How Society Polices the Femininity of Serena Williams and Other Female Athletes7/18/2015
by Erika Nicole Kendall for The Guardian Serena Williams has often been called an “ape” and “gori...
by Erika Nicole Kendall for The Guardian
Serena Williams has often been called an “ape” and “gorilla” across the dark caverns of social media; her body has been described in language not unlike the kind you’d find in old timey slave auction advertisements or Old English freak show exhibits; her deep brown skin, her cheekbones, her muscular physique – the physique of someone who takes their sport seriously, with the trophy case to prove it – are all used as grounds to question the sex she was born at birth or whether she came by her athleticism naturally.
In 2014, a high-ranking Russian tennis official snarkily referred to Serena and her sister Venus as “the Williams brothers”. In 2012, Williams’ fellow competitor Caroline Wozniacki stuffed her top and skirt, doing her best Serena imitation by mocking her shapeliness. As far back as 2009, a sports columnist wrote a scathing editorial about Williams’ body, likening her derriere to food and complaining that she wasn’t attractive enough to him because of her size.
Her latest Wimbledon win was no different.
These particular insults, especially when lobbed at black women, are difficult to see as anything other than racist, especially given their history as ways to denigrate the womanhood and sexuality of black women. But, Williams isn’t the first female athlete to endure this treatment; she isn’t even the first tennis player. It’s common for women athletes – especially when they win – to be derided as something other than women.
When Dominika Cibulkova lost to Sam Stosur back in 2012, she repeatedly stated that playing Stosur was “like playing a man”. Amelie Mauresmo, former tennis dynamo, received flak about her sexuality, her gender and her physique. Martina Navratilova, widely regarded as one of the greatest tennis players of all time, was constantly derided as looking manly. And, when 6’8” WBNA athlete Brittney Griner showed off her dunking skills, she too was called “a man”. Griner’s response to the criticism? “Hey, that’s my body, and I look the way I look.”
Track and field athletes, soccer players, basketball players, tennis players, you name it: in any sport in which a woman has to actually train to be a formidable competitor, and has a physique that reflects that, you’ll find discussion of their reputed sexual desirability (or supposed lack thereof) permeating the conversation.
Many an article has nonetheless been written about women’s body issues without actually critiquing anything beyond the women who carry that weight. For instance, on the eve of Williams’ final Wimbledon match, the New York Times published an article discussing the body image challenges that female tennis players endure. Though it started out discussing Williams’ own relationship with her cut arms, it quickly devolved. Tomasz Wiktorowski, the coach for the very slender Agnieszka Radwanska, explained why she was less athletically built than Williams: “It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10 because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.”
Radwanska acknowledged how her appearance mattered to her, essentially more than her performance, because, well, “I’m a girl.” Discussing photos of her cut arms mid-serve, the 14th-ranked tennis player Andrea Petkovic admitted, “I just feel unfeminine.” And Maria Sharapova, the top-earning female athlete of 2014, said “I can’t handle lifting more than five pounds […] for my sport, I just feel like it’s unnecessary.”
The Times article served up these women’s complicated body image issues without much commentary by experts about the relationship these women have with the public’s relationship with their bodies – their fear of looking unfeminine to the public or their desires to be seen as “women” to that public – let alone how such journalism plays into exactly those fears.
In a world in which female athleticism was respected and revered as much as it is for men, serious journalists would point out that women striving to stay small because they “care how they look” – presumably more than they care how they perform – are compromising the integrity of their sport. The absurdity of the highest paid female athlete of 2014 admitting she “can’t handle lifting more than five pounds” would be acknowledged. The sexism and misogyny displayed by a coach saying that he aids in keeping his trainee small because they want to “keep her” “a woman” would result in him no longer being the coach of a top-10 athlete.
Photo: Leon Neal / AFP / Getty Images