographer contacted the site owner and demanded that the picture be taken down for copyright reasons, and it quickly was. But by then, the picture had "gone viral," as they say, copied with a few mouse clicks and spreading across the Internet faster than any threat of legal action could stop it.

A fan site sprang up for Allison, and any number of discussion boards posted her pictures and commented on them, with some of the comments getting downright creepy and others probably providing sufficient grounds for a restraining order. And of course, this being the Internet, any number of the comments were of the "ugh, she's a dog"variety, which is particularly ironic when you consider that they were probably posted by dorks who'd faint dead away if an attractive girl, or ANY girl for that matter, spoke to them.

Someone created a fake site in her name on the "social networking" site Facebook, listing her only 'interest" as "BOYS!" Allison began to be deluged with requests for other photo shoots, including one from a Brazilian girlie magazine.

So how did Allison react to this? Being a young woman of intelligence, and not, say, Paris Hilton, she's less than pleased.

"It just all feels really demeaning," the Post article quotes her. "I worked so hard for pole vaulting and all this other stuff, and it's almost like that doesn't matter. Nobody sees that. Nobody really sees me."

She wrote Facebook and demanded the fake site be taken down. They complied. Even so, she reports, she's still uncomfortable being recognized and stared at in public. She doesn't leave the house alone anymore.

Allison's parents, as you might imagine, are even less happy. Her father scans the message boards, keeping a "watchful eye," as he puts it. (He's a man of more restraint than I. If it was my daughter, I'd be cleaning my shotgun.)

"It's just locker room talk," her mother says, "but now everyone can read it, even her mother."

Good Lord, is this what we've come to? Where a young female athlete has to worry, not just about her next match, but about whether somebody taking a picture of her doing what she loves best is going to result in her turning, against her will, into the next Internet sex object?

I see things like this happening, and I begin to wonder if maybe those fundamentalist Muslims might not have a point with the whole burka thing, but not for the reasons they think. Maybe we guys really are pigs who can't be trusted with the sight of the female form. Don't worry, though, the burka idea passes quickly, as soon as I express it within the hearing of my wife and daughter, who immediately set me straight. They're good at that.

Hang in there, Allison. Because there's another thing about the Internet you're likely to learn very soon: These things pass. The Internet being what it is, hopefully it won't be long before this blows over and you can concentrate on your sport without worrying about this crap.

Or even better, you'll be like golfer Michelle Wie, tennis player Maria Sharapova, or race driver Danica Patrick, and you'll be so busy doing endorsements and making money that you won't have time to worry about the Internet.

P.S. for Internet readers of this column: a few people have criticized both the Washington Post and the Stokkes, accusing them of hypocrisy for participating in a newspaper story about unwanted media attention. the Post's Deborah Howell addresses the issue here.

It's more than a little self-serving for the critics of the Stokkes to take this sort of "heads we win, tails you lose" stance. Reduced to its essentials, their position is that if you seek media attention, you're what's charmingly referred to as an "attention whore. " If you don't seek media attention, but complain to any media outlet about the unwanted attention, you're still an attention whore. Riiight.


Ben in the Jack said...

You were never going to be famous for the pole vault. And you're beautiful and thousands if not millions of "dweebs" picked up on that. Do you need therapy now?

Anonymous said...

WAAAAAHHH!!! Everyone thinks I'm pretty and they're not respecting my pole vaulting! WAAAH!