NewBlackMan (in Exile): Serena Williams: “Ain’t I a Champion?”

Serena Williams: “Ain’t I a Champion?”

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan (in Exile)

On Saturday, Serena Williams captured her 5th Wimbledon title (later in the day, she and Venus would secure a double’s title as well). Since 1999, the Williams sisters have captured 10 titles at the all-England club. Yet, for each of them, this success has not come without trials and tribulations. Over the last few years, Serena has suffered countless injures, including a blood clot in her lungs. Battling insomnia, depression, physical ailments, and the tragedy of her sister’s murder, Serena has overcome obstacles far more challenging than a Sharapova backhand. “I definitely have not been happy,” Williams announced in 2011. “Especially when I had that second surgery (on my foot), I was definitely depressed. I cried all the time. I was miserable to be around.” In other words, Serena Williams has secured greatness on and off the court, thriving in spite of tremendous hardship.

Within a culture that thrives on stories of redemption, that celebrates resilience and determination, the career of Serena Williams reads like a Hollywood screenplay. Yet, her career has been one marred by the politics of hate, the politics of racism and sexism. Last year I wrote about the treatment she has faced from fans and media alike:

What is striking about the comments and several of the commentaries as well, is the demonization of Serena Williams. Focusing on her body (reinforced by the many pictures that sexualize Williams), her attitude, and her shortcomings as a player, the responses pathologize Williams. “The Williams sisters have been criticized for lacking ‘commitment’ by refusing to conform to the Spartan training regime of professional tennis, restricting their playing schedules, having too many ‘off-court interests’ in acting, music, product endorsements, fashion and interior design, and their Jehovah’s Witness religion” (McKay and Johnson).…

“The Williams sisters also have been subjected to the carping critical gaze that both structures and is a key discursive theme of ‘pornographic eroticism’,” writes James McKay and Helen Johnson. Similarly, Delia Douglas argues, a “particular version of blackness” is advanced within the representations of the Williams sisters. We see the “essentialist logic of racial difference, which has long sought to mark the black body as inherently different from other bodies. Characterizations of their style of play rely on ‘a very ancient grammar’ of black physicality to explain their athletic success”

This monumental victory also didn’t lead to a celebration, a coronation of the greatest player of her generation (and maybe in history), but instead more of the same. The story of redemption and the beauty of her game isn’t the story found throughout the cyber world, from twitter to the comment section of various sports websites.

Her victory prompted tweets referring to her by the “N Word” and several more about her body and sexuality. Reflecting an atmosphere of racist and sexist violence, of dehumanizing rhetoric, tweets referring to her as a gorilla flowed throughout cyberspace with great frequency (some of the below appeared over the last week).

  • ·      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 #Wimbledon
  • ·      My god Serena Williams is ugly! She’s built like a silver backed gorilla
  • ·      I would hate to come across Serena Williams in a dark alley #nightmare#gorilla#notracist
  • ·      Serena williams is one of the ugliest human beings i’ve ever seen #Gorilla
  • YouTube posts offered similar responses to her victory:
  • ·      A man? look at her body, more like a silver back gorilla. I can easily imagine her charging through the jungle breaking trees while flexing those muscles. Doesn’t help that her nose looks like a gorillas as well. I keep expecting to see her zoo handlers to chain her up after the match before she can escape.
  • ·      Monkey business
  • ·      i ddnt know apes wer allowed in women tennis O_O

It would be a mistake to dismiss these comments as the work of trolls or extremists whose racism and sexism put them outside the mainstream.  Just as the Obamas, just as Dr. Christian Head, just as Mario Balotelli was depicted as King Kong in a recent cartoon, and just as just as soccer andhockey players from throughout the Diaspora face banana peels and monkey chants, the racism raining down on Serena’s victory parade highlights the nature of white supremacy.  It embodies the ways that white supremacy demonizes and imagines blackness as subhuman, as savagery.

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan (in Exile): Serena Williams: “Ain’t I a Champion?”.

A Fly Girl: Black Sexual Politics and Beyoncé | The Feminist Wire

A Fly Girl: Black Sexual Politics and Beyoncé

January 23, 2012

By David J. Leonard and Kristal Moore Clemons

A newly discovered horse fly by Australian scientist Bryan Lessard has become global media fodder. While usually not a source of news, Lessard’s entry into the public square has little to do with the scientific importance of his “discovery,” but rather the chosen name he’s given this new species: Beyoncé. Describing this new species as “bootylicious” because of its “golden-haired bum,” Lessard, a 24-year-old researcher at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization writes, Beyoncé would be “in the nature history books forever…[the fly now bearing her name is] pretty bootylicious [with its] golden backside.” He further explained that his name choice came about because the fly was the “all time diva of flies.”

Why would Lessard hope Beyoncé would take this particular scientific discovery as a kind gesture? Does he really think this is a compliment? While we cannot talk about intent, nor are we interested in the reasons behind the naming, we do think it is important to reflect on the larger history at work.

Popular media has covered the story as cute, as an odd story–one that “honors her”–and as evidence of the global popularity of Beyoncé. For example, Jennifer Walsh, a science writer on MSNBC, discussed naming as a common practice within the science world, noting “Beyoncé’s” arrival with a pantheon of other famous people:

Beyoncé isn’t the first celebrity to be honored with her own species. Traditionally named after scientists involved in their discovery, organisms have also been linked to the likes of Harrison Ford, Matt Groening (creator of “The Simpsons”), Mick Jagger and other celebrities, including a beetle named after Roy Orbison.

Considering the lack of media attention to these other named organisms, the comparison is limited at best. More importantly, the very situations and very different histories behind each further highlights the problematic comparison. Did the names of the other organisms reinforce, reduce or play upon longstanding racial fantasies and stereotypes that have been used to dehumanize, mock and ‘color’ black women? Worse yet, did the stories about those other celebrities come with pictures that further reduced their namesakes to a singular body part as a source of juxtaposition?

Several websites paired the story with a picture of Beyoncé that fixated the gaze on to her body, thus further sexualizing her through the juxtaposition of her body and that of the fly. Did these other “celebrity names” elicit racist and sexist commentary that included conversations about their breasts and backside; that compare Beyoncé to Michelle Obama through troubling language? Did any of them offer anything close to the the following:

Probably the most accurate animal named description. A feces eating horsefly thats golden abdomen (lower part or the A$$end) reflects on the nature of Beyonce’s true trademark..the golden arse! Someone give that scientist a grant!

These comments point to an embedded history and a multiplicity of signified meanings, which are in operation here. Thus, while others may say this is innocuous or a celebration of Beyoncé, we don’t view this as complementary or something playful. Rather, it is little more than a continuation of the larger historical narrative. It is the embodiment of Imani Perry’s insightful discussion of the simultaneity of racism and commodification: “The love of black culture with the simultaneous suspicion and punishment of black bodies is not unusual” (Perry, p.28).

And whether or not Lessard is a fan, loves Beyoncé or black culture, is irrelevant considering the larger context. Read against history, and read through a prism of the persistent demonization of black women’s bodies, this is yet another instance where representations of black female bodies are under attack. Lessard’s inclination to name this “golden-haired bum” insect after Beyoncé is a throwback or a longing for a racist past when bodies of black women were commodities; available to anyone white who could afford to pay the price. It reminds us of the perverse reality of our society’s obsession with black women’s buttocks and makes us wonder, “is this a perpetuation or reenactment of Sarah Bartmann’s troubling story in the twenty-first century?”

Bartmann, know as “Hottentot Venus,” was a South African woman whose body was put on display in London and Paris in 1816. While in Europe, she was locked in a cage and forced to rock back and forth to emphasize her “wild and dangerous nature”–and “big” black behind (Collins 2004). To onlookers, Bartmann’s body was a sign of racial differences, which supported ideas of black inferiority. While “performing,” she was forced to endure prodding and poking as people tried to understand for themselves, up close and personally, whether or not her buttocks was “normal” or a freak of nature. From Bartmann to Josephine Baker to contemporary video women, it is important to read the scientific hearing (and cultural production) within a larger history. None of this is innocent. Think about the recent comments about Michelle Obama, the fixation on Serena Williams’ body, the national panic over Janet Jackson breast, and the racist demonization of black women in Psychology Today.

Continue reading @ A Fly Girl: Black Sexual Politics and Beyoncé | The Feminist Wire.

NewBlackMan: Serena Williams and the Politics of Hate(rs)

Serena Williams and the Politics of Hate(rs)

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

Following a first-round victory in the Brisbane International tournament, Serena Williams expressed her sentiments about tennis, sport, and her labor of unlove. “I mean, I don’t love tennis today, but I’m here, and I can’t live without it … so I’m still here and I don’t want to go anywhere any time soon,” she explained. “It’s not that I’ve fallen out of love; I’ve actually never liked sports, and I never understood how I became an athlete. I don’t like working out; I don’t like anything that has to do with working physically.” Williams comments, not surprisingly, elicited widespread commentary, most of which used her confession as a source of criticism and demonization.

In “Woe is Serena: Tennis star says she doesn’t love tennis,” Chris Chase criticizes Williams as narcissistic and otherwise incapable of being self-reflective and self-critical. While acknowledging her candor, he uses that candor as a source of condemnation:

From one view, her candor could be seen as refreshing. Here’s a top athlete discussing the delicate balance of passion and obligation and fear of the unknown. She’s revealing herself to the press, something she rarely has in the past. Then you step back and realize Serena has the least self-awareness of any great athlete of the past decade. Two years later, she can’t bring herself to acknowledge that she was wrong to threaten a lineswoman at the U.S. Open. She’ll likely never admit her actions in last year’s U.S. Open final crossed the line. Unless she gained some insight in the past four months, these quotes are selfish nonsense.

Chase, unwilling to limit the criticisms to the quote, rehashes and recycles those previous incidences that in his mind provide context for understanding Serena’s dislike of tennis. In other words, just as she violated the rules of tennis, just as she has been unable to apologize for her past missed deeds, and just as she hasn’t been able to acknowledge her own faults, these comments are construed as evidence of her deficiencies as a person and athlete. Chase goes on to argue:

Nobody is surprised Serena doesn’t like tennis. Like Andre Agassi before her, she seems to only love the winning and is willing to put up with what it takes to get there. The grind doesn’t interest her much. These aren’t new insights into her soul. The underlying tone isn’t that Serena is a reluctant sports hero, it’s that she’s able to be so much better than the rest of the tour without caring about the game like they do. Her “I don’t love tennis” quote isn’t a revelation, it’s a self-congratulatory declaration. It’s as if she’s saying, “Just imagine what I could do if I cared.

Pete Bodo, with “The real question facing Serena Williams,” expresses a bit more sympathy given Williams’ litany of injuries. Yet, he still concludes: “Serena’s problem appears to be that she likes the reward (celebrity and money) but not the process. She would like to win the Australian title and any number of other tournaments, but she hates having to go through the motions – you know, the long practice sessions, the diet, the gym workouts and even that messy business of playing matches. It’s not a good problem to have, at least not for an athlete.” Beyond the efforts to link her comments to selfishness and a sense of victimhood, several commentaries link her disinterest with tennis to her diverse interests (fashion specifically), as if that is a shortcoming.

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan: Serena Williams and the Politics of Hate(rs).

Latest piece from @NewBlackMan: “Shut Up and Play:” Racism, Sexism and “Unattractive” Realities of American Culture


“Shut Up and Play:” Racism, Sexism and “Unattractive” Realities of American Culture

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

My anger and frustration following yesterday’s tennis match has nothing to do with the match itself. While pulling for Serena Williams and disappointed by her defeat, the surprising loss did little to damper my spirits. What has inspired my ire has been the media’s yet again troubling treatment of Serena Williams.

Following the match and in response to her confrontation with the match umpire (see here for details and video), commentators have taken her to task, deploying racialized and gendered criticism. Described as “petulant,” going “bonkers,” as “a stereotypical Ugly American” and as someone whose “ego” led to a “tirade” the media tone has rendered what appeared to be a tame and minor confrontation into a spectacle that rehashes longstanding stereotypes about black women as childish, emotional, lacking self-control, and otherwise angry. In other instances, Williams has been demonized for her “outburst” and “menacing behavior,” for “losing her cool” during an “Ugly US Open meltdown” and the “the menacing tone of her remarks.” Mary Carillo referred to Serena’s behavior as that of an “ass clown.”

The references to her tone and demeanor as menacing, given the ways in which white supremacist discourse has pathologized and rendered African American as cultural, physical, and economic menaces are particularly revealing. “Racial logic has advanced a link between the legibility of black bodies, and a racial being,” argues Delia Douglas in “To be Young, Gifted, Black and Female: A Meditation on the Cultural Politics at Play in Representations of Venus and Serena Williams.” Noting, “that black bodies have historically been designated as the site and source of pathology,” Douglas makes clear that “behaviour and habits are seen as symptomatic of these racial distinctions.”

The hyperbolic and racially and gendered rhetoric is encapsulated by a column from George Vecesey in The New York Times

As she stormed at the chair umpire during a changeover, Williams was reverting to her vicious outburst at a line official that caused her to be disqualified at match point in a semifinal in 2009, the last time Williams was here.” “But at what point does comportment, sportsmanship, become part of the measure of a great champion?” “The tantrum early in the second set caused many in the crowd to boo the decision, delaying the next point. Stosur kept her cool, and Williams never showed a trace of those couple of hard hits. She could have gone out with dignity on an evening when she did not have her best game. Instead, she called the chair umpire a hater, and later professed not to remember a word of it.

Irrespective of the exaggerating and demonizing rhetoric, Serena Williams’ confrontation of the umpire was tame; while angry with a suspect call and unwilling to capitulate to authority merely because of custom, she was clearly composed, calm, and collective; there was no “outburst;” she did not “lose her cool” nor was anything about her behavior “menacing.”

Even the USTA has concluded that the “controversy” was much ado about nothing, fining Williams $2,000 dollars. Explaining the fine, it announced:

US Open Tournament Referee Brian Earley has fined Serena Williams $2,000 following the code violation issued for verbal abuse during the women’s singles final. This fine is consistent with similar offenses at Grand Slam events. As with all fines at the US Open, the monies levied are provided to the Grand Slam Development Fund which develops tennis programs around the world.

After independently reviewing the incident which served as the basis for the code violation, and taking into account the level of fine imposed by the US Open referee, the Grand Slam Committee Director has determined that Ms. Williams’ conduct, while verbally abusive, does not rise to the level of a major offense under the Grand Slam Code of Conduct.

Noting the existence of “similar offenses” during the course of all Grand Slam events, the USTA acknowledges the banality of the behavior from Serena Williams.

Williams has been positioned as yet another black athlete who may have the athletic talent, but lacks the mental toughness and commitment needed to excel on the biggest stages. More significantly, the post-match commentaries reveal the powerful ways that race and gender operate within American culture. Her blackness and femininity, especially in the context of the white world of tennis, overdetermines her positioning within a sporting context. This moment illustrates the profound impact of both race and gender on Serena Williams, a fact often erased by both popular and academic discourses. According to Delia Douglas, “The failure to consider the ways in which sport is both an engendering and racializing institution has lead to myriad distortions, as well as the marginalization and oversimplification of black women’s experiences in sport.” As such, her stardom, her success, and the specifics of the incident does not insulate her from criticism and condemnation, but in fact contributes to the acceptability in fans and commentators alike symbolically shouting and yelling, “Shut up and play.”

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan: “Shut Up and Play:” Racism, Sexism and “Unattractive” Realities of American Culture.