The Power of Serena Williams

The December 2015 issue of Sports Illustrated displayed a beautiful and powerful Serena Williams under the title: Sportsperson of the Year. The cover shows Williams lounging on a golden throne, wearing a form-fitting black bodysuit and black high heels. And according to SI’s twitter, “the cover was Serena’s idea, to express her own ideal of femininity, strength and power.”[1] And yet, controversy soon followed, regarding both the magazine’s cover and the fact she won this award in the first place. Such debates highlight both the sexism and racism that Serena Williams encounters, and the intersectionality of those encounters.

Soon after this issue’s release, the sexist comments began. Many said that it was too sexy, which is somewhat ironic considering that Sports Illustrated annually publishes their Swimsuit Issue, which shows models wearing far less. But this is far from Williams’ first experience with body shaming. Just earlier this year, she became the target of body shaming, especially through social media, where she was commonly called things like ‘manly.’

This focus on and policing of female bodies is all too common for female athletes. Women are pressured to not only be successful athletes, by being strong and powerful, but also to maintain a feminine physique—an almost impossible balance. When has a successful male athlete been criticized for looking strong and powerful? Women on the other hand, regardless of their personal motivations, are expected to maintain a certain level of femininity. Serena Williams has responded to such commentary with positivity, emphasizing that she loves being a strong, powerful woman. For example, in her Sportsperson of the Year acceptance speech, she said, “I’ve had people look down on me, put me down because I didn’t look like them — I look stronger.”[2]

Such sexist comments about her lack of femininity also distract from her true strength and athletic ability. Even though she is one of the most dominant tennis players ever seen, “she has scores of detractors who will focus on what her body looks like, find fault with her domineering demeanor on the court or attack the grunts she makes as she pounds out unreturnable serves at 120 mph.”[3]  She is again expected to maintain a certain level of femininity–even while on the court.

But a Huffington Post article delved deeper into the conversation about the body shaming of Serena Williams. This writer claims that when she “has been described by online commenters and journalists alike as a ‘gorilla,’ ‘manly’ and as ‘savage’,” its really about race.[4] How we discuss Serena Williams’ body and her as an athlete illustrates “a kind of dehumanization specific to black women,” and the intersectionality of her experience. [5] The fact of the matter is, while body policing happens to almost all female athletes, it is never the same as the policing of black female athletes. The writer explains that “black women — world-class athletes or otherwise — find themselves continuously othered and compared to white women, no matter what they do or how they look.”[6]

Williams herself has commented on racism that she has experienced. Previously, she has said that she is “in a sport that wasn’t really meant for black people.”[7] In her Sportsperson of the Year acceptance speech, she says, “I’ve had people look past me because of the color of my skin.”[8] And she then goes on  to mention the naysayers she has experienced along the way, saying “I’ve had critics say I [would] never win another Grand Slam when I was only at number seven — and here I stand today with 21 Grand Slam titles, and I’m still going.”[9] Drop the mic.

But generally speaking, all of the controversy surrounding both the Sports Illustrated cover and the Sports Illustrated award seems especially ridiculous when one considers the rarity of someone like Serena Williams receiving both. First, it has been 30 years since a woman has been recognized solo—Mary Decker won the award in 1983. Women have only been recognized a total of ten times, only to share the award with others. The most recent example of this being in 2011, when Pat Summit won the award only to share it with Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Kryzyzewski. Second, Williams is only one of a handful of nonwhite recipients of the award. Serena Williams is the first ever black woman to win the award solo. And yet, no matter how much she deserved the award, some still would have rather seen a horse win the Sportsperson of the Year award than a powerful and talented black woman.

This Sports Illustrated cover seems to be a moment of Serena Williams taking back all of these conversations, creating an image “to express her own ideal of femininity, strength, and power.”[10] Through it, she creates her own definitions, which unmistakably contrast all of the negative commentary that surrounds her. It sends a clear message that a black woman can be both sexy and powerful. And Shana Renee, an ESPN writer, gets it right when she calls this a “boss move.”[11]

[1]https://twitter.com/SInow/status/676703283965227008/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

[2]Spies-Gans, Juliet. “Serena Williams Takes On Body-Shaming Haters In Powerful Speech.” The Huffington Post. Last modified December 16, 2015. Accessed February 10, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/serena-williams-sportsperson-year-ceremony-speech_us_56717235e4b0dfd4bcbffcbf.

[3]Renee, Shana. “The Power Of Serena Williams’ Sports Illustrated Cover.” espn.go.com. Last modified December 16, 2015. Accessed February 10, 2016. http://espn.go.com/espnw/news-commentary/article/14377269/the-power-serena-williams-sports-illustrated-cover.

[4]Blay, Zeba. “When We Attack Serena Williams’ Body, It’s Really About Her Blackness.”The Huffington Post. Last modified July 13, 2015. Accessed February 10, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/serena-williams-policing-of-black-bodies_us_55a3bef4e4b0a47ac15ccc00?utm_hp_ref=black-voices.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “The Power of Serena Williams’ Sports Illustrated Cover.”

[8] “Serena Williams Takes on Body-Shaming Haters In Powerful Speech.”

[9] Ibid.

[10]https://twitter.com/SInow/status/676703283965227008/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

[11] “The Power of Serena Williams’ Sports Illustrated Cover.”