Tag Archives: Serena Williams

SI Sportsperson of the Year Cover Image of Serena Williams: Opportunity Missed

Guest Contributors:
Elizabeth Daniels, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
Mary Jo Kane, Ph.D., Director, Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, U of Minnesota
Cheryl Cooky, Ph.D., Associate Professor of American Studies, Purdue University
Nicole M LaVoi, Ph.D., Co-Director, Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, U of Minnesota

 

Sports Illustrated (SI) recently named Serena Williams its Sportsperson of the Year. As scholars who have spent our academic careers examining media coverage of women’s sports, we are thrilled to see a highly accomplished female athlete awarded this most prestigious title. Considering her on-the-court accomplishments in 2015 Williams is clearly worthy, having won three major tennis titles, amassing an overall 53-3 record, and extending her No. 1 ranking for a third consecutive year. Williams has now joined an elite club of past SI winners: Only 8 other women and one women’s team are in this elite group compared to 68 male athletes or men’s teams. It should be noted that Williams is only the second women of color to be awarded this distinction (track & field star Judi Brown King was the first in 1987). This honor is especially poignant on the heels of Williams’ return to the WTA’s Indian Wells Tournament this past spring after a 13-year boycott of the tournament where she endured racist comments from the audience in 2001 about which tournament organizers did nothing. SI noted her commitment to drawing attention to issues of race in sport was part of why Williams was selected. Serena Williams has proven herself to be a champion time and time again despite discriminatory and harmful distractions leveled at her by sport audiences and media. For example, she was subjected to critiques of her muscularity this summer in an article in The New York Times on body image in sport, which some argued was a thinly veiled commentary regarding black women’s bodies and how they do not fit white, middle-class norms of beauty.

Serena Williams SI Sportsperson of the Year 2015
Serena Williams SI Sportsperson of the Year 2015

In spite of Williams’ unprecedented accomplishments as arguably the greatest female tennis player in U.S. history, she was featured on the cover in a sexually provocative pose. Perhaps anticipating criticism for such a choice—SI is, after all, a sports not a fashion magazine—they immediately emphasized the point via tweet that this portrayal was Williams’ idea. The choice to feature Williams dressed in an all-black lace bodysuit and patent leather power pumps perched on a throne as Queen of the Court has been supported by some who see this portrayal as empowering. We suggest that there were other choices available to SI and to Williams herself, ones that are not only empowering, but powerful. Unfortunately, such an editorial choice is not new at SI. Anna Kournikova (5 June 2000), Jennie Finch (11 July 2005), and Lindsey Vonn (8 February 2010) have all been portrayed in similarly sexualized ways. Serena Williams herself has appeared in SI’s Swimsuit Issue in 2003. Perhaps not surprisingly, SI has a poor track record when it comes to depicting highly accomplished female athletes outside of the Swimsuit Issue. A recent study of SI covers from 2000-2011 found that women were on only 35 out of 716 covers, and just 11 of those 35 covers showed female athletes in poses comparable to male athletes (2). Clearly, it is a rarity to see a female athlete portrayed as an athletic champion on the cover of this incredibly influential U.S. sports magazine. Regrettably, female athletes are similarly ignored in broadcast media (3). As a result, we fail to see female athletes on any regular basis portrayed as accomplished athletes in mainstream sport media and we have all written previously about how this paucity of coverage negatively impacts interest in women’s sports (4).

Sexualized images of female athletes, in contrast, are not hard to find–simply google ‘female athletes.’ Numerous scholars have also documented that the sexualization of female athletes is a common practice (5). Unfortunately, this is part of a broader pattern wherein girls and women are sexualized in media and popular culture. Three major reports from the UK (6), U.S. (7), and Australia (8) have all documented the prevalence of this practice and its negative consequences on girls and women. When women are sexualized in the media, female viewers may think of their own bodies as objects and reduce their personal value to their physical attractiveness instead of to their talents, personality, and contributions to the world. Our own research has shown that this is precisely how adolescent girls and college women respond to sexualized images of female athletes (9). In addition, sexualized images of female athletes do not generate interest in women’s sports (10). Research also indicates that media images which portray female athletes in powerful action photos generate not only interest in, but respect for, women’s sports. Additionally, after viewing such images teen girls and college-age women are more likely to think about their bodies in terms of their physical skills and capabilities. Portraying sportswomen as gifted and accomplished athletes has the untapped potential to make girls and women feel good about their bodies—which is a significant challenge in today’s media environment inundated with unrealistic and idealized images that create body dissatisfaction.TENNIS-WTA-QATAR

In an ideal—not to mention realistic—world, images which display female athletes (and their bodies) for what they actually do rather than how sexually empowered they may appear would be easy to come by. If this were the case, girls and young women could have magazine covers of their female sports heroes in their bedrooms as a reminder of what women are capable of and as an equally important reminder that our society values them for what their own bodies can achieve on the court, rather than for how sexually attractive they are. Unfortunately, as Sports Illustrated reminds us, female athletes who dominate their sport are currently only celebrated if they look good doing so.

 


 

(1) http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/11/sports/tennis/tenniss-top-women-balance-body-image-with-quest-for-success.html

(2) http://irs.sagepub.com/content/48/2/196.abstract

(3) http://com.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/06/05/2167479515588761.abstract

(4) http://espn.go.com/espnw/news-commentary/article/13215042/even-wake-record-setting-women-world-cup-myths-surround-women-sports

(5) http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11199-015-0493-x

(6) http://www.ncdsv.org/images/Sexualisation-of-young-people-review_2-2010.pdf

(7) http://www.apa.org/pi/wpo/sexualization.html

(8) http://www.tai.org.au/node/1286

(9) http://jar.sagepub.com/content/24/4/399.refs

(10) http://journals.humankinetics.com/jsm-back-issues/jsm-volume-25-issue-3-may/expanding-the-boundaries-of-sport-media-research-using-critical-theory

Blatant Sexualization

I know I write quite a bit about how female athletes are sexualized in the media, and sport media in particular. Usually my posts are met with the standard “athletic bodies are sexy, get over it you stuffy academic”…but the most recent video of Serena Williams in an ad for the TopSpin 2k video game, is just too blatant to ignore. I’m just not sure how one could argue this is not sexualization and soft core porn, but I’m open to hearing other points of view.

Even if Serena herself at the end of the video says it is “just fantasy”, it doesn’t erase the fact this has very little to do with the fact she is one of the best female tennis players in the world.

In a similar vein, I’d be remiss not to also mention the new promotional ads for the Vancouver Whitecaps, a new Major League Soccer team. One writer actually got it right in saying that yes sex sells, but it is also offensive to many.

Vonn isn't "heavy" she's a great athlete!

In the last week Austrian coaches claimed downhill skier and USA Olympian (and fellow Minnesotan!) Lindsay Vonn was heavy, which they said gives her a competitive advantage. Really? Are you sure she isn’t one of the best skiers because she is an amazing athlete who trains hard?

I was called by local WCCO TV reporter Heather Brown to comment on this issue. I didn’t know where to start, there were just so many angles of this story. Here are my thoughts:

1. From a sport psychology perspective, the Austrian coaches could of purposely leaked the comment to the media to distract Vonn’s attention away from optimal performance. That appears to have backfired, as Vonn responded as a mentally tough athlete would by choosing not to comment much and use it for fuel to further motivate her. Vonn’s response was that of a champion. She couldn’t control what was said, but the did control how she responded. Point Vonn!

2. From a sport media perspective, the comment about Vonn’s weight is yet another example of how the focus on female athlete’s appearance seems to be more important than her performance. Serena Williams is constantly being criticized for being “too big and muscular” and people seem confused as to how a woman so “big” can be so good. Yes we do hear comments about male athlete’s bodies, but it is rarely about appearance…it is about strength, power, speed. I doubt we will hear an Austrian coach discuss Bode Miller’s weight. When a female athlete dominates her sport and her body doesn’t conform to the traditional feminine norm,  she comes under surveillance. Think of South African sprinter Caster Semenya from this summer.

The Vonn comment is a bit unique because the coach said her “extra weight” gives her a competitive advantage. It reminded me of similar comments made about Danica Patrick, when opponents claimed she had a unfair competitive advantage because she weighed less than the males drivers.  The point is, comments about a female athlete’s weight is a way to minimize her performances, and “explain” why she excels rather than attributing winning to athleticism.

3. Lastly, the weight comment conveys to young girls and female athletes that emphasis is placed on what the body looks like, than what it can do. Constant media messages like the Vonn comment socializes girls and women into becoming obsessed on physical appearance, rather than on health, well-being, and optimal performance.

As head into the Vancouver Olympics keep a close eye on how the media constructs Lindsey Vonn as the poster girl for the team.

Note: to read the transcript from Brown’s piece click here

Speechless Over Serena

I just got word via the BBC that “Serena Williams has been fined and given a suspended three-year ban from the US Open for her tirade at a line judge”

I really hope this is a bad joke. Three years? That seems a bit harsh doesn’t it? Would a male players be fined and suspended the same amount? I think players who have tested positive for an illegal substance, say steroids, have been banned for less time!

What does this say about the intersections of class, race and gender in the game of tennis in the 21st century? Who plays and under what conditions? Who is punished (or not) and for what transgressions? Who decides, under what conditions, using what criteria to determine “major offence of aggravated behaviour”. I’m speechless.

A Pattern Has Emerged

I’m not a big fan of ESPN The Magazine, as I’ve written about their cover photos and coverage of women’s sport in a previous blog….or should I say LACK of coverage that focuses on athleticism, rather than being feminine and sexy.

Serena ESPN mag_Oct 2009

Their latest series of 6 covers for the October 19, 2009  “The Body Issue” has Serena Williams posing naked (thanks for the head’s up EH). It seems to me a recent pattern has emerged.

Here is the pattern:

1) A Black female athlete performs well and dominates opponents,

2) During the course of competition she acts outside prescribed gender norms (i.e., looks like a man, yells and argues with a referee),

3) Subsequently she is grilled and sanctioned by the public and the media,

4) Therefore she has to recover by performing versions of the female athlete apologetic by literally apologizing like S. Williams, and/or highlighting heterosexy femininity on the cover of  magazines. I’m talking about first, Caster Semenya and now Serena Williams (see picture here).

Underlying sport media portrayals of highly talented Black female athletes are racism and sexism. I suppose my blog title should really read…A Pattern Has REemerged.

NOTE: If you want to see the making of The Body Issue and gain insight to the ‘issue’ (and see a whole lot naked) click here.

Who Knew Tampons Could Be So Funny?

About a month ago I was watching TV and saw a strange commercial for Always, a feminine pad hygiene product, with the tag line “Have a happy period” with a woman dressed in white pulling a pristine pad out of a box, like as in a magic trick. I couldn’t find that ad but did find a French counterpart in which…well just watch it.

happy period
The themes in the Always ad campaign connote freshness, cleanliness, and relaxation. All words that women think of while menstruating (not).According to a New York Times piece women who use pads versus tampons have a different attitude about their periods. Which leads me to….

Yesterday I was alerted by @mhueter to a TV ad for Tampax in which Serena Williams takes on Mother Nature in a tennis match. When I first saw it, I wasn’t sure if it was hysterically funny and clever or super sexist. After watching it a few times, I’m going with the former. I love this ad! I love it because it uses humor to connect with women, rather than try to sell the idea of sanitary freshness regarding the process of menstruation (a rather mythical idea).

The Tampax ad uses strength, athleticism, physical activity, trash talking, and female athletes to promote a very different message to girls and women, than do the Always ads. The Always ad closely mirrors outdated gender stereotypes which were packaged and sold to women in the 1950’s, while the Tampax ad is a contemporary re-brand that females can do anything…and are not slowed down or marginalized by menstruation. I’m sure others out there find the video offensive, or as one colleague said “insipid”, but I’m sticking with funny. Sometimes one must put her critical lens aside and lighten up. Excuse me while I go watch it again. Game, Set and Match to Tampax 6-0, 6-0.

Social Media & Sport Apologies

Discussion in the Tucker Center this morning was very lively around the topic of Serena Williams’ U.S. Open semifinal outburst, fine, and subsequent apology via her blog and Twitter account (also see picture here).

serena apology

I have a few other thoughts on Williams’ ill-timed and ill-fated outburst.
1. From a sport psychology perspective one cannot control the calls made by the umpire or referee, regardless of if a “bad” call occurs on match point or the first point of the match. Let it go. An athlete can only control his/her reaction to the call. This particular reaction showed a lack of mental toughness. In her blog Williams wrote, “We all learn from experiences both good and bad. I will learn and grow from this, and be a better person as a result.” I’m sure it will also make her an even better competitor than she already is.

2. How has social media changed the way athletes interact with fans and the media? Even though Serena lost control of her emotions on the court, she took control of her “brand” off the court by quickly posting apologies using social media tools. It left us wondering if these tools existed when John McEnroe was in the heyday of his outbursts (which were much more frequent, prolonged and arguably egregious), would he of used social media to apologize? (NOTE: In a Google search for “John McEnroe apologizes” I found one result for apologizing for bad behavior, and one story of an apology for bad play.)

3. Then it got me thinking how race and gender intersect with the outburst issue. Do we expect female athletes to apologize more frequently than we do male athletes? We certainly expect female athletes to act “ladylike”, refrain from grunting loudly, not throw tantrums or have outbursts. How much of the criticism leveled against Serena Williams has to do with the fact she is African American? Would the public react similarly if the outburst came from a White female tennis player–for example Maria Sharapova? After perusing one of my favorite blogs–After Atalanta–it seems I am not the only one who noticed or is thinking about these issues. What do you think?