In Defense of Serena Williams

In Defense of Serena Williams December 19, 2015

Kathy Schiffer, my Patheos stable-mate, has made it into The Washington Post for observing that tennis great Serena Williams has made herself look “like a hooker” on her Sports Illustrated cover, and by doing so “took feminism back a generation.” Like Williams’ vampish pose or not, we should take it as a welcome sign that our society can hit the brakes before flying off the gender-insanity cliff.

I don’t know what hookers Kathy has in mind, but in the photo, Williams looks as though she’s trying to strike a balance between sexiness and glamour – something in the tradition of Ava Gardner and Jane Russell. Whether she hits the mark or not is in the eye of the beholder. What’s important is why she made the effort in the first place. As the Post explains, her figure has attracted a non-stop barrage of negative commentary from social-media trolls. The cruelest by far claimed that she looks like a man.

As the Post explains, all the heckling made Williams “want to hide herself.” But gradually, she learned to appreciate her robust physique. As she told the New York Times, “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.”

A certain strain of feminism would have Williams answer back something along the lines of “Come the revolution, Citizen, there will be no more men or women!” As the University of Tennessee was toying with gender-neutral pronouns, the City University of New York banned gender-specific titles like “Mr.,” Mrs.,” and yes, even “Ms.” Informing the world that she doesn’t “relate to being boy or girl,” Miley Cyrus has made herself (?) into the poster young adult for gender-fluidity. In this context, a top female athlete who emphatically doesn’t want to look like a man, resents being told that she does, and foils her critics by reinventing herself, for the duration of a photo shoot, as a brawny sex kitten, is striking a blow for differences and boundaries.

There’s certainly room for debate on the extent to which society constructs gender and the extent to which gender expectations are arbitrary or self-contradicting. But coming to terms with those expectations remains part of the human drama. In the case of the pencilneck who takes out a second mortgage to buy a Harley, it can be more of a comedy. In the case of the wallflower who tries to play the vixen and ends up pregnant by a numbskull, it can be more of a tragedy. The worst outcomes can be avoided with the mature realization that most of us, in some instances, fall short of cultural ideals. When those cultural ideals turn out based on something other than pure bunk, we may have to season our humanity with a dose of humility.

What makes the ideologues and their media flacks so frightening, and so seemingly inhuman, is the impatience they show for the whole business. Earlier in the year, Salon ran a piece on a study in which male subjects assigned low scores on a strength test, or whose personalities were rated “feminine” on a written test, reacted by “disavowing feminine preferences and embracing masculine attributes.” (For example, men told their strength was comparable to a woman’s tended to exaggerate their height on a subsequent questionnaire.) Salon’s headline: “Men Overcompensate in Gross Ways When Their Masculinity Is Threatened.” Staff writer Jenny Kutner’s lede: “There’s this thing feminists have been saying about masculinity for a while: it’s socially constructed and it tends to be bad.”

Williams may be compensating — I will not say overcompensating — in her cover shot, but “gross” and “bad” are the last words I’d use to describe it. Williams’ pose is a little awkward, her smolder a little forced. Making love to cameras is clearly not her specialty. But in that very off-ness is something both endearing and admirable: it reflects the battle many of us have to face when we go out in the world and try to be men and women in ways that don’t come easily.

Kathy may well have a point that looking slinky isn’t necessarily the best way of looking womanly. But Williams posing on that throne in those heels has an over-the-top quality that reminds me of my own determination to train for my first marathon at the age of 43, an act that will have few concrete benefits apart from helping me to seem less like a nebbish than usual in my own eyes. It’s one instance where an awesomely talented celebrity really does succeed in showing the common touch.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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