Serena Williams is widely considered the greatest woman tennis player ever. But all too often, instead of being celebrated, she’s targeted with outrageous racist and sexist comments. This bigotry has tarnished nearly every victory, magazine cover, and interview of her entire incredible career.
For example, in the moments surrounding her win at the French Open in June 2015, Williams was compared to an animal, likened to a man, and deemed frightening and horrifyingly unattractive. One Twitter user wrote that Williams “looks like a gorilla, and sounds like a gorilla when she grunts while hitting the ball. In conclusion, she is a gorilla.” And another described her as “so unbelievably dominant … and manly.” ESPN sports commentator Bomani Jones responded to those reactions — as well as to the ones that dismissed them as subjective commentary — with a series of tweets.
What people who tried to insist that these were merely innocent, individual assessments of Williams’s looks didn’t understand was that none of this was new, and none of it was random.
Indian Wells and beyond
At the 2001 BNP Paribas Open tournament in Indian Wells, California, Serena and Venus Williams were booed by fans who accused them of match fixing when Venus withdrew from a scheduled semifinal match. And then, according to the Williams family, things got worse:
“When Venus and I were walking down the stairs to our seats, people kept calling me ‘nigger,” her father and coach Richard Williams told USA Today at the time. One man, he said, threatened, “‘I wish it was ’75; we’d skin you alive.'”
Serena boycotted the event for more than a decade, only returning this year.
But the most recent commentary is a reminder that that didn’t mark an end to the racialized, sexualized, dehumanizing comments about her. It’s nearly impossible to imagine these comments being made about any of her peers; they’re a genre unto themselves, offering a case study on how biases make their way into media coverage. As James McKay and Helen Johnson write in a 2008 article published in Social Identities, about what they called the “pornographic eroticism and sexual grotesquerie in representations of African American sportswomen,” even so-called complimentary commentary about Williams’s athleticism is often grounded in stereotypes about black people (animalistic and aggressive) and black women specifically (masculine, unattractive, and overly sexual at once).
These remarks don’t always take the form of explicit racial slurs or threats of bodily harm, like the ones reported at Indian Wells did. But if Williams were to boycott every tennis event at which someone made an offensive, dehumanizing reference to her body’s size and shape, she’d have to quit the sport altogether.
Shameless, explicit racial stereotypes
It’s true: Williams is black, she’s very muscular, and she’s a skilled player. But breathless commentators sometimes talk about these qualities in a way that buys into what sociologist Delia Douglas, in an article on the Williams sisters published in 2004 by the Sociology of Sport Online, called “the essentialist logic of racial difference, which has long sought to mark the black body as inherently different from other bodies.” The result is that Williams’s athleticism is attributed to her ethnicity.
Dr. Peter Larkins, in an apparent attempt to compliment Williams, contributed his medical opinion in an interview with Australia’s Herald Sun for a 2006 piece that compared her fitness to a competitor’s. “It is the African-American race,” he explained. “They just have this huge gluteal strength. … Jennifer Capriati was clearly out of shape and overweight. With Serena, that’s her physique and genetics.”
This thinking is part of a tradition Douglas dubbed the “ancient grammar of black physicality.”
Ironically, Williams’s mistakes have also been attributed to her race. At the 2007 Sony Ericsson Championship in Miami, a heckler was ejected from the stands after yelling at Williams, “That’s the way to do it! Hit the net like any Negro would!”
But most of the racialized comments about Williams have been more carefully coded, rarely mentioning her ethnicity outright.
Inappropriate scrutiny and sexualization of her body’s size and shape
There’s no way around it: The fascination with the size and shape of parts of Williams’s body that have nothing to do with her tennis skills is creepy. It’s also unsurprising. Ms. Magazine‘s Anita Little, writing in 2012, linked the sexualization of Williams’s physique to the legacy of the “Hottentot Venus,” an African woman whose real name was Saartjie Baartman, who was displayed before European audiences as a freak show attraction in the 1800s. “No matter how insanely successful black women like Serena become, the legacy of the Hottentot Venus will always be ready to rear its ugly head at an opportune moment,” she wrote.
“THE LEGACY OF THE HOTTENTOT VENUS WILL ALWAYS BE READY TO REAR ITS UGLY HEAD”
Reading some of the remarks made about Williams’s curves, it would be easy to think you were privy to the observations of circus attendees gawking at an unfamiliar body, as opposed to journalists and sports commentators.
In 2002, after Williams competed at the US Open wearing a black spandex catsuit, Sunday Telegraph columnist Otis Gibson, seemingly struggling to find appropriate language in his critique of her outfit, wrote, “On some women [the catsuit] might look good. Unfortunately, some women aren’t wearing it. On Serena, it only serves to accentuate a superstructure that is already bordering on the digitally enhanced and a rear end that I will attempt to sum up as discreetly as possible by simply referring to it as ‘formidable.'”
In 2003, the satirical website Sportspickle published a piece that leveraged the preoccupation with this particular part of her body, in a piece starring Williams’s butt as the winner of the Australian Open:
Tennis star Serena Williams cruised to a victory in the finals of Australian Open women’s singles on Saturday and then dispatched her buttocks on Sunday to secure the doubles title. Serena beat her sister … to win her fourth-straight major. On Sunday, her butt muscled its way to a 6-2, 6-1 title victory over the doubles pair of Virginia Ruano Pascual and Paola Suarez. The feat is the first-known occurrence of a body part winning a professional athletic contest.
It’s not all white observers who make these types of comments. Jason Whitlock, a black sports writer, slammed Williams in a 2009 Fox Sports column for having “chosen to smother” her beauty “in an unsightly layer of thick, muscled blubber.” His main gripe, unsurprisingly, was about what he called her “oversized back pack.” He explained, “I am not fundamentally opposed to junk in the trunk, although my preference is a stuffed onion over an oozing pumpkin.”
This type of disgusted scrutiny has targeted Williams’s breasts, too. In commentary that was demonstrably wrong, given her astronomical success in tennis, the Telegraph‘s Matthew Norman wrote in 2006 that they were likely to hinder her career.
Generally, I’m all for chunky sports stars … but tennis requires a mobility Serena cannot hope to achieve while lugging around breasts that are registered to vote in a different US state from the rest of her.
In 2012, Williams’s friend the Danish tennis player Caroline Wozniacki brought to life all the scrutiny of Williams’s body, mocking her curves by stuffing her own top and tennis skirt with towels at an exhibition match. Williams responded to those who thought the joke was in bad taste by saying, “I don’t think she meant anything racist by it,” but added, “If people feel [that it seems racist], she should take reason and do something different next time.”
“IF CAROLINE TRULY WANTED TO IMPERSONATE SERENA, SHE COULD HAVE PADDED HER LEGS AND ARMS”
Just a silly stunt without any intent to harm? Possibly, but it was still part of a troubling pattern. As Ms. Magazine‘s Little wrote, “If Caroline truly wanted to impersonate Serena, she could have padded her legs and arms to represent Serena’s muscled physique, but she targeted specific body parts — breasts and booty — for her little prank. The supposed hypersexuality of a black woman’s anatomy is a ceaseless trope that is always used to get a laugh. The racist undertones of Caroline’s stunt may not have been deliberate, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there.”
Hyperbolic descriptions of her physical power
“The prominence of narratives that depict the Williams sisters as ‘overwhelming’ and ‘destroying’ their female opponents are significant for they call upon enduring stereotypes of the ‘dangerous’ black body and the ‘strong black woman,'” Douglas wrote, noting the way both Venus and Serena’s strong black female bodies were “described as ‘pummeling,’ ‘overwhelming’ and ‘overpowering’ (apparently frail and powerless) white female opponents.”
It’s true that sports metaphors include references to violence: “crushed,” “killed,” and “destroyed” aren’t unusual words to hear when describing wins. But descriptions of Serena’s power and the strength behind her victories have taken this type of hyperbole to another level — one that suggests she’s absolutely unparalleled in her strength and capacity for violence, especially as compared with her white opponents.
Writing for Rolling Stone in 2013, Stephen Roderick observed, “Sharapova is tall, white and blond, and, because of that, makes more money in endorsements than Serena, who is black, beautiful and built like one of those monster trucks that crushes Volkswagens at sports arenas.”
In 2014, Russian tennis official Shamil Tarpischev infamously called the Williams sisters “brothers,” saying, “It’s frightening when you look at them. But really you just need to play against the ball.” In response, Ms. Magazine‘s Corinne Gaston wrote, “The type of body-shaming in Tarpishchev’s comment, while subtle, comes gift-wrapped in a triad from hell: misogyny, racism and transphobia.”
An insistence on seeing her as unusually aggressive and (literally) animalistic
The Telegraph’s Sue Mott seemed to embrace Tarpischev’s (and others’) characterization of Williams as scary and take it another, dehumanizing level, when she wrote in 2002 that Williams and Venus had “evolved into players of Amazonian physique and piranha mentality.”
Even when Williams loses, she’s perceived as an untamed source of power. Describing Serena’s 2009 US Open loss, an ESPN column noted that Williams’s opponent “seemed destined to win the match anyways,” describing how she’d returned “Serena’s savage strokes.”
HE LATER TOLD THE DAILY NEWS THAT HIS COMMENTS WEREN’T RACIST, “JUST ZOOLOGICAL”
And if it’s not clear what words like “savage” imply, some writers have spelled it out. In 2001, sportscaster Sid Rosenberg literally called Venus an “animal” and said she and Serena would fit better posing for National Geographic magazine than for Playboy. He later told the Daily News that his comments weren’t racist, “just zoological.”
David Leonard, chair of the department of critical culture, gender, and race studies at Washington State University, compiled the following tweets, which he recorded after Williams won her fifth Wimbledon title in 2012, in a post for his personal blog arguing that she faced racist treatment from the media and fans alike:
- Today a giant gorilla escaped the zoo and won the womens title at Wimbledon… oh that was Serena Williams? My mistake.
- Serena Williams is a gorilla
- Watching tennis and listening to dad talk about how Serena Williams looks like gorilla from the mist
- I don’t see how in the hell men find Serena Williams attractive?! She looks like a male gorilla in a dress, just saying!
- You might as well just bang a gorilla if you’re going to bang Serena Williams
- Earlier this week I said that all female tennis players were good looking. I was clearly mistaken: The Gorilla aka Serena Williams.
- serena williams looks like a gorilla
- Serena Williams is half man, half gorilla! I’m sure of it.
- Serena Williams look like a man with tits, its only when she wears weave she looks female tbh, what a HENCH BOLD GORILLA!
- Serena Williams is a gorilla in a skirt playing tennis
- My god Serena Williams is ugly! She’s built like a silver backed gorilla
“The racism raining down on Serena’s victory parade highlights the nature of white supremacy. … her career has been one marred by the politics of hate, the politics of racism and sexism,” Leonard wrote.
The racism that underlies the characterizations of her as hypersexual, aggressive, and animalistic also means that when she dares to express frustration, she’s stamped with the infamous “angry black woman” stereotype.
It’s as bogus as the rest of the labels she’s endured, but given the slights against her over the years, she has every right to be outraged.
The world only has ugliness for black women. That’s why Serena Williams is so important
For two decades, Williams has dominated an overwhelmingly white sport, a powerful statement on black womanhood
On Saturday morning when I dragged myself out of bed to watch Serena Williams compete for her 21st Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, I sent my mother a simple text: “Tennis?” More than a thousand miles away and one time zone behind, Mama texted back, “Yes!”
This has been our ritual since I left home nearly half a lifetime ago, just around the time it became clear that Williams Sisters were a force that would not go away quietly. My mother and I spent many lazy summer weekends watching greats like Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. I vaguely remember watching Arthur Ashe play, and my mother always took care to point out Black players like Zina Garrison and Malivai Washington. Unlike basketball, which I also loved back then, in the heyday of Michael Jordan, tennis was an overwhelmingly white sport.
Then came the Black girls—sisters from Compton with beads and braids, playing “power tennis.” That is how sportscasters like Mary Carillo, Pam Shriver and Chris Evert derisively referred to the Sisters’ monster serves and walloping forehand winners down the line way back then. A few months younger than Venus, and a few older than Serena, I was instantly protective and proud of these young sisters the same age as me, who had entered an all-white world and dominated white women with such consistency and force, and so unapologetically, that white women’s heads spun on a regular basis.
It is never a thing Black people would admit in polite company (which is to say, in front of white people), but watching these beautiful, powerful Black girls square up against white girls and win is catharsis. Despite sportscaster commentary which focused heavily on the athleticism of their bodies while giving them no credit for being thoughtful or strategic on the court, the sisters won, and kept on winning.
I’m sure many hoped we would not be here in the middle of the second decade of the 20th century still watching the Williams sisters compete against each other in grand slams. But we are. And while Venus — long my favorite of the two (loyalty to the sister born the same year as me if nothing else) — no longer enjoys the same success and visibility as her sister, the two are still seen as some of the most formidable players in the game.
Some things have changed since we began to call the names of Venus and Serena. Their games have improved. Serena has figured out how to corral all that power into a gorgeous, focused finesse on the court. Watching Venus play at Wimbledon is like watching a Black girl ballet on grass. Because of Venus’ active campaign with Billie Jean King, women now earn equal pay with men at Grand Slam tournaments. And Chris Evert, one of the Williams Sisters’ most ardent critics a decade ago, can now regularly be heard calling Serena the “greatest” to ever play the game. What has not changed, however, is the ugly and virulent racist commentary to which Serena is subjected each and every time she wins.
Media personalities suggest that she’s doping. And racists emboldened by the mouthpiece and anonymity of twitter misgender her, calling her a man and deriding the strength of her body. In a piece at the New York Times, Ben Rothenberg interviews several current women’s tennis players who evince varying levels of anxiety about how playing the sport makes them look “unfeminine.” In the midst of this, Serena says, “I’m really happy with my body type, and I’m really proud of it. Obviously it works out for me. I talk about it all the time, how it was uncomfortable for someone like me to be in my body.”
That kind of body confidence from a dark-skinned, “thick” Black woman, with a round posterior that all my homegirls and I, straight and gay alike, admire, is hard won. This world does not love Black girls or women, and it takes every opportunity to project its own ugliness onto our bodies. We spend a lifetime trying to resurrect our self-esteem from these hastily dug mass graves.