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:
- Sexism Strikes on Wimbledon’s Website (July 2009)
- Clijsters Put Gossipmonger in His Place (Jan 2011)
- Playing Out Loud: How Sexism Is Stifling Tennis (July 2011)
- You Know Who Cares About Women Grunting in Tennis? Sexists. (June 2012)
- Quote of the OH SNAP! (June 2012)
- Sexism in Tennis – Like Smog in the Air (July 2012)
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:
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:
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.—
Todd Kincannon (@ToddKincannon) December 12, 2012
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.”