Serena Williams Is Not a Costume

12/12/12: I have written a follow-up post to this one. And a third post on this.

12/21/12: Serena’s response.

Lots of news outlets are reporting on Caroline Wozniacki stuffing her top and skirt with towels at a match this past weekend against Maria Sharapova. She did this in order to enhance her chest and butt so that she could imitate or impersonate Serena Williams. She did it supposedly as a joke.

Carolina Wozniacki in profile, with her top and skirt stuffed with towels.

In case there is someone out there who has never seen a picture of Serena Williams:

Serena hitting a tennis ball. She is wearing a blue and yellow one- piece skirt. Her hair is up with a yellow headband.

Since Serena Williams turned pro in 1995 in a predominantly white sport (though that is changing, thanks in large part to the barriers broken down by the Williams sisters), her not-white body has endured an endless amount of scrutiny. I didn’t seriously start following tennis until about seven or eight years ago, though I had watched Wimbledon religiously for years beforehand. I am not as familiar with what she must have gone through in the first years, even decade, of her career. But I will never forget watching the 2007 Australian Open. Williams hadn’t won a grand slam since the 2005 Australian Open and she had been absent from the professional circuit for so long before the Australian Open that she went in unseeded. When she won that year, she became the first unseeded player since 1978 to win the title. Of the seven matches she played in the tournament, six were against seeded players. The thing that I remember MOST clearly, though, was the constant commentary in every single match she played about how not-physically fit she was and reading about how fat she had become, always with the conclusion that she couldn’t possibly win. Yet, it turned out that she was physically fit enough and she was, by far, the best women’s tennis player at that tournament. I was so angry for Serena and so tired of that commentary. That will forever stand out for me as a prime example of the extreme level of focus on Serena’s body and the negative commentary that accompanies it no matter how well Serena is playing. She literally couldn’t play well enough for the commentary to cease.

In her first match after that Australian Open, this happened in Miami:

Serena Williams was subjected to racist heckling by a male spectator at the Sony Ericsson Open, and was told to “hit the ball into the net like any negro would.”


Here are some more examples from over the years of criticism against Serena’s body and/or her actions:

That’s just a quick Google search.

When Wozniacki decided to “impersonate” Serena by adding towels to her breasts and butt, she wasn’t doing so inside of a vacuum where all of this hatred doesn’t exist.

How Yahoo! Sports wrote up the incident:

The Dane lost the match 6-2 7-6, and didn’t seem to be taking things too seriously as she padded the, er, top and bottom of her outfit to give herself a curvier look.

The likeness to Serena, you’ll surely agree, is uncanny.

Tennis impersonations are usually the preserve of Novak Djokovic – the madcap Serb has taken off big rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, as well as women’s stars Williams and Sharapova.

This comparison of what Wozniacki did with Djokovic’s impersonations of Nadal, Federer, and Sharapova (I’ll return to his impersonation of Williams in a moment) is flawed. Tennis players are famous for repetition. They do the same things over and over again before every single serve. Sharapova pushes her hair behind her ears, Nadal picks his butt (yes, I’m serious). When Djokovic copies these things, he is mimicking their actions. We can have a whole other discussion about whether that kind of mimicry is funny or mean. But that is fundamentally different than altering your body in order to “impersonate” someone, especially when the body you are mimicking has been the target of vitriol and judgment for years and even more so when you are white and much of that vitriol and judgment of the person’s body that you are mimicking has been racist.

Serena Williams’ body is not a costume for another tennis player, especially a white tennis player, to put on and use for laughs when they feel like it.

If Wozniacki had chosen instead to paint her face black in order to impersonate Williams, would we be questioning if this type of display is racist?

And Wozniacki has done this before (Nov 2011):

Apparently, Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic have also done this recently:

I find it interesting that news is blowing up over Caroline Wozniacki doing this but not Roddick or Djokovic, both of whom are much higher profile players in the US. Funny that.

There is nothing hilarious about this. There is no joke here unless you think black women’s bodies are jokes. Plenty of people over the years have let Serena Williams know that that is exactly what they think of her body. That she has to endure that from people in her own sport, Roddick who is a close friend of hers, too, is terrible.

This kind of thing always make me ask the same question: If Serena Williams, a 15-time tennis grand slam singles champion, a 13-time grand slam doubles champion, and the reigning gold medalist in women’s singles and doubles, cannot get the respect she deserves within her sport because her body does not match the other women’s whom alongside she plays (and repeatedly beats, especially Wozniacki), who can?

For more:

Update: Before anyone says something about how Wozniacki and Serena are supposedly good friends, I want to go on record and say that making fun publicly of your friend’s body is a terrible thing for a friend to do. And friends do terrible things to each other all the time so the idea that because they are friends, Wozniacki or Roddick or Djokovic have some sort of magic pass to be offensive seems silly to me.

Also, this post is not written to defend Serena or to speak for her. She’s a public figure who holds her own just fine and certainly doesn’t need the likes of me sticking up for her. It’s possible she is just fine with these gags and even herself finds them funny. If she does, she and I disagree about the humor in this. I wrote this post because I personally am uncomfortable with tennis players using Serena’s body as a costume. That is all. I don’t need anyone else’s permission, including the person being mocked, for me to find this offensive.

Update #2: Apparently Roddick has been doing his Serena “impression” for a while, too (video from September 2011):

Hey tennis players, retire this gag.

There’s more! Serena Williams Is Not a Costume, part 2 AND Taylor Townsend (OR, Serena Williams Is Not a Costume, part 3).


27 thoughts on “Serena Williams Is Not a Costume

  1. Pingback: Dear Caroline Wozniacki, Mocking Serena's Body? You TRIED It | Awesomely Luvvie

  2. I don’t know if it was an attempt to mock her opponent (Sharapova), dressing as her arch nemesis whom she has not beaten since 2004. Instead it probably reminded Sharapova of all the reasons she has become the more celebrated player, despite the fact she has yet to achieve 1/3 of the talent, skill or success of Serena.

    I did not know this happened. It may explains whySerena played so poorly the following day, eventually losing to a girl who only beat her once before, by default.

  3. I was shown this article as an “excuse” for Wozniacki’s behavior.

    The author did a fantastic job trotting out all of the terrible, tried and never-works-ever-except-to-ease-a-privileged-conscience excuses for Wozniacki’s awful display.

    My favorites:
    “See, it’s not racist because it’s a joke!”
    “Well, she doesn’t HATE Serena so obv. this isn’t racism they’re BUDDIES.”
    “What about racism against WHITE PEOPLE??”
    “Actually, the REAL racists are the people who dare point out racism and reminds us that racism exists!”

  4. Everything about that post is terrible. That’s not hyperbole. It’s terrible. If THAT is what someone is using to say that what Wozniacki did was okay, good luck to them.

  5. This is a wonderful article about a very disturbing incident. I am grateful that you documented the ugly history here and that you so skillfully critiqued and skewered all the b.s. rationalizations from Wozniacki and others who will rationalize what she did. With support and respect for your important, powerful statement….

  6. Thank you, I feel the exact same way. Serena & Caroline aren’t shopping buddies or confidants, neither do they hang in each others home when not on tour. They are coworkers who have a good laugh on tour. Serena has said in the past that they joke around in the locker room, she is also ‘buddies’ with Sharapova who ppl call her nemesis. You never see her with them outside of the tour which means COWORKERS, She seem to really enjoy Vika though. So being work buddies is not the same as friend. Nothing about this says ‘friend’ Caroline took to many liberties at Serena expense.

    These people don’t mock any other girl on tour. Notice they never mock Venus because she is shape more like they are long/lean little to no curves.

    The one I hate “imitation is the best form of flattery” so Serena is supposed to be flattery by this? chile bye.

    People assume Serena is OK with this because she hasn’t said anything she is busy training in Mauritius. So she may not respond just yet but she rarely does. unless asked in a press conference because she is classy, unlike Caroline.

    people saying tennis players always do this show me where they mock the other girls like this. I agree why not mock her actions not her body, I can think of 5 things she always does just sitting here. It is was insulting period

  7. It isn’t particularly funny, but it seems racist to call this racist. In other words, Wozniacki was making fun of Serena’s particular features – her features as an individual – but calling that racist suggests that she’s making fun of all black women because all black women have those features. They don’t and suggesting that they do is kind of racist.

  8. A Google search reveals the disgusting history of Europeans parading African (black) women, either on the auction block, or on stage in a sideshow or museum exhibition. The body parts of the “hottentot” Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman were cut off and kept in jars in a Paris museum. My point is there is a history: on the court and off…. for centuries. Thanks for reminding me of this pain.

  9. “It seems racist to call this racist.” I don’t even know what that means.

    If I need to explain to you because you don’t know about the amount of cultural time and space spent discussing how black women’s bodies are curvy or their asses large, then you simply choose not to pay attention to how we, as a society, talk about different bodies.

    This is a convenient argument you have concocted here: unless someone finds some way to make fun of a feature that is universal to all black women then when they pick on a feature that is particular to only some black women, it’s not racist. But, of course, humans are humans and race is complicated so there will never exist a single universal feature. You can ALWAYS claim that it is about individuals and not culture using this argument. And anyone who believes that racism isn’t systemic is swimming in a huge pool of privilege and I don’t have time for that.

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  12. I find one thing wrong with your post. You say ” black women’s bodies” as if to label all black women as having large buttocks and large breasts. I am sure you know that this is absolutely not true. And by making such a statement as this, you are legitimising the venus of hottentot stereotype. Black women come in all different shapes and sizes from big butt and big breasts to flat butt and flat chest. Big butt and big breasts is a particular trait of a particular ethnic group of African people. Not all african people are shaped that way. To categorically label this the “black woman’s shape” you have fallen into the same stereotypical pit that the racists (xenophobes) have.

  13. Pingback: Friday Links, 12/14/12 « Tutus And Tiny Hats

  14. Indeed. All I see is immaturity and downright disrespect of another’s person, probably fuelled by jealousy. Certainly there’s no sportsmanship, or is that well and truly dead and buried in these days of commercialism and consumerism? Very likely a symptom of our criminally ignorant and terminally selfish times.

  15. When Djokovic impersonated John McEnroe by blowing his stack at the chair during a charity match, nobody complained that he was perpetuating a racist image of the angry/drunk Irishman. And it’s not because the Irish are white; they were among the most oppressed people on earth through the early 20th century (“Irish n—–” was a popular pairing, if that tells you anything). Tilting at such a windmill would have been ludicrous — a sure symptom of chronic political scrupulosity.

    (My apologies if I offended any Spaniards.)

    The truth is, Serena has large breasts and a callipygian figure. Should we stop drawing political caricatures that draw attention to our President’s physical features because they happen to include black skin?

    Wozniacki’s portrayal of an aggressive female athlete (an unfamiliar role for her) is the repugnant part about this.

    The author says she’s only been following tennis seriously for seven years, and therein lies the rub.

  16. 1) I don’t need a history lesson about the Irish. But I will note that there was a group MORE oppressed than the Irish in the early 20th century.

    It is telling that you talk about the Irish at that particular moment in time without addressing at all the way in which ideas about whiteness and social hierarchy during the rest of the 20th century led to the Irish being positioned as “white” in this country, specifically in relation to black people. The historical paths of different oppressed peoples from the early 20th century have not been the same.

    2) Your comment about Obama is irrelevant. It’s not that Serena happens to be black – it’s that Serena’s specific body type has a history of degradation, almost from the very first moment of colonization in the Americas and the introduction of slavery. Since you are so fond of history, perhaps you should read Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Bodies (her chapter titled “Some Could Suckle” should be enough) or google Hottentot Venus.

    When people make fun of Obama’s ears, that is just not the same thing. Black men’s bodies have been scrutinized and demonized in their own ways — the way people talk about Obama are not those ways. I understand that you’d like to boil the complexities of both race and racism down into something nice and neat so that it’s easy to make these kind of wide berth comparisons between two black people in order to deny the existence of racism against one. But please don’t come to my blog spouting on about history of Irishmen in the US like you are an expert and then immediately make an ahistorical and inaccurate argument about black bodies as your big evidence against my post.

    3) 7 years isn’t enough for you? I don’t care.

  17. It’s ridiculous to attack someone because she has only been following tennis seriously for seven years. I’m 65 years old, so I’ve had many decades to watch tennis. In my younger days, I loved Pancho Gonzales and was absolutely in awe of Rod Laver. Would that make my view of Wozniacki’s decision to “impersonate” Serena Williams more valid than someone who has “only” been a serious tennis fan for seven years? Or for thirty years? This is utter nonsense. When you can’t win an argument on the strength of one’s position, there’s always the option of attempting to discredit someone on some shallow, phony grounds.

  18. Serena demands respect just for being a champion. Respect is something you earn and has little to do with image. She’s an incredible player and would beat most professional men at Tennis let alone women, not to mention that amazing body she’s worked so hard for.

    On top of that both sisters seem like very genuine people, at least from the few interviews I’ve seen of them. Yes they probably have had to endure racist crap over the years and that’s not cool but people reveal their character and then we all know what’s going down.

  19. Gotta say… I think this gesture by Wozniak et al is sexist as hell… odd that a fellow woman tennis player would go there; does she not know the history of women’s tennis and how hard her antecedents in the sport strove to be taken seriously and let her get rich? Maybe she needs a one-on-one talking too from Billy Jean King. But I don’t see where it’s necessarily racist. Tasteless and sexist, yes… what’s with that?

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