Comment Editor Emily Chapman argues that recent treatment of sportswoman Serena Williams has been not only disrespectful, but at times sexist and racist
This article is not about the ins and outs of the rules of tennis, or whether Serena Williams did or did not break them last week during the women’s final of the US Open. Nor is it about the extent to which sexism prevails in the game. Or whether male and female players are judged equally during the course of a match. I have neither the knowledge of the game and its history nor, frankly, the time to go into all of this in the course of one article.
My problem is the way in which Serena Williams, a woman who boasts 23 Grand Slam titles spanning two decades, has been treated after the events of the US Open final. Despite acting in a very similar (or if you ask me, a more respectful) manner than her male counterparts, Williams has been maliciously vilified in a way Djokovic or Murray would never have to worry about.
This is because Serena Williams is a woman. And a black woman, at that. Because of this she is held to a higher standard for her actions and conduct. Not once have I heard a male tennis player described as throwing a ‘tantrum’ or having a ‘meltdown’ or being a sore loser. As well as being judged to the code of conduct of her sport, she is also held to the codes of conduct of her gender. Sexism rears its ugly head in the most tactful of ways: in this instance her critics are able to hide behind the rules of decorum to which tennis players should abide, in many cases ignorant to the sexism which is at play.
You could practically hear the eye rolls and sighs of “not this again” when Williams gave her speech about women’s rights and equality after her match last Saturday. Here was a woman who was defending her actions and her honour after an umpire allegedly called her a cheater, having people snort in derision when she feels she was a victim of sexism. The inability of many to even hear her out on this point, convinced she is merely a sore loser, are (for one, clearly unfamiliar with her previous experiences with losing matches) disillusioned as to their ability to be impartial judges in this case.
What I hope to be indisputable is the horrifically vulgar, misogynistic and racist cartoon published by the Australian newspaper Herald Sun. The cartoon, depicting Williams as a large, masculine (and dare I say, ape-like) character stomping on her racket after spitting out her dummy, has racist connotations that are so despicable I’m struggling to find the words for it. Needless to say, nothing of this manner has ever been conceived upon the same actions made by male tennis players.
People were disappointed by Williams’ behaviour. As I said, this article is not an attempt to weigh in on that debate. After the controversy of her black cat suit (aimed to aid the circulation in her post-childbirth body) was banned because it didn’t fit into the guidelines of the sport’s attire, I can imagine the stress felt by Williams going into this tournament. Then after being (arguably inappropriately) allegedly accused of being a cheater, she expresses her anger and demands the same respect that male players would receive. Yet her viewers feel that she has done them ill, that by defending herself she has shamed herself and her fans – as if it has anything to do with them. As well as being upset that she would stand up to a man of higher authority to her, people are upset that she acted for herself, on her own behalf, without taking heed to how other people would react.
The outspokenness of this woman in front of a worldwide audience caused a disturbance in the force that some could not stomach. A black woman raising her voice in defence of herself, instead of being a source of pride, was drawn back to a misogynoir stereotype of the angry black woman that is not yet behind us. Serena Williams will not let vilification on this level stop her continuing her tennis career and being a strong, proud role model for her daughter. She is encouraging us to do the same as she did, and that there is no shame in speaking out against injustice that we see and feel. Women are allowed to stand up for themselves. They are allowed to show their anger and their pride and their strength in character.
You go, Serena. We stand with you.