A Feminist Argument For Wet T-Shirt Contests

text by Jill Di Donato


For a moment, as the water hits her skin, she becomes sex.

She shimmies. She sways.

She’s fantasy.

Like bamboo, strong yet flexible.

And then the moment is passed.

Exit stage left.

          A blank canvas—an item to be styled or worn alone, the white tee is lazy or elegant, sexy or grungy. When wet, however, the white t becomes something else entirely.

          It’s a complicated cultural symbol. Like most garments, its significance is defined largely by its wearer and the style in which it’s worn. When you factor in ideas about class and the friction of hedonist concupiscence rubbing against American Puritan ethos, the white t-shirt contest opens a dialog of sociological intrigue.

           But can the wet t-shirt contest be feminist?

           At one time, I used to think that as an object, a woman was unable to gaze astutely at the world herself. But people slip in and out of dominance and submission all the time. What appeals to me about the wet t shirt contest is the ease with which a woman can shift states of modesty at will. That’s a powerful feat, especially because historically, women have struggled to move freely within trappings of modesty. Or rather, expectations of feminine modesty have been historically limiting to women.

          For detractors who point out that wet t-shirt contests are judged and winners pronounced, isn’t that the American way? But before the first playhouses opened in the Colonies, across the pond, Shakespeare’s Jacques says to Duke Senior, “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players. ” This pronouncement couldn’t be more relevant today, when personal exhibitionism is de rigeur.

         Human obsession with spectacle is not new; what’s new lies in the aggregation of images—the sheer multitude of them, the myriad ways they can be manipulated, and the rapid speed with which all this can happen. The diversity in the types of images that people put out into the world is a choice opportunity, especially for marginalized groups to reclaim power by getting on stage and showing their breasts: big breasts, small breasts, augmented breasts, natural breasts, brown breasts, large-nippled-breasts, pierced breasts, lactating breasts, post-sex-reassignment op breasts.

          Welcome to the democratization of tits.

          But even though potential to find a sundry of images exists, are people taking the time to seek them out? Or do they go for the easy definitions of what’s sexy/sophisticated/crass/erotic/ tasteful/raunchy?

           Has the infinite aggregation of images on platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr—media forums that allow viewers to post, rather than simply consume images, say looming from Hollywood billboards or from inside fashion glossies, has this new access actually changed social attitudes about female sexuality?

           New media platforms do take some power away from the male gaze. A shift is happening, and even if change doesn’t occur immediately, the camera is now in the hands of more people: women, especially, who can turn the camera onto themselves. Whether millennial media habits can chip away at some of the ingrained images of hegemonic sex appeal remains to be seen, but the way people consume media these days helps make an argument for why sartorial events like the wet t-shirt contest can indeed be feminist.

            The wet t-shirt contest predates sexy selfies and Snapchat videos: it’s a living photograph, a tableaux vivant.

           But what about its history?

           The first iconic image of a wet t-shirt is credited to Jacqueline Bisset. Swimming underwater, the English actress surfaces wearing a white tee and bikini bottoms in the 1977 pulp film, The Deep. Goggle-faced and sun-kissed, the underwater swimming scene opens the film. As she comes up for air, Bisset appears elegant, her near-nudity referencing Aphrodite.

          Two years later, Frank Zappa’s 1979 track “Fembot In A Wet T Shirt” gives props to the gals on stage. “Well the girls are excited/Because in a minute/They’re gonna get wet/‘N’ the boys are delighted/Because all the titties/Will get ’em upset.” These lyrics underscore an exciting view of female sexuality and its power over male spectators—a reclaiming, if you will, of the male gaze.

          The 1980s saw the rise of wet t-shirt contests, where models like Stacey Owen and Debbie Quorell used their coronations at these types of international events to lead to successful careers in porn. And so the evolution to Girls Gone Wild, who, today, are likely to be what people think of when they think of a woman in a wet t-shirt contest.

          Because the women in these videos seem so interchangeable to me, I picture “her” face wearing a somewhat quizzical look, as the director of photography is more interested in catching the gaze of cheering frat bros in the background, to whom the franchise is marketing the show. The woman in the wet t is secondary, more of an object than actor, like Bisset in The Deep.

           Or is that distinction indicative of my tastes—my desires… my choice: Bisset (urbane—old Hollywood) over a Girls Gone Wild (tawdry—Hollywood Boulevard). What can I say: I’m a snob.

           While I don’t love the idea of women competing with one another in a wet t-shirt contest, people engage in contests in everyday life all the time. I choose favorites, handpick who and what I want in all kinds of situations, casual or intimate, and doing so is a freedom I wouldn’t want to give up.