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Was the controversial picture of AFLW player Tayla Harris merely a celebration of her athleticism?

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Friday, 29 March 2019

The photograph of Tayla Harris in full stretch (kicking a goal with her legs extended nearly 180 degrees in the follow-through) has been all over the media. Without doubt the image shows great athleticism. However, "instead of celebrating Harris's incredible athleticism, disgusting comments by trolls and a lack of moderation" were said to have created a media storm. In the face of a backlash, Seven West Media-owned 7AFL removed the image, then later (after criticism) reposted it (minus the trolls) with an apology.

The media has been virtually unanimous in its commentary. The photo has been widely applauded, while criticisms of it on the net have been almost universally condemned.

According to The Australian newspaper's Caroline Overington (the only mainstream media commentator I am aware of, who cited some of the "unacceptable trolls")


AFLW star Tayla Harris has put the troglodytes firmly in their place....It was a shot for the ages, an image that showed Australian women's sport precisely where it is right now.... The first comments were appreciative: "What a stretch!"But of course the trolls weren't far behind, posting lewd comments.....The picture didn't have to come down. The comments should have come down.....You can't criticise a woman's genitals and have it dismissed as anything other than a workplace safety issue.....Next time she leaps, what's on her mind?......Misogyny - that's what this is

The ABC referred to the image "being swamped by misogynistic online trolls". It also quoted a sociologist as saying that "the impact of the photo needed to be understood in the context of women making inroads into the male-dominated world of professional AFL....The photo is iconic for girls to be the best they can, to be athletic and to celebrate it.....I just want people to see that photograph and be blown away by the athleticism". The ABC goes on to draw comparisons between the photo of Tayla Harris and a famous mid-air snap of (a less-revealingly attired) former VFL/AFL player Ted Whitten.

SBS commentary followed broadly equivalent lines, quoting AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan as saying "It is, I think, a remarkable photo - it shows a great athlete at her most powerful".

So there you have it. The media says the photo is a remarkable celebration of athleticism, that had been improperly criticised by those who are sexist, misogynistic and lewd.

The unspoken reality is somewhat different, and some of the criticisms (however insensitively expressed) are justified.

While video of Ms Harris' stretching kick at goal would not raise eyebrows (because the event passed too quickly for people to notice any near exposure), the still photo is quite a different matter. Firstly, it froze her at her most revealing moment, and some published images may have been magnified. Secondly, the photo itself is frontal, and centres viewers' eyes onto her barely concealed private parts. We can hardly be surprised (even if we are less than impressed) that some viewers apparently reached for a magnifying glass or were salaciously agog. An image taken a second or two earlier might just as easily illustrated athleticism without any indecent overtones.


I don't believe that women are any more approving of the photo than men. My wife's reaction to the photo was one of aghast amazement that the photo was published, and felt that the subject must surely feel embarrassed. Amongst those of my generation (mid 60s) it is considered very poor form to publish a photo of somebody (especially a woman) accidentally exposing more than they intended. Twenty years ago this photo would not have been published because it would have been considered too revealing.

My issue with all these commentators is that they seem to deliberately ignore obvious and expected human reactions, and fail to acknowledge that the shorts that were worn were only millimetres from revealing an (unintended) indecent exposure. A slightly longer pair of shorts would facilitate demonstrations of athleticism with far less risk of attracting unwanted remarks.

While the ABC compared Tayla Harris with Ted Whitten, my feeling is that Warwick Capper is a more relevant comparison. Capper, who was noted for wearing the tightest of shorts was quoted as saying "I was a size 12, but I wore size eights because having a wedgie made me jump higher". Capper, now the self-dubbed "king of footy showbiz" was very successful at self-publicity, and has subsequently made a good living in public relations and events.

Undoubtedly there are differing generational attitudes to exposure, and young people these days deliberately wear more provocative clothing than earlier generations. This may explain differing attitudes to the photo.

Self-publicity is also a possibility. I had never heard of Tayla Harris before the current controversy. I daresay a lot more people have heard of her now.

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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