Serena Williams and the Hypocrisy of Femininity

As a semi-serious fan of tennis, watching Serena Williams play is like watching a miracle in athleticism, precision, combined with grace and power. It’s a feat of sheer superhuman power which is unmatched. What’s more, she makes it look easy peasy, barely breaking a sweat even in hot conditions. There was no one like her before and probably won’t after her for quite some decades to come. Had her sister Venus Williams not been struck by Sjogren’s Syndrome, I’ve no doubt we would see more Venus-Serena Grand Slam final matches.

Serena Williams, by her mere existence is the subject of numerous column inches about women in sports, women’s physique in sports and how that contributes to their performance and how all of that fits into the ‘femininity’ of a female athlete. In short, in the view of many, Serena Williams’s success is attributed solely to her powerful physique (as opposed to her intelligence and precision), which, according to some, is like a man’s body. Most notoriously, New York Times sports writer, in an attempt to bring light to this issue and was meaning to write a complimentary piece about Serena Williams and  how female athletes struggle with their body image (like all other women), Ben Rothenberg really stepped in it. Saying a woman resembles a man in any shape or form is tantamount to calling her ‘ugly’ or ‘unattractive’. Since it’s not polite anymore to openly say a woman is ugly or unattractive, new coded words were invented to take its place, such as ‘masculine’, ‘manly’, ‘overly muscular’ or the most blunt ‘she looks like a man’. Regardless of how a woman’s natural physical attributes rates, no woman wants to be thought of as ‘looking like a man’.

Serena, instead of being admired for her athleticism, she’s being gawked at like some unusual exotic being, except it’s unusual not in a good way. Rothenberg received extra flack because, firstly, he isn’t a woman and secondly, he isn’t black yet he’s talking about a very personal subject which relates to black women. Serena Williams is a black woman, and the article just happens to cite all the other white players on the WTA tour right now who make a concerted effort to not look like Serena Williams, because, God forbid, these pixie like European players should turn up looking like a man in center court. Serena Williams when talking about her workouts, makes a great effort to emphasize that she does not lift weights and her muscular shape is totally an accident of genetics. Then you have the coach of Agnieszka Radwanska going on record to say, she deliberately trains to maintain her thin small frame for speed and agility (her strong suits) and because she wants to look like a woman and more importantly, she ‘is’ a woman first. As if to imply Serena is not fully a woman?

You also have Maria Sharapova, Serena William’s closest rival on the tour right now, going on the record saying that she’s allergic to any weights that weigh more than 5 lbs. She wants to maintain her 6 foot 2 inch model like frame whilst being a top tennis player. Heaven forbid she should end up looking like Serena Williams. For the players that are more accepting, like Eugenie Bouchard, their tones are resigned: if bulking up and looking like a man is what it takes to ‘lift trophies’, then by all means, fine, I’ll bulk up for the duration of my tennis career, but I better see results soon or else I am revert back to my thin womanly figure.

Besides talking about Serena’s figure is the talk of Serena the personality, which is as every bit strong and forceful as her physical gifts. She’s loud, brash, speaks her mind and is unapologetic, if she were a man those traits would be admired, she’d be given an award, even if a few f-bombs were dropped, and Serena rarely uses the f-bomb. But in some quarters, it’s described as crass, uncouth and arrogant. All a big no-no for a girl, especially a black girl from the ghetto. To many, she is reinforcing what everyone already thinks of her and her upbringing. There are acceptable ways of expressing anger and frustration and the way Serena doesn’t do it the ‘right’ way.

Her good friend since childhood Andy Roddick is shocked and saddened at the bad press Serena Williams gets for her supposed ‘bad’ behavior on court. He admitted that he was a jerk for most of his playing years and he didn’t even get one-quarter the bad press that Serena got. Roddick was even fined several times for his bad behavior, he always just wrote the check, issued a half-assed apology and laughed it off. The press and the tennis authorities treated him a naughty frat boy. He was even able to make a joke of it at his press conferences, reading mock apology notes and the joke was reciprocated. Something Serena Williams could never get away with.

On the over excessive display of emotion – I don’t find John McEnroe’s outbursts appealing nor do I find Andy Roddick’s red-faced meltdowns on center court palatable either. Did they leave their manners in the locker room? The poker faced Boris Becker and Ivan Lendl style of playing tennis, where their frustrations are exchanged with chair umpire and if the result is not to their favor, dagger looks are given and they move the game along is probably more to my preference. There will be no red faced cursing or over-gesticulating for Becker and Lendl.

Prior to Serena Williams dominance on the tennis courts, her predecessors such as Steffi Graf or Monica Seles conducted themselves in the manner that was expected of them. Polite and quiet off the court but displaying finesse, prowess and aggression on the court. They were non-threatening, didn’t speak out of turn and rarely got angry at anyone or anything. Any challenges to bad calls that didn’t go their way were shrugged off. They were, in a word, boring (with a capital B) and they were an advertiser’s dream, lily-white uncontroversial spokespersons who will help them sell many many articles of clothing, shoes and whatever else.

Some advertisers and sponsors are criticized for overlooking Serena Williams in favor of her not-so-close second place rival Maria Sharapova, one of the highest earning sportswoman for many years straight. Many charge advertisers with racism and lookism for overlooking Serena Williams and for not broadening the definition of beauty beyond the tall skinny blond white girl with model looks to be more inclusive, but the reason is simpler than that. Whoever can sell more shoes, clothes, watches and jewelry, that person will be their spokesperson. If today, the Maria Sharapova and Eugenie Bouchard types will do the job, then that’s who they will hire. If we wake up tomorrow and the Serena Williams type suddenly became the model of ‘It’, ‘cool’ and sexy then Serena will get all the endorsements. It’s as easy as that. Nike, Reebok, Adidas, Canon, Nikon will hire the skateboarding bulldog (I am not comparing athletes to the dog, I am just making an analogy) if that’s who will sell their wares. This isn’t fair or right, it’s just business. The advertiser’s job is to find the spokesperson that will represent their products the best, and by represent, they mean help them sell whatever overpriced gadget they are trying to flog to consumers. With Maria Sharapova out of the game for at least 2 years due to a doping suspension, maybe advertisers will look to other tennis players.

There are those who cite the ‘likability’ factor of Serena Williams being less than that of Maria Sharapova or Eugenie Bouchard, because of her loud and brash personality (code for bitchy), but Maria Sharapova is no cupcake off the court either. She can be prickly and difficult in interviews. Her PR management usually has a list of questions the interviewers may NOT ask that is as long as her arm, and the first on the top of the list are questions anything to do with her irritating grunts on the court are strictly banned, at least she’s self-aware. Aside from that, Sharapova doesn’t go to great lengths to hide her prickliness either. Former champion Martina Hingis called her then match rival Amelie Mauresmo ‘half a man’, a direct homophobic dig, even though Hingis won the match. Lindsay Davenport said playing Mauresmo was like ‘playing a man’ after a tough loss, in reference to Mauresmo’s athletic physique. Lindsay Davenport apologized for her remark but Hingis didn’t, apparently not understanding why her off the cuff comment was so offensive. These women who were at the top of their game were not sanctioned, scolded or even verbally warned when they made these offensive and unacceptable remarks. Serena Williams for all of her supposed ‘outbursts’ have never offended another player like this, yet she still gets all the bad press for her ‘outbursts’.

I have a confession to make. I am a reformed fan of Serena Williams. Previously, I loved her on the court but not so much off. I didn’t watch her interviews on television nor did I read them in print. I found her unnecessarily abrasive and defensive when she spoke and it was off putting. And in my mind, she was guilty by association, to her father Richard Williams. And I suspect much of the viewing public have this perception.

Most people find Richard Williams and his courtside antics at times amusing and at times off putting (more off putting than not), holding up bizarre signs of support Venus or Serena and flouting the rules of tennis spectatorship. I suppose people attributed some ‘coded’ message in the signs and that’s how he allegedly fixed his daughters matches. After all, you don’t see Tiger Woods’s father flouting the rules of golf and he’s just as every bit a golf-dad as Richard Williams is a tennis-dad. Now I can appreciate his renegade attitude of breaking barriers and in his own way protest the ‘white’ rules tennis spectatorship. He said in an interview when asked about not observing the silence rules of tennis, he had this to say:

I don’t think crowds should be quiet—whether you’re screaming, you’re stomping, you’re playing drums. Change tennis and you’ll get more fans. Change tennis and you’ll get more sponsors. Change tennis and you’ll get more people to broadcast it. A lot of people in tennis that make decisions, they’ve never played tennis.

It’s ironic to note, Serena Williams often asks the chair umpire to ask the audience to pipe down when she’s playing important points as it distracts her.

In the same interview, when asked why he chose tennis for his girls, his had this to say:

…I didn’t know at that time of anything in sports that a woman could do and earn that type of income. I didn’t know nothing about tennis. I hadn’t even watched a tennis match. I just saw [tennis commentator] Bud Collins say to [Romanian tennis player] Virginia Ruzici, “$40,000 is not bad for four days’ work.” I thought, that has to be a joke. But the next day, when I read it in the sports pages, I said, “I’m going to have me two kids and put them in tennis.” To this day, I don’t know anything a child could do to make that kind of money in one week.

A rather less than inspiring answer for two girls who are so naturally gifted in a sport. It was about the prize money. It was as if he found out by accident that they happened to be gifted tennis players because of the prize money they can earn. What if he chose another sport or profession for them as a path to financial security? We would have never known Venus and Serena Williams to be the best tennis players of their generation or perhaps the best tennis players ever. What if Richard Williams discovered lacrosse instead for his girls?

Venus nor Serena Williams didn’t seemed interested in reining in their father and they let him do what he wanted to do, no matter how badly it rubbed the tennis establishment the wrong way. When the Williams’s parents marriage broke down, Richard Williams was at courtside less and less. It’s hard to say how much of Richard Williams’s actions damaged his daughters’ reputations, especially on the part of Serena, as she is more outspoken than the shy and retiring Venus.

The genteel lily-white tennis world have never seen someone like Richard Williams and his daughters before, therefore all sorts of nasty rumors and allegations have been attributed to him, most notably match fixing between the sisters, especially when in matches that were lacklustre in quality. The Williams sisters have vehemently denied these allegations, but even as Richard Williams have receded from the limelight and is absent for  many of the girls’ matches, even as recent their last Wimbledon Fourth Round meet, there are still certain sports writers who claim that Richard Williams will fix that match too, just like he did all the others. These are libellous statements in which there is no proof. It’s clear from the documentary ‘Venus and Serena’, their father does not have that Svengali hold over them like so many believe. The girls lead independent lives away from their parents.

The hypocrisy in which that surrounds Serena Williams is another manifestation of our double standard society. The standards of beauty, even amongst female athletes very much dictate how they are perceived. Anna Kournikova in her short tennis career, never even winning a single individual tournament had more positive press coverage than all the other top players during that time put together. Her endorsements were through the roof despite poor results in tennis. It didn’t matter to advertisers. Besides being skinny with flowing long blond hair, she had natural sex appeal, which is rare amongst athletes. Serena Williams, despite being one of the best athletes of her generation, at an age where most athlete’s bodies are starting to breakdown due to years of over exertion, Serena has lost no steam. In fact, she’s just getting started. Yet we don’t hear sports writers talk about that, we just hear about how ‘muscular’ (unfeminine) she is.

Finally, only the writer of our generation can shut down the haters against the best tennis player of our generation in one tweet:

Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 8.45.17 PM

Yes, I defy any man to put on a dress and heels like that without the aid of a pair of Spanx and let’s see how he fares. Most would be too scared to leave their front doors.

2 thoughts on “Serena Williams and the Hypocrisy of Femininity

  1. I LOVE your article. It’s so true that as soon as women try to enter different roles or different arenas, they are put down for not being “womanly enough.” I found it extremely aggravating in an internship I held that my music choices, speech habits, and even food choices all led back to me “being a girl.” If someone as literally and emotionally strong as Serena Williams can handle it with grace, though, so can I. And huge cheers to JK Rowling’s tweet, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading. There’s also elitism and classism as well. Serena Williams father, who makes no bones about showing himself exactly as who he is, a man who raised his family in the ghettos and all that entails (including values), that has badly affected the Williams sisters’ brand as well. Their father is crass, he admits so. But it doesn’t his children are, and I made that guilty by association assumption before. The point is, we can all be stereotypical girls (whatever that means to every girl) and be good at what we do.


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