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HER WORLD

Picturing American Women Through the Eyes of the World's 'Baywatch' Fans

May 07, 2000|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Some time ago, Robert Young Pelton, author of "The World's Most Dangerous Places" (Fielding Worldwide Inc., 1998), told me something I can't get out of my mind. I asked him why he thought American women travelers are often hassled by men in foreign countries, to which he replied, " 'Baywatch' is one of the most widely syndicated television programs in the world."

I got the connection. If men far and wide learn most of what they know about American women from watching shows like "Baywatch" (which features an elite corps of male and female lifeguards who swim like dolphins and look like pinups), misunderstandings about who we are and what we want when we travel are bound to occur.

"When an American woman with a backpack and blond hair shows up in a country like Turkey, it's not unlikely that she'll get culturally stereotyped as rich, willing and promiscuous," Pelton said.

He was quick to point out that "Baywatch" isn't the only TV show responsible for the problem; advertising and movies are equally powerful disseminators of misapprehensions.

Moreover, the small percentage of Western women who see trips abroad as a chance for sexual experimentation tends to confirm the messages of the media, making it more difficult for the rest of us to travel freely and openly. When I'm abroad I go out of my way to seem modest, dressing like a schoolmarm. I even avoid eye contact with men on the street, which seems a pity, because meeting people--of both sexes--is one of the joys of travel.

I don't blame this entirely on "Baywatch" either. But Pelton is right about the wide distribution of the show, which reaches a billion people a week in 140 countries and 33 languages.

The show, which made its debut 10 years ago, is set on a Southern California beach. It was conceived by executive producer Gregory J. Bonann, a former Pacific Palisades High School swimming champ who got the idea for the program from working as an L.A. County lifeguard.

Bonann, who still works with the show on Oahu in Hawaii, where it moved last season, said in a recent phone interview that two-thirds of "Baywatch" viewers are women. The gorgeous girls of "Baywatch" are "positive role models," he said. "They are athletic, professional, intelligent and able to make any rescue a man can make."

To further study the question, I watched the show, which seemed, on one level, a celebration of water sports--beach lovers riding Jet Skis, sailing outriggers and executing perfect swan dives from the sides of boats. There was a little drama, too, when swimmers got caught in rip currents, setting in motion the extraordinarily able and dedicated "Baywatch" crew.

But to prepare for a rescue in one recent sequence, three female lifeguards had to take off their dresses, revealing Victoria's Secret-quality lingerie, including, in one case, black stockings and a garter belt. The action slowed and the calls for help faded, replaced by sexy music and long shots of the women's bodies. During the rescue, an underwater camera zeroed in on the guards' breasts and bottoms as they struggled to disentangle the victims from a capsized boat.

I'm not sure what millions of women in far-flung countries, untouched by the movements that have brought increasing equality between the sexes to much of the Western world, see in this. If the female lifeguards are capable and heroic role models, as Bonann said, they are also models of sexual charm, only minutely removed from centerfolds. (Fifteen female cast members have posed for Playboy.) Still, to him, the "Baywatch" brand of sexuality isn't the "toughest issue" raised by the show; rather, it's that teenage girls look at the perfect bodies of the female guards and, Bonann said, "feel they can't measure up."

It is clear why the babe sequences on "Baywatch" appeal to men, particularly in those conservative cultures where indigenous women rarely appear in public and keep themselves covered from toe to crown. Watching the show helped me better understand why I've been grabbed and leered at on the road.

Jan Knippers Black, a professor of international policy at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, sees TV shows like "Baywatch" as part of globalization and of American culture overwhelming all others. "But it isn't American culture, really," she said. "It's not the culture of Nashville or North Dakota or New Mexico."

Many people in foreign countries don't know this, though. They don't know that "Baywatch" represents American male fantasies, not reality. So, in effect, when it is beamed all over the world, our culture meets others by putting its libido, not its best foot, forward.

I'm not a prude, nor am I unaware that there's a price to pay for free expression and the sexual liberation we have come to enjoy in this country. I just never thought I'd have to pay it when I travel.

Interestingly, I felt free and easy traveling in China several years ago because I found no cleavages on billboards or TV shows like "Baywatch" there. (China is still largely a closed society, where the government restricts satellite reception and the media.) The effect was subtle, but after a while I started to see the people I met not as men or women first but as people with whom I could safely make eye contact.

Whether globalization will help or hinder our ability to make eye contact, no one can say. Meanwhile, I've come to think of it as my responsibility to travel conscientiously and take with me the culture of Nashville or North Dakota wherever I go.

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