Monday, September 14, 2009

Serena Williams: Can a woman get angry? Can a black woman?









The facts seem to be thus:

On Saturday, in the U.S. Open semifinals, champion Serena Williams faced an unranked Kim Clijsters, who more than held her own in a taut, close battle.

According to Sports Illustrated online:

With Williams serving at 5-6, 15-30 in the second set, she faulted on her first serve. On the second serve, a line judge called a foot fault, making it a double-fault -- a call rarely, if ever, seen at that stage of any match, let alone the semifinals of a Grand Slam tournament. Read more...

Williams responded to the call with an uncharacteristic level of anger. Again according to Sports Illustrated: "walking toward the line judge, screaming, cursing and shaking a ball in the official's direction, threatening to "shove it down" her throat."

In response, Williams was penalized a point for poor sportswomanship, giving a surprise victory to Clijsters.

On these things, most people agree. And few would celebrate Williams' outburst, which was ugly, unfortunate, graceless, ineffective and WRONG. My concern is that reaction to Williams lapse of judgement is ripe with sexism and racism.

When you consider the legacy of tennis "bad boys" like John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase, the hyperventilating over Williams' lapse seems completely out-of-proportion.









McEnroe's outbursts that included marching aggressively up to line judges, cursing and destroying rackets have become part of the tennis legend's mythology. His childish behavior can be compiled into a two-part You Tube greatest hits reel set to cheerful music. And though McEnroe continued to have meltdowns long after his behavior could be deemed youthful folly, we chalk his actions up to the sort of single-minded intensity it takes to be a legendary winner in sport...when you are a man (and preferably a white one). McEnroe is affectionately remembered as a "bad boy."

But when you are a woman, and a black one at that, your wrong is more wrong than the next person's. In contrast to comments on McEnroe You Tube videos, reactions to Williams' tantrum are filled with racist language. Of course, for anyone who has ever spent time on You Tube, it shouldn't surprise to hear the word "animal" tossed around in reference to black women. What does surprise me (or maybe not) is the reaction of more mainstream sources.

Yahoo has been playing the Williams story on its front page for two days with language that would make a reader believe Williams had gone on some sort of bloody rampage.

The New York Times offered a breathless lead in to its coverage:

Serena Williams became unhinged in a shocking display of vitriol and profanity
toward a line judge at the most inopportune time Saturday night — right before
match point for Kim Clijsters in the semifinals of the United States Open.

The lineswoman involved in Williams' outburst is now said to have felt "threatened."

Several commenters on the generally progressive and feminist Jezebel piled on Williams and failed to note the gender and race biases inherent in their reactions. A commenter named LaComtesse offer this post and photo:


From the article: "I've never been in a fight in my whole life, so I don't know why she would have felt threatened," Williams said with a smile. Ummm....really, Ms. Williams? You don't see how, in certain situations (say, when you threaten to shove a ball down someone's throat), one might be intimidated by you when you're angry?
The poster's implications were rightfully challenged by several others.

Sports columnist Jason Whitlock blasted Williams as "an oversized, underachieving loudmouth..." who got "smacked into reality by a just-out-of-retirement mom." In the same article, Whitlock defends Michael Jordan's pompous, ungracious, "possibly cocktail-inspired" Hall of Fame rant, also delivered this weekend. Whitlock writes:

In graphic detail, he explained the slights — real, exaggerated and imagined — that fueled his competitive fire. He gave us a peek behind the curtain, a look at what drove the greatest competitor in our lifetime. I overlooked his missteps. He's a basketball player, not a motivational speaker. He spoke without a map. His words were not measured or chosen to create the impression he was anything beyond a competitive son of a bitch.

Got that? Jordan, whose ego is legendary, is an awesome "competitive son of a bitch." Williams? Just a "whiner," and an "oversized" one, in case you missed than throw-away sexist language.

Commenter Tom Smith, giving his opinion in the Orlando Sentinel's "Dud of the Week" sports feature, says simply:

Ah, Serena. You can take the girl out of the 'hood but .............

Wonder if McEnroe, Connors and Nastase are from that same 'hood?

The Williams sisters have long been demonized in the tennis world for having the temerity to be, not just winners, but also big (women shouldn't take up too much space), strong (women's bodies should be soft. Not too soft, mind you. Serena's muscular round posterior, preposterously gets called "fat."), confident (women should be shrinking and always self-effacing) and worse, black. They are called manly and unfeminine. Discussions of their playing style are accompanied with words like "brute strength."

Jezebel offered an excellent post about new tennis favorite Michelle Oudin last week that offers a hint at what America wants in its female athletes.

Oudin certainly seems to be a lovable sports star, and her accomplishments are definitely praise-worthy, but there is something off about the way she is being celebrated. She has been called the "darling" of the U.S. Open, America's sweetheart," a "pint-sized, freckled-faced blonde from Georgia," the "tiny little savior of women's tennis," everything it seems, save tennis' "Great White Hope"
(although given the media coverage of Oudin's win, it would probably be more
like the "little, teeny-tiny, super cute White Hope").

Especially problematic was this article from the Daily Beast, which quoted ESPN sportscaster Michelle Beadle comparing Oudin to the Williams sisters. "From Day 1, I've never heard the Williams sisters referred to as sweethearts." Read more...

It is instructive to see how Williams has been cast as a "baddie" in contrast to a talented, but admittedly more-sweetheart-appropriate Clijsters, who went on to. Jezebel notes in a post today:

Filip Bondy of the New York Daily News, who called the incident "very sad," notes that Williams is already being cast as a villain to Clijsters heroine: "There were
fascinating elements to this match, though most of them were lost in the chaos. It might have been constructive to debunk the traditional, sexist perceptions about Clijsters and the Williams sisters. We condemn Serena and Venus for juggling business interests, while applauding Clijsters for quitting the game completely to have a baby."

This incident is perhaps the best example of how little leeway women, and black women in particular, have in the public eye. Serena Williams' behavior this weekend should be viewed as an unfortunate misstep by an otherwise admirable athlete, whose life, on an off the court, stands as a model for young women and men. Instead, we're worrying about Williams' future and whether her reputation can recover from this single incident. One incident, and to the masses, Williams has proved that she is not "America's Sweetheart," as if there was ever a question. One incident, and to the masses, Williams has proven their sexist and racist biases correct. One incident, and she is an angry, black woman--threatening, an animal.

Reports today say that Williams will receive a maximum fine for this weekend's incident and more sanctions may come. I wonder how much she will be fined by the public.

Can a woman--a black woman--lose her shit in public and recover without the stain remaining on her reputation forever? Will Serena's wrong be treated in the same way as the wrongs of male athletes? I wish that the answer was yes, but I don't know.

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