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Olympic Sweetheart Lindsey Vonn Has a Bad Girl Side

Lindsey Vonn fits many of the characteristics of the girl next door; but she's also a badass who is helping break down harmful gender stereotypes.
 
 
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Every Olympics, a new sweetheart is born. And there's no question Lindsey Vonn's sweet star is shining brighter than any others in Vancouver. She joins reigning Hollywood sweethearts (like Jennifer Aniston) and singing ones (Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood), and the many Olympic ones that precede her like Nancy Kerrigan or Michelle Kwan.

Vonn has a bigger media spotlight on her than any other female athlete at the Games: images of her skiing; smiling, toque-adorned, skis in hand; or lounging in her bikini flash across the screen frequently. She's been on Colbert's show this week, and will be one of Leno's first guests. She's gorgeous, with long, shiny blond hair, quick to laugh, and well spoken. And she's well decorated with medals and titles. There are plenty of blog posts, articles, and TV shows trumpeting her new coronation, or arguing why peers, like her teammate Julia Mancuso, almost, but don't quite, qualify.

There's at least one article about how Vonn isn't a sweetheart, though. The writer says she fulfills the criteria of "talent, natural beauty, charisma, intelligence, girl-next-door combination of equal parts humility, spunk and common sense," but hasn't overcome significant adversity; he says the shin bruise isn't enough. And that's not all: a poll on that site has 50 percent of the votes for and 50 percent against her being crowned.

But it's not the adversity issue that's the real thorn. It's that she's actually America's next safe-dangerous fantasy woman: a good bad girl, or bad good girl. That's a much more rare title than sweetheart, and makes her the athlete equivalent of Angelina Jolie.

Sure, Vonn has bona fide good girl credentials; qualities that have traditionally been associated with feminine icons. In addition to beauty and girl-next-door-ness, she also married at age 23 which suggests chastity, works out at the gym six-eight hours a day which suggests hard work and discipline, and isn't a party girl (unlike Mancuso, for example) which suggests purity. She can also be gracious: when Vonn fell in the giant slalom race and disrupted Mancuso's run, she immediately apologized, and said she felt terrible. She is sometimes humble, saying in a video about the ESPY awards that she thought it was 99.9 percent likely she wouldn't win. And she's even ordinary, posting on her Facebook wall (for her 111,000 and counting friends): "Just sitting in my condo up here in Whistler baking some banana bread and watching the rain continue to come down."

But she also has many traits that challenge conventional ideas about femininity, and that have labeled women as bad girls in the past and present. She likes speed. She's a serious athlete in a high status, competitive, adrenaline-fueled sport with an aggressive culture. She talks frequently about " fighting" or "attacking" the hill.

Sports like downhill skiing "are highly masculinized," says Jennifer Matthews, who completed a study on ski culture in Whistler, "and even the women that excel in these areas are to some degree, expected to act aggressively like men, but just in relation to their sport."

She also challenges traditional ideas about femininity and thinness, proudly carrying enough weight to wear men's skis. She's not demure or humble: she ruthlessly promotes herself, her products and her sponsors' products. And she uses her sexuality for both ends: appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated, in the swimsuit issue, and in the pages of dozens of other magazines and fan sites.

She's independent, having ended her relationship with her "hard-driving father Alan, who fiercely objected to her marriage to Thomas Vonn, a member of the U.S. ski team 10 years her senior." Which also has echoes of Angelina Jolie.

 
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