Serena Williams is Not a Costume, part 2

Part 1. Part 3.

I was just going to add this as the third update to my post from yesterday on impersonations of Serena Williams that take place at exhibition tennis matches, the latest and most famous being Caroline Wozniacki’s from this past weekend. But I decided to make it its own post.

David Kane points out that in early 2007, Dmitry Tursunov imitated Maria Sharapova on court by putting tennis balls in his shirt:

Kane then writes:

When the reader takes this into consideration, it becomes clear that impersonations in tennis are anything but a black/white issue. Williams and Sharapova are the sport’s two most recognizable stars; when a player impersonates them, an exhibition crowd can easily point them out.

These kind of impersonations where men dress in a costume that specifically draws attention to a part of a woman’s body that is most often sexualized in order to make fun of her somehow, that is sexist. And professional tennis has problems with sexism:

I will reiterate that there is a difference between imitating someone’s mannerisms (i.e. Sharapova pushing her hair behind her ears before serving, something Novak Djokovic has copied convincingly enough in his impersonation that you need not ask who it is he is imitating) and physically altering your appearance and dressing in costume as that person.

When professional men’s tennis players use women’s bodies as jokes in a sport where women’s athletic ability is often eclipsed by discussions of their beauty or comportment (or lack thereof), I again fail to see the humor in these impersonations.

Maria Sharapova, since the age of 17, when she first won Wimbledon, has faced a narrative of “she’s so pretty, can she really be that good?” Here is a picture in case you can’t draw her image to your mind:

Maria Sharapova, in an all black one-piece outfit and black visor, with a tennis racket in hand, celebrates her victor and pumps her fist.

Part of this is the Anna Kournikova factor: a famous, skinny, tall, blonde Russian tennis player who burst onto the scene and became extremely famous for her beauty who turned out not to be a great singles tennis player (she is a pretty phenomenal doubles player, though). Would Sharapova be a repeat?

Anyone who follows women’s sports at all knows that these two issues — athleticism and femininity — run head long into each other over and over again and are often painted as mutually exclusive despite piles of evidence to the contrary. This is part of the reason why when Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka grunt or shriek loudly while playing, people spend a ton of time talking about how terrible it is and couldn’t they just shut up and look pretty while winning matches.

So, yes, Tursunov dressing up like Sharapova by putting tennis ball boobs into his shirt was wrong. It was wrong of Roddick and Djokovic to alter their appearances (butt and breasts, respectively) to imitate Serena. Stop it, men.

But what Wozniacki did this weekend (and last year) is different. Roddick and Djokovic’s imitations of Serena are different than Tursunov’s of Sharapova.

A whole lot of the women on the pro-women’s tennis circuit look similar to Sharapova in their body shape: lithe, tall, and while muscular (these women play hard), not Serena muscular. And the vast majority are white or light-skinned. And that matters. No, of course, not all players on the court look only like Sharapova and no, Serena is not the only larger, curvier woman playing women’s tennis, nor is she the only black woman. But by far – BY FAR – most of the professional women’s tennis players are white and most are tall and/or skinny.

Serena is Serena.

While Sharapova faces enormous sexism in the press and sometimes amongst her colleagues, Serena faces both sexism and racism (is this really a controversial position to take?). Discussions about Serena’s body are often racially coded, playing on a long history of how we talk about black women’s bodies, narratives that are often negative and derisive. As much as people want so desperately to divorce the imitations of Serena’s body from the long history of violence, ownership, disparagement, sexualization, and co-opting of black women’s bodies, you can’t do it. Stop trying.

And while maybe you can do it in your mind via some impressive myopia and mental gymnastics, Serena Williams can’t do it in her every day life. She can’t stop people from publicly judging her black body, from calling her fat and unfit when she is neither (and even if she is the former, she isn’t the latter), from drawing attention to the fact that her big breasts and large butt are not the norm on the women’s tennis circuit. She certainly can’t escape the less-than-subtle racism that follows her wherever she goes (crip walk controversy, anyone?)

On a larger level, this “impersonation” of Serena that uses her black body as a costume wasn’t done in private between two friends. As Melissa McEwan wrote to me:

It doesn’t matter if Serena thinks it’s hilarious, because it wasn’t done in the locker room for just the two of them to see — it was done in a public space where it could (and did) get international attention. It’s a white woman making fun of a black woman’s body in a very particular way.  That is a bigger issue FOR OTHER BLACK WOMEN than a joke between friends, even if Serena genuinely took it that way.

I will never understand why people don’t understand the difference between private jokes and public jokes, and the difference in how jokes play out in different spheres.

I’m just going to propose that tennis players in exhibition matches find other ways to entertain the crowd than making fun of each other and certainly rather than by drawing attention to women’s breasts or Serena’s black body. If you don’t want the international press to condemn these actions, stop doing them in public and in front of crowds.

If this is some kind of fun tradition in the game, it’s time to re-evaluate this tradition.

David Kane concludes his piece by saying that the press claiming Wozniacki’s stunt was racist only fuels the idea that tennis is “an elitist, country club sport,” something Kane denies. And I agree with Kane here that tennis, especially in the last decade, has seen a profound and hopefully permanent shift: Li Na being the first grand slam winner from China, Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, both with direct ties to the legacy of French colonialism, playing tennis for France, and Sloane Stephens and Taylor Townsend coming up in the ranks of US women’s tennis are all examples of this.

Yet, the reputation of being a “country club sport” is completely reinforced in the moments when players make incredibly sexist comments or use black women’s bodies as the premise of jokes. This is not a problem with the reporting of this incident. It’s a problem of the players making poor choices, the crowd laughing along with them, and people defending those choices in order to defend the sport at large.

Update: This dude has 28,000+ followers on Twitter:

For those who can’t see the tweet, it reads: “I’m siding with Caroline Wozniaki over Serena Williams, mainly on account of Wozniaki being a solid 8 with Williams being a 5 at best.”

Part 1Part 3.


8 thoughts on “Serena Williams is Not a Costume, part 2

  1. Thank you for writing this! I get so frustrated when people act like an incident like this is just that, a single incident. It’s usually indicative of a larger problem (in this case, like you said, racism and sexism) that people just don’t seem to be willing to acknowledge.

  2. I have big boobs and a big bootie, I’m curvy and white. I don’t think this is racism. I think maybe she is a bit jealous because she isn’t curvy, but then again this doesn’t mean I go around duct taping my boobs and butt in to look less curvy. I think we shouldn’t be so sensitive, and just ignore people. More publicity is what they want so let’s just say hey, Joke isn’t funny moving on.

  3. I think maybe instead of asking people to not be so sensitive, maybe we’d be better off asking people to stop being offensive. I’m not sure why the onus is on me to not be sensitive.

    On the idea of ignoring, this isn’t the first time this has happened and it’s not the first time Wozniacki has done this. What does ignoring do?

  4. If we ignore it or refuse to acknowledge the racist and sexist ideas behind it, then it will continue, with too many people thinking there’s nothing wrong with that imagery.

    Ignoring offensive ideas doesn’t usually make them go away…if it were that easy, the way our media portrays women would be SO different.

  5. For you being curvy isn’t part of your identity in the same way it is for serena and other black women. If someone makes fun of your boobs and butt, theyre just making fun of you. If someone makes fun of serenas, theyre making fun of black women.

  6. In fact, when a white woman is teased for having a big rear or bosom it functions as a comment on how her body has attributes of black womanhood. In this way the white woman’s body becomes the site of racism, even though she herself is not the victim of it.

  7. I just cannot see getting all worked up about this. Serena herself has made numerous comments about her assets so I just don’t see how Woz’s harmless mimick is such a big f’ing deal. As an AA who enjoys this sport, there are far more egregious issues to worry about.

  8. You’re showing up TWO WEEKS after I wrote this post to say something about people being worked up? Ok.

    Also, the “there are far more egregious issues to worry about” is a false, nihilistic premise. There are almost ALWAYS worse things to worry about. To use that as the sole determining factor as to whether something is worry of a couple of blog posts is an effort in futility that leads to nowhere except.

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