Serena Williams: When you come at the Queen, you best not miss

Comment Sport

Image Credit: Edwin Martinez (CC BY 2.0)

Serena Williams behaved poorly in the 2018 US Open Final. She lost her cool. On balance, she probably did deserve to be called on a violation for her outburst against umpire Carlos Ramos. But the salient question is not whether or not she deserved it according to the letter of tennis law. No, the salient question is whether or not there is a difference between the way men and women are treated when expressing their emotions, and, further to that, whether or not race compounds this difference.

So, let’s be clear about what the main issue at play here is: misogynoir. For those unfamiliar, misogynoir is a term coined by queer feminist Moya Bailey to describe how race and gender intersect to produce a very potent form of racialised misogyny experienced by black women. I am not saying that Ramos necessarily intentionally penalised Serena’s outburst because she is a black woman, but we must interrogate the wider context in which women’s anger is seen as hysterical and delegitimised, where all a prominent black woman has to do is breathe too loudly and suddenly she has an anger problem.

As a fan of tennis (and occasionally drama) I am not averse to players arguing with umpires. Take the 2009 US Open men’s final in which Federer (unfortunately) lost to Juan Martin Del Potro. After Del Potro took what Federer thought was too long to challenge a call, he began arguing rather aggressively with the umpire, at one point telling the umpire ‘don’t fucking talk to me.’ I quite enjoyed seeing this side of Federer and it was understood by all those watching that a Grand Slam Final is like a pressure cooker and emotions run high. No one perceived it as a personal assault by Federer, and yet it is clear that that is what Serena is being accused of. Now, Federer’s tirade may seem less important as it was mainly vulgar posturing, whereas Serena’s tirade actively implicated the official in something conspiratorial – she called him a ‘thief’ and called his integrity into question, which is something she was ironically accusing him of doing to her.

Misogynoir is a term coined by queer feminist Moya Bailey to describe how race and gender intersect to produce a very potent form of racialised misogyny experienced by black women.

Perhaps we ought to look at the example of Bernard Tomic, who, after his straight sets loss to Mischa Zverev in R1 of Wimbledon 2017, publically admitted to feigning a back injury to attempt to halt the progress of Zverev. He was fined $15000 for unsportsmanlike conduct having admitted to actively compromising the integrity of his match. For her 3 code violations, Serena was fined $17000: $4000 for the coaching violation, $3000 for racquet abuse, and $10000 for verbal abuse. Seem proportional? While that answer may be subject to argument, the following example displays the decidedly unfair treatment of Serena. In the 2012 Australian Open, Marcos Baghdatis infamously smashed 4 racquets in under a minute. This resulted in only a $1250 (roughly $300/racquet – 10 times less than Serena) fine and no one saying that he has an anger problem or was behaving like a child.

Men in sports are granted a great deal more room for their anger; it is accommodated as being ‘out of character’ as in the case of Federer or as being a flash of anger – a display of their masculinity. This perception of anger and masculinity in sports plays an insidious role in the way that misogynoir infects public perception of Serena.

Black women are rarely afforded the qualities of classic femininity; they are rarely seen as ‘dainty’ or ‘soft’ or any of the other qualities we have been conditioned to associate with classic femininity. Instead, they are portrayed as brutish; they are masculinised and made angry and unlikeable. Nowhere is this clearer than in depictions of Serena Williams.

There’s no way I could get through this article without mentioning Mark Wright’s disgusting cartoon in The Sunday Herald. In it, Serena is caricatured as a black woman throwing a tantrum – complete with spat-out dummy and broken racquet, simultaneously infantilised by Wright while invoking some of vile, racist stereotypes of the Jim Crow era. Naomi Osaka (of Haitian-Japanese descent) is whitewashed, depicted as demure and slight – despite her being a full two inches taller than Serena and only weighing 3kg less.

Black women are rarely afforded the qualities of classic femininity; they are rarely seen as ‘dainty’ or ‘soft’

Satire is all well and good, but it does not legitimise racist parody. It is cowardly and intellectually dishonest to claim that one has no say in the aesthetics of one’s work. This cartoon explicitly made the decision to enlarge Serena and all of her features and to whitewash and shrink Osaka. It made the decision to portray Serena as a domineering ‘angry black woman’. It made the decision to portray whiteness and femininity as interchangeable, to reinforce and defend the weaponisation of white women’s fragility. No excuses can be made for this cartoonist. He made a concerted effort to deride and disparage black women using a small infraction from Serena as the vehicle to deliver this racist narrative.

This is not anomalous behaviour towards Serena, though. This cartoon simply marks the apex of a long history of her being unfairly targeted. Nowhere is this history more clearly illustrated than in the incessant drug tests she has had to undergo despite having never tested positive in all her 23 years as a pro. Moreover, there is no sympathy for her plight; she is expected to suck it up and move on (which, like the consummate professional she is, she does). Compare this to the whining, moaning, and attempted absolution that Sharapova was afforded when she tested positive for meldonium in 2016. Continuing with the theme of Sharapova’s misdeeds, take her misogynoiristic hypermasculinisation of Serena in her autobiography, describing Williams as having a “physical presence much stronger and bigger than you realize watching TV… thick arms and thick legs…so intimidating and strong. And tall, really tall.” Sharapova (a full five inches taller than Serena) capitalises upon the same misogynoir that Wright does to further deride black women by attempting to defend the fragility of her own white femininity and her astonishingly bad 19-2 record against Serena.

Now, I love tennis. I get inordinately invested in it. That was my motivation for writing this article; a player I idolise from a sport I love is being unfairly targeted by those in that community and by the wider media. It is imperative we take every opportunity to point out the racist and misogynist structures which facilitate Serena’s derision. I, however, cannot tell you what it feels like as a black woman to see such racist caricatures and to experience the day-to-day weight of misogynoir and so implore you to go and read what those black women (who are far more intelligent than I am) have to say on this incident and more broadly their experiences (see some links below).

As this title suggests, Serena Williams is a queen; and when you come at the queen, you best not miss.