You may not be a huge tennis (or even sports, in general) fan, but you might want to stick around for this post, anyway.
On Saturday, Serena Williams won her 21st career Grand Slam title when she defeated 21-year-old Garbine Muguruza handily 6-4, 6-4.
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 11, 2015
Winning on the court where it counts? That’s something Williams knows better than just about any other athlete, regardless of gender. Winning in the media? That’s a different story. See, for the majority of her 20-year career, Williams has been a constant target for racist, sexist nonsense from the media and fans, alike. Vox put together a great rundown of this. On Friday night, the New York Times posted a link to a 1,300+ word article by Ben Rothenberg, titled, “Tennis’s Top Women Battle Body Image with Ambition.”
The article was really poorly framed, and came off as being not just insulting to Williams (perhaps this wasn’t the right thing to publish right before she was playing in the final), but to women everywhere.
“Williams, who will be vying for the Wimbledon title against Garbiñe Muguruza on Saturday, has large biceps and a mold-breaking muscular frame, which packs the power and athleticism that have dominated women’s tennis for years. Her rivals could try to emulate her physique, but most of them choose not to.”
The argument here appears to be that female athletes have the option of being pretty or powerful (but not both). It frames Williams as not only a physical oddity, but seems to bring her womanhood into question.
This brought with it, among other things, accusations that Williams uses steroids. (David Frum, one of the men who led the U.S. to war with Iraq has a sneaking suspicion about Serena and steroids, so that’s… whatever).
.@davidfrum Who hurt you?
— Parker Molloy (@ParkerMolloy) July 11, 2015
The piece also contains a number of really cringeworthy quotes from players and coaches. I have to wonder, though, what exactly Rothenberg asked to prompt such answers. Here, take a look:
“‘It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10,’ said Tomasz Wiktorowski, the coach of Agnieszka Radwanska, who is listed at 5 feet 8 and 123 pounds. ‘Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.'”
“Radwanska, who struggled this year before a run to the Wimbledon semifinals, said that any gain in muscle could hurt her trademark speed and finesse, but she also acknowledged that how she looked mattered to her.
“‘Of course I care about that as well, because I’m a girl,’ Radwanska said. “But I also have the genes where I don’t know what I have to do to get bigger, because it’s just not going anywhere.”
“Maria Sharapova, a slender, blond Russian who has been the highest-paid female athlete for more than a decade because of her lucrative endorsements, said she still wished she could be thinner. ‘I always want to be skinnier with less cellulite; I think that’s every girl’s wish,’ she said, laughing.”
Is there a story here? Absolutely. There’s a really powerful story about the pressures of society, or about the role media plays in reinforcing beauty standards. Why is it that everything a female athlete does winds up being packaged, viewed through a sexual lens, with this assumed need for the approval of straight men?
There’s a story here about the fact that while women are asked these types of questions and find themselves the target of sexist comments, and yet no one has ever asked LeBron James whether he felt he was too bulked up. No one has ever asked if Roger Federer doesn’t feel masculine enough in his appearance. And that’s for good reason: because these men are professional athletes.
But let’s look at what’s wrong about all this discussion about athletes conforming to beauty standards and whatnot. Just really quickly.
So, one of the key points made is that Serena Williams is not “built like” other women. Well, first off, like which other women? I mean, if you take a look at her in comparison to the other women in the top 25, she’s not some hulking monster.
Women’s tennis top 25 Average (mean) height: 5’8″ Serena Williams: 5’9″ Average (mean) weight: 145lbs Serena Williams: 155lbs — Parker Molloy (@ParkerMolloy) July 11, 2015
A while back, I wrote an article for VICE about trans athletes in sports, and how flawed many of the arguments are against inclusion. There’s one point I made in my first draft that didn’t make the final cut.
“Athletics is home to some of the most atypical human beings of all. Chinese women’s basketball player Wei Wei is 6’9”. In 2012, The Guardian catalogued the height, weight, age, and body mass of every athlete competing in the London 2012 Summer Games. Unsurprisingly, few of the world’s top athletes are what anyone would call ‘average.’
“Each athlete has their own unique, natural advantages that make one athlete stand out over another. The Detroit Lions’ Calvin Johnson can run a 4.35-second 40-yard dash. In 2011, Aroldis Chapman of the CIncinnati Reds threw a 106 mile-per-hour fastball. At the 2013 Australian Open, Serena Williams’ serve was clocked at nearly 130 miles-per-hour. For all three, it was a combination of natural ability and intense training that allowed them to accomplish these feats. “The average person could train and practice all day, but never be able to throw a 106 MPH fastball or fire off a 130 MPH serve. It’s only through hard work and natural ability that someone is able to become a top athlete.”
By their very nature, athletes don’t fit into the mold of what the average person looks like. They are physical anomalies. For most of them, we accept that. For Serena Williams? Suddenly it becomes a fair criticism of her athletic merits.
That’s not okay. It’s misogyny. It’s racism. Specifically, it’s misogynoir. Knock it off.
Image via Flickr/Yann Caradec.