Serena Williams won Wimbledon last Saturday, and instead of being celebrated, was once again surrounded by critics commenting on her body. One of the pieces that drew the most attention was the New York Times' article. It was called sexist and racist because of the way it addressed Serena’s body instead of her natural talent for tennis and the years of practice she’s put into her game.
The entity called “The Internet” reacted very harshly, and in particular, raising issues such as male privilege, general sexism and sexism that Black women specifically face, as well as racist narratives that have been continuously used to describe Black women.
The article itself, in my opinion, was not as heinous as some made it out to be. I think the major problem was that it failed to actually take a position, which caused more harm than good.
The article meant to explore Serena Williams and her place in women’s tennis. The author was trying to examine how Serena Williams is so much more muscular than her competition, and that there is still a hesitation from female tennis players to bulk up for the sake of their game.
The article demonstrates how most women in tennis feel self-conscious about their body image, and feel that they must retain their femininity because that’s what society demands of them.
But since the article fails to provide a conclusion or final message, its content simply becomes another chapter in the history of sexist and racist narratives written about Black women.
I want to address several points of tension the article creates. Firstly, the article basically puts Serena in the category of “a woman with a man’s body”. Besides Serena’s own quotes, all the other women in the article say that they do not want to look like Serena because they all want to retain some sort of femininity. So while the article was trying to show this strange divide in tennis, examining how women will not develop their bodies and therefore limit their game, it fell short of that goal.
Secondly, because the article did not do any serious analysis, Serena’s Black body was left at the center of the article, left to be fantasized and dissected just as the bodies of so many Black women before her. From Sara Baartman and Michelle Obama, to the stereotypes of the Jezebel and the Mammy, Black women’s bodies have been examined by white society over and over again, always designating it as the “Exotic Other”.
Thirdly, the article compared the body of a Black woman to only white women’s bodies. Even though the conversation was about tennis, there is too much of a history in this sort of comparison. So again, a solid conclusion, or acknowledgement of the diversity in the article, would have helped this article stay on the right track.
In a larger sense, the article tackles the wrong aspect of Serena Williams. Rather than addressing Serena’s body image (which isn’t really a problem, seeing as Serena is comfortable in her own skin, and has won twenty-one Grand Slam singles titles), the author should have lauded Serena’s talent and skill, and examined how her incredible work ethic has kept her at the top of the game for so long. She’s thirty-three and still kicking butt on the tennis court, while Roger Federer is thirty-three and seemingly “over the hill” in terms of winning Grand Slams.
And a discussion about body image and the unfair judgment that women face about their bodies that men do not, is totally a conversation worth having. But Serena Williams does not deserve to be at the heart of that conversation, especially when she's on the eve of winning another Grand Slam title.
Had the author transitioned into a larger discussion about society’s (read white men’s) view of the female body, or explored how Serena has broken body stereotypes, I think the article would have done much better work had it engaged with and analyzed the social issues at hand.
In the end, this article failed to significantly or meaningfully examine the issue that it raised. It’s troubling that a news source such as the New York Times could publish an article with so little analysis. But then again it simply reflects where our society is today when it comes to the issues of gender and male privilege. And that’s where the true problem lies.