Lindsey Vonn: First Bad-Girl Sweetheart?

04/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

America has a new sweetheart. But she challenges the ideas about what a good girl is.

Every Olympics, a new sweetheart is born. And there's no question Lindsey Vonn's sweet star is shining brighter than any others in Vonncouver. She joins reigning Hollywood sweethearts (like Jennifer Anniston) 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 more than any other athlete's. She's been on Colbert this week, and will be one of Leno's first guests. She's gorgeous, with long and shiny blonde 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 fulfils 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 to eight hours a day which suggests hard work and discipline, and isn't a partier (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 for example, 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 pages of the swimsuit issue, for example, and on 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 US ski team 10 years her senior." Which also has echoes of Jolie.

And she can be highly critical and scathing of others, most recently, Tiger Woods. As a result of the tongue lashing she gave him, while surrounded by her Vonntourage, there's the rumor that she might be invited to host SNL.

I'm not saying those are bad things. Quite the opposite in fact. I'm saying it's unusual for someone who gets the sweetheart label to possess those traits.

In the world of gender, few women get to play both sides. Recently, Naomi Wolf argued that Angelina Jolie was the first woman in history to be a bad girl (committing the ultimate "scarlet letter" offense of "stealing" another woman's husband, wearing a vial of blood, and kissing her brother), who simultaneously became a "good girl" through her volunteer work and motherhood. The varsity sweetheart sweater fits Vonn awkwardly too, and in her case as well, it makes her a member of an even more coveted, fantasy class. It's the reason men want to sleep with her and women want to be her.

In the comments sections under two videos of Vonn on YouTube (one of which has 360,000 views), there are hundreds of comments by both (supposedly) male and female commenters about how hot she is. Occasionally, a commenter will criticize her, for being cocky, for example, then other fans leap to her defense. Fans like her combination of "bad" and "good" qualities, or traditionally feminine and masculine ones. It may seem obvious that people are more attractive when they're able to embody a full range of qualities, but it's also obvious that hasn't been typical.

"She's so beautiful," writes horizon327. "Not like those 100 lb women on tv these days or the figure skaters She's tall, with alot of body mass (the kind that looks good) meat and muscle on her. Very strong, that makes her even more beautiful. Not just physically strong but bold too, the way she skies so fast. And probably brave about everything else in life too. That turns me on even more."

But the sexualized comments are the most significant. The majority are about how that commenter fantasizes about pleasing Vonn; few are directly about how that commenter would like Vonn to please them. That's a significant shift from the way women are usually treated on the Internet.

I'm not saying I'm a fan. But I admire her. And I'm curious to see whether she's a rare exception to the sweetheart archetype, or whether she's ushering in a new trend in gender identity.