Serena Williams, Racism & the Subjugation of Women
Serena Williams wins the women's singles final at the All England Lawn Tennis Championships in Wimbledon, London, Saturday, July 11, 2015. AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth (source; click to enlarge)
by Gaius Publius
Dave Zirin, writing at The Nation, has a great under-the-radar catch regarding the vilification of women's tennis star Serena Williams. And like much of what Zirin writes (after all, he does work at The Nation), there are major social and political implications to this story. In particular:
- The emergence of a once-in-a-century miracle of athletic talent and development
- Right-wing racism and #BlackLivesMatter
- The relentless body-shaming of women (among other things, a method of social control)
- An ordinary story of the propagandistic hatred of the "left" by our mainstream idea-minders
- A poverty of defense for that talent relative to the widespread 1960s defense of Muhammad Ali
Serena Williams, the Muhammed Ali of our Time
The background: Serena Williams is not only one of the most magnificent athletes of our time — Zirin compares her to Muhammed Ali; as an athlete I compare her also to Magic Johnson — but she's a touchstone for all of the other issues listed above. Rolled into one story is racism, body-shaming of women, and the way the "left" is commonly treated by media and cultural defenders of the status quo.
Let's start with the way Williams has been treated lately. Judd Legum at ThinkProgress (my emphases everywhere):
Serena Williams’ victory at Wimbledon, her fourth Grand Slam in a row, was a singular athletic achievement. Williams’ victory was her twenty-first Grand Slam victory overall and strengthened her claim as the greatest female tennis players of all time — and one of the greatest athletes ever in any sport. It was celebrated by millions around the world.Legum notes that Williams is "one of the most frequently drug tested players in men’s or women’s tennis." What's the objection from Frum and other similar commenters? Apparently this:
David Frum had a different reaction.
Frum, a former adviser to George W. Bush who is now the Senior Editor of The Atlantic, strongly suggested that Williams was on steroids based on her physical appearance[.] ...
Frum expanded on his suspicions in a series of tweets he later deleted, claiming they were intended to be “a private Twitter conversation with a friend.” In his deleted tweets, Frum compared Serena to admitted dopers in other sports like Mark McGwire and Lance Armstrong.
Daniel Koffler, a medical student and competitive power lifter who has worked as a Certified Strength And Conditioning Specialist, says there’s no reason to suspect Williams based on her physical appearance. “Women can, and very frequently do, achieve levels of muscular size and strength not just equal to but greater than Serena Williams’ without using steroids,” Koffler told ThinkProgress.
Koffler said it impossible to tell with certainty whether someone has used steriods based on their physical appearance. But, according Koffler’s, Williams’ physique creates “no rational basis for heightened suspicion.”
Serena Williams at the beach (click to enlarge; more here)
Consider all the frightening boxes just this image checks off in the easily frightened mind:
- A very strong woman
- A very strong black person (who's not light-skinned, by the way)
- A very proud, unintimidated person, who throws body-shaming back in the faces of the critics
I would even say this: A very frightening woman for two groups, those who fear blacks (they are many) and those who fear woman (there are a great many more). In fact, this could almost be more about fearing and attacking a woman who happens to be black than it is fearing and attacking a black person who happens to be a woman.
Serena Williams Is Today’s Muhammad AliA "transcendent chapter in sports and social history." First, this is why he will invoke Ali. Second, this is a joyful piece, not a mournful one.
As a political symbol and an athletic powerhouse, Serena Williams is “the greatest” in her sport.
There are numerous articles—terrific articles—defending Serena Williams against the racism and sexism that have long stalked her career. This will not be one of those articles. As long as gutter invective is hurled at Serena, there will always be a need to defend her—and by extension stand up for everyone who feels the primary sting of these attacks. (J.K. Rowling is even standing up for Serena, adding a new dimension to her #blackgirlmagic.) But, just as I wrote last week about not merely “defending” women’s sports but actually going on “offense,” we need to be similarly aggressive in stating factually just who Serena is becoming before our very eyes. If our eyes remain narrowed in a defensive stance, we could be missing a transcendent chapter in sports and social history beginning to coalesce.
Serena Williams just won her 21st Grand Slam. That’s the same number every other active women’s player has collected combined. In her last 28 matches she is 28-0, and at the US Open this August, Ms. Williams will be favored to win the sport’s first calendar Grand Slam since Steffi Graf did it 27 years ago. At 33, Williams actually seems to be gaining strength, and as John McEnroe said to ESPNW’s Jane McManus, among women, “she could arguably be the greatest athlete of the last 100 years.” I think this even understates her case. She is our Jordan. She is our Jim Brown. She is our Babe Ruth, calling his shots. She is no longer content to dodge bullets, but understands how to stop them. Serena is that rare athlete who has not only mastered her sport. She’s harnessed it.That this is not the 1960s is a key element of this story. Note my fifth bullet at the top of this piece.
But Serena Williams is more than just our 21st-century Michael Jordan. If we take a break from defending her, which her detractors do not make easy, it becomes increasingly clear that she is also perhaps our Muhammad Ali. That’s sacrilege in some circles, and understandably so. Ali risked years in federal prison to stand up to an unjust war, becoming the most famous draft resister in history. His very presence at different points inspired the first Pan-Africanist stirrings of Malcolm X, the anti-war evocations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the very mental survival of a prisoner half-way around the world named Nelson Mandela. There is and never will be anyone like Ali, without question. But this is also not the 1960s, and there will also never be anyone like Serena.
More about Williams and Ali:
Serena Williams is our Ali, and before defending that statement, I want to break down what, in my view, makes Ali “Ali.” To be in Muhammad Ali’s tradition of athletes, there are three basic boxes one would need to check: The first is that the sportsperson in question would need to be amongst “the greatest” in their field. As mentioned above, Serena more than checks that box. Secondly, one would have to be polarizing in a way that speaks to issues beyond the field: thrilling some people politically and enraging others with every triumph. Similarly, a loss would feel like more than “just a game” to their fans: more like a punch to the gut. Lastly, to even be in this conversation, one would have to not just “represent” or symbolize a political yearning but actually stand for something, and risk their commercial appeal by taking such stands. Serena doesn’t only check these boxes. She has, I would argue, confronted—and overcome—more obstacles than even the great Muhammad ever had to face. Her political powers of representation, every time she emerges victorious, is off the meter.Let me send you to The Nation for the rest; it's a terrific read.
Symbolically, the very audacity of Serena Williams—a black woman from Compton who has owned a country-club sport with style, flair, and the occasional leopard suit, is without comparison. She is “peak Tiger Woods” in skill, but cut with Ali’s transgressive style: the equivalent of the Champ telling the craggy, macho world of boxing that he was “so very pretty.” But not even Ali had to achieve in an atmosphere as inhospitable as Serena’s athletic setting. ... Even at his most denigrated, Ali’s loudest detractors conceded that his physical body was a work of athletic sculpture. ... Not Serena. Instead, she has had to face a tennis world that has made it clear in tones polite and vulgar that it would be so nice if she wasn’t there. ... While overwhelmingly male sports media and many tennis fans mocked and continue to belittle her appearance, Williams brushes them off—at least publicly—like so much shoulder dust. The greater her stature, the more pathetic they look. The higher her profile, the lower they seem. In Ali’s day, William F. Buckley saw it as his “white man’s burden” to tear him down. Serena has Buckley’s media spawn attempting the same and they look just as small, just as pathetic. ...
Williams Does Not Have a 1960s Wind at Her Back
Note, as Zirin does above, that one of the major differences between Williams and Ali is the lack of "movement" support. Ali was active in a time that honored him for his bold, popular-among-many, anti-establishment stances. Sadly (for us), that was pre-Reagan, and pre-Reagan's seduction of "ordinary Americans" (my term is "troglodyte Reagan Democrats") into the fog of racism and authoritarianism from which they had briefly emerged.
As Zirin notes, Williams takes many explicitly leftist, populist, anti-racist stands — for example, support for boycotts against the flying of the Confederate flag, support for the murdered victims of the Emanuel AME Church massacre, support for pay equity in tennis, and many similar causes (Zirin has a good list; click to read).
So not only does Williams check off the hated "black" and "woman" boxes; she ticks the "leftie agitator" box as well — which is Zirin's point. Note again, though, his is not a mournful piece. It's a celebratory one. Like Ali, Serena Williams has a career to cheer and enjoy, and fortunately for us, it's unfolding in front of us.
Body-Shaming, Social Control & Women
A note about body-shaming as social control: When a society constantly and heavily criticizes a group, in this case women, almost from birth, members of that group frequently go into hiding emotionally and become malleable against the onslaught of further criticism. Which is the point.
In the case of women and their bodies, it doesn't matter whether there is praise for those who meet the "standard" or blame for those who don't. The measuring rod against which all women and few men are constantly judged becomes a constant reminder of social unacceptability. In simpler terms, that "measuring rod" is a stick to beat them with — constantly.
If you want to keep a sub-population under control, to dampen their rebellious, resistance and defensive impulses, start while they're young and constantly criticize them. This is how colonies of chimpanzees guarantee passive and sexually receptive post-estrus females — females who have begun to come "into heat" — by constantly and randomly abusing the pre-estrus young and early adolescents. In the case of chimpanzees, the abuse is overtly physical.
Ponder that comparison, and it's easy to see the parallels with our own species. It's also easy to see the fear that loss of dominance inspires in so many males. Do you think the Williams pushback is a black-only story? Do this: Carefully watch all the "frat-boy" beer commercials — and "aging frat-boy" off-road truck commercials — that are the constant feed and propagandistic fare during football games. It's Testosterone Junction during those games, and those commercials both nurture (feed) the need for dominance and encourage (propagandize) it.
Our Dual Natures
There's great good in us. We have an angelic nature; I believe the Bard is right about that. But we are only half-angels. The other half is nothing to be proud of.
Hamlet expresses just this duality in his thinking about our species:
[I]t goes so heavily with my disposition; that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o'er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither; though by your smiling you seem to say so.One can look at our species and see "a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours" or an angel "infinite in faculty." In apprehension "like a god," the "paragon of animals."
Or both. I'm a "both" person myself, but that's a metaphysics for another day. Those poles express not either-or, but a continuum. Most humans don't inhabit the middle of that continuum — congregation of vapours vs. paragon of animals — and many tend to one extreme or the other.
In Serena Williams' case, we have a person to make us proud to be us, a woman inhabited by, as Lincoln put it, one of "the better angels of our nature." Time to celebrate that.
(Updated to correct a spelling error.)