Let Her Shine: Why the Mainstream Needs to Accept Serena Williams' Dominance

by Altheria Gaston

On Tuesday night, September 8, 2015, I was among millions of people across the world tuned-in to ESPN to watch the U.S. Open Quarterfinal competition featuring two iconic players—Venus Williams and Serena Williams. In Fortune’s "Can Venus and Serena Williams Save Tennis Ratings?" Mary Pilon noted that the match was the second most watched tennis broadcast in ESPN history. Tickets to the match, held at the Arthur Ashe Stadium, the largest tennis stadium by capacity (22,547), were sold-out. And Twitter was on fire with tweets about Venus and Serena—150,000 tweets about Venus and over 190,000 about Serena.

Then, in the midst of our Venus and Serena-inspired mania came a tweet from Forbes . . . about another women’s tennis player . . . Maria Sharapova. On what was perhaps one of the biggest nights in Wiliams’ professional career, Forbes’ tweets, “Maria Sharapova --the business behind the world's most marketable female athlete http://onforb.es/1hUH9U5.” Black Twitter responded swiftly and defensively to Forbes “shady” tweet. In response to a question from @clarencehilljr asking why Forbes tweeted about Sharapova at that particular moment, @professornegro responded, “Simple: to overshadow the fact that two BLACK females dominate women's tennis.”

This was not the first time Forbes made a point of comparing Williams to Sharapova. In listing Williams number 47 in their 2015 ranking of the wealthiest athletes, Forbes wrote, “Her $72 million in career prize money is double No. 2 on the list, Maria Sharapova. Williams can't match Sharapova's endorsements, but she has upper [sic] her off-court game over the last 12 months.” It seems that Forbes is intent on conveying Williams as less marketable than Sharapova despite Williams’ dominance on the tennis court. Less marketable can be interpreted as less likeable, less appealing, less commercially-suitable than Sharapova. In this subtle way, Forbes continues the racist and sexist insults that have been repeatedly hurled at Williams. And this is not ok.

It is not ok to judge Williams according to Eurocentric beauty standards. As with Michelle Obama, much of mainstream media refuse to see Serena Williams as the talented, beautiful woman she is. Curtis Bunn apprised, “In the end, though, it comes down to the perception of race and beauty. Around the world, the negative propaganda machines about who Black people are still resonates with many, even in this advanced time of other-worldly technology.” With few exceptions, unless we have light skin, long, straight hair, and a tall, thin body, all attributes of Sharapova, Black women are not regarded as classically beautiful. Roger Groves, in “The Undervaluation of Serena Williams” states, “Without ever admitting it, I suspect some advertisers have concluded that a tall blonde has a wider and wealthier base of appeal.” He calls this the “multiracial elephant in the room.” I call it discrimination, resulting in wage disparities not only between Williams and Sharapova specifically but between White women and Black women generally.

It is not ok to expect Williams to be overly nice and compliant. Williams’ attitude has come under scrutiny almost as often as her body. Tennis great John McEnroe described the sister as “lacking respect and humility” citing their failure to “say hello in the locker room.” As another example, during the late-night press conference after her win against Venus on Tuesday, a male reporter asked Serena why she wasn’t smiling after her victory. “What’s wrong?” he asked. Serena responded brilliantly. “It’s 11:30. To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t want to be here. I just want to be in bed right now. I have to wake up early to practice.” Serena is a strong competitor who carries herself with dignity and respect. She doesn’t have to feign joviality when she is clearly exhausted. And, no Mr. McEnroe, she is not obligated to speak to you unless she wants to. It’s time-out for insisting that women are nice and humble while men are allowed to be strong and brave.

It is unfortunate that some advertisers don’t view Serena’s appearance and attitude as marketable though she is beautiful and courteous. And it doesn’t help that Forbes continues to make biased marketability comparisons of Williams to Sharapova. As long as “the market” clearly prefers whiteness to blackness, the marketability game is one that Serena cannot win. Fortunately, however, companies like Chase, Nike, and Pepsi are recognizing that Serena does indeed have market appeal.

Even though her appearance and attitude are misjudged, Serena is a role model for many Black women, and we will support her when she is attacked. Serena is a star in every possible way. It was extremely inappropriate for Forbes to tweet about a competitor who is not even in the tournament while the best female tennis player in the world was playing. They and others can throw as much as shade as they like, but no one can dim Serena’s shine.

Photo: Leonard Zhukovsky / Shutterstock.com

Altheria Gaston is a regular contributor at For Harriet. You can find her on Twitter @altheriagaston.

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