Sunday, 13 September 2009

Serena has a(n expensive) moment

I was just about to post my entry about Melanie Oudin and ask why the small, blonde White tennis player has to be dubbed America's sweetheart when the Williams sisters fit most of the underdog profile ascribed to Oudin, except of course they are decidedly neither small, blonde nor White. So of course they won't be cast as America's anything, not when a non-negligible percentage of America is right now marching in the streets intent on showcasing themselves as the real America - you know, the part that's not brown. I was all set to talk about how the reason it's so easy to paint Oudin as a women's hero and laud her skill as unprecedented is that from the time the Williams sisters began to dominate women's tennis, many commentators didn't even see them as women's tennis heroes, because they hardly saw them as women. They dismissed a major part of their game as the natural result of mass and brawn - that thing Black athletes have naturally, rather than skill, which is what White athletes have. And many even began to tire of their domination on that basis: there go the Williams sisters again, beating all the regular people with their muscles and whatnot. It just isn't right!

(I was also interested in why any woman in sport has to be a sweetheart of any kind, and why we need to minimize women's strength and athleticism in favour of their 'more feminine attributes', as if it's ok that they run around and sweat and get all dirty, because behind it all, they're really little girls, so all is right with the universe.)

And then I saw Serena's outburst in her semi-final match against Kim Clijsters - the one that cost her the match - and I thought "well, this is not great." Because I thought that unfortunately, even though Williams has spent years in the game as an even-tempered sportswoman, gracious in defeat and downright charming in interviews, people are going to say "Well here comes the Compton now. It was only a matter of time." Am I cynical? Definitely. Am I wrong? Probably not. John McEnroe spent most of his career snarling at officials and beating his racquet to dust, and it became something of a joke: "oh that's just John!" But there's much less space for a woman to have an indecorous outburst, and a Black woman? Forget it. As we speak, I'm searching for match footage of spectators diving for cover or calling 911.

All accounts of Serena's conduct - that she threatened "I swear to God I'm [expletive] going to take this ... ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat" - suggest that she was completely out of order. If there were ever a time a player should suffer a point penalty for verbal abuse, I'd say this would be it. She lost her head, she threatened an official, and was rightly punished. It remains to be seen whether further punishment will follow, a possibility which would certainly stimulate argument over whether there's more behind the treatment of this incident than unsportswomanlike conduct, and whether the reaction would be the same if Serena happened to look different and/or didn't enjoy the status she does within the women's game. Serena herself isn't that apologetic, and seems eager to move on. I hope it's that simple, but I won't be surprised if it's not.


  1. Then I suggest you DON'T go on the message boards for the New York Daily News the comments there are not only vicious but exceedingly racist.

  2. Thanks for this post. I thougth a discussion of race with regard to this incident was strangely lacking from any of the major media coverage.

    Your point about the need to deem anyone the "sweetheart" of tennis also really resonated with me. I've been frustrated by the outcry against the women grunting, which I think also reeks of sexism.

  3. "Don't read the comments on mainstream news sites" is not situational advice, Anon. It's pretty much given.

  4. She was out of line although I can understand her frustration, that line fault was a really iffy call to begin with, let alone at that part of the match. She has been fined the Maximum of $10,000. What pisses me off are people who think she should be banned from a Grandslam sometime in the future. She lost her temper and said something she shouldn 't have but this is not like it's soemthihgn that she does every other time. She has excellant composure considering other tennis players have accused her of faking injuries and stuff in interviews and never get in trouble for being "unsportsmanlike'

    Also, like my mom told my dad when he made a racist comment about her behavior. If they did to Connors and Mcenroe what they did to her, they never would have finished a match.

  5. So good to have you back writing here again. It's an excellent point, about how her Blackness and womanness combine to throw years of elite-level play without any major dissent episodes out the window, and start the narrative about the crazy Black woman who can't control her temper. Ridiculous, racist, infuriating.

  6. John McEnroe immediately came to mind for me, too. I mean - I've seen the guy in commercials, making a caricature of his wacky-freak-out self from the court, and everyone thinks it's so funny. But a woman can NEVER show any anger or frustration...and especially not a woman of color...lest she be painted as crazy, hysterical, out of line, etc. It's ridiculous, but somehow I have a feeling that if you confront most people with this view of it, they'll find some BS way to swear that it's TOTALLY not the same thing. Ugh...

  7. I completely agree. But Serena has overshadowed another issue that really bothered me: the ridiculous over-play of Clijsters "being a mom and coming back to the sport" OMG!!!!! They focused so much on her being a mom and no so much on her skill. She's a woman. She had a baby. She's continuing with her career. WHAT A NEWSFLASH! Let's talk about it indefinitely! I may not be expressing myself well but I think it was somewhat insulting to Clijsters and to women that her motherhood was paraded so often.

  8. I was just about to sat old grumpy white dudes like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe can make fun of their ol' Bad Boy days and yet Serena has ONE outburst and it's "Crucify Her!" I would help her hold the umpire's mouth open and squirt some Crisco down their throat so the ball can slide easier...

  9. @ AirBourne: The support for Serena is great. The violence you're advocating, though, is a colossal fail. The issue isn't whether the female line official deserved a trouncing for having made a wrong call. Clearly she did not. The issue is our greater intolerance for anger in Black women than in other groups of people. So let's leave out the violence against women, shall we? This blog does not tolerate it.

  10. And @ amy: you're expressing yourself perfectly. I now know more about Clijsters' daughter than I ever have about Kim herself over the life of her career. It's another take on the "America's sweetheart" tag. We have to reinforce our own idea of what makes a woman a woman: mother lover, caretaker, vulnerable girl, doll collector. This is the antidote to their strength and achievement.

    Thanks for all the comments and discussion, everyone.

  11. Ya know, this whole 'crazy black woman who can't control her temper' bollocks really works my last nerve. Its as if for those of us who are brown and emotionally evolved and mature enough to give vent to our feelings in a manner most appropriate or cathartic to us, it guarantees us an all-expenses paid trip to the funny farm.

    For me the issue isn't about Serena losing her temper and verbally abusing the official. It's about the blatant misogyny fueling this movement to keep everything about the sport of tennis as sanitized as possible. So its ok for a muddy rugby player to grunt because that's an often painful contact sport but its not ok for a tennis player who hits a ball faster than most of us are legally allowed to drive to express the effort to hit said ball with an audible grunt or two?

    So McEnroe, Federer and Murray can smash rackets and have the footage used in goofy commercials and the shots reproduced in glossy magazines as evidence of all kinds of complex emotions (not the spoilt brat temper tantrums they tend to be); but Serena cracks a bit at what must have been an utterly soul-destroying call so now she's just a psychotic beast?

    I am not under any circumstances condoning unsportsmanlike behaviour and to swear at an official is clearly unsportsmanlike and should be punished. What I DON'T get is the glaring double standards that self-serving commentators don't even bother to try to hide anymore.

    You know how I know they're not bothering to hide it? Because my respect for the mongoose is such that I often carefully research what I say in this space. But this time I didn't even have to bother. I cast my mind back to a news story here, a newspaper clipping there and a few youtube videos thrown in for good measure. And voila: hypocrisy, racism and misogyny all rolled out for everyone to see.

    Unlike the unfortunate (but necessary) decision made by the line judge in question, Mongoose, on this one you made a good call.

  12. I understand why she was mad, but I agree she was out of line for reacting that way.

    And good point about "why any woman in sport has to be a sweetheart of any kind, and why we need to minimize women's strength and athleticism in favour of their 'more feminine attributes'"

  13. i remember watching a Serena vs. Sharapova match in 04/05 and if you weren't watching the match you would have no idea that Serena actually won. The majority of the commentary focused on what a skilled player Sharapova was. Only a black woman could win a match and still be rendered invisible!


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