Obsession and Contempt: Bodies that are Black, Female, and Athletic

Serena Williams

Serena Williams

By Kaimara Herron-July (FGS Minor ’16 and Student Advisory Council ‘15)

When Serena Williams began competition for yet another set of Grand Slam titles in the summer of 2015, much attention was paid to the astounding success Williams has achieved in her 20-year professional career. Having recovered from injuries, health issues, and upsetting defeats on the court, she has won 21 Grand Slam titles, and has earned major endorsement deals with Puma, Pepsi, and Nike, among many other companies. But along with the accolades and deep appreciation shown for her athletic abilities, there was an accompanying tirade of commentary made about her that was a cross between anti-Black racism, sexism, and transphobia. Although Moya Bailey, a Black queer feminist, coined the term misogynoir in “They Aren’t Talking About Me…” to describe the particular intersection of anti-Black misogyny found in hip-hop, it applies whenever Black women are present in popular culture and portrayed as less-human, less-feminine, and less than deserving of praise for their success.

Comments calling Serena Williams animalistic or beastly in comparison to the descriptions of her white female opponents are made and accepted as legitimate sports-talk, as if it were a just another critique of her serving skills or the efficacy of her backhand. These comments from otherwise legitimate sports journalists and writers reveal society’s perverse desire to both consume and destroy the Black female body. In the article “Pornographic Eroticism and Sexual Grotesquerie in Representations of African American Sportswomen,” James McKay and Helen Johnson conclude the following about the simultaneous detestation and fascination with the bodies of Black women athletes, particularly Serena and Venus Williams:

The exceptional athletic feats of the Williams sisters have occurred amidst a welter of denigration discourses that have moved from the narratives of ‘pornographic eroticism’ to powerful and denigrating criticisms of their putatively ‘sexual grotesque’ behavior, and their threating corporealities have been recuperated by a racialized and sexualized semiotic regime. It is the ongoing systematic pathologizing of African American women’s bodies as ‘sexually grotesque’ that, in tandem with ‘pornographic eroticism’, synecdochically constructs them as racialized and sexual spectacles.

The vitriol directed at Williams reinforces tired stereotypes of Black female bodies as being simultaneously overtly sexual and undesirable. Sports commentators on social media platforms, in written articles, and on TV compounded the meanings of Blackness and femininity until Serena Williams was reduced to the sum of her body parts despite her position as a world-class athlete, her charitable work, and her successful foray into the fashion industry, among other business endeavors. Her successes and failures in tennis have been attributed to the physical differences supposedly inherent in bodies that are Black and female. Serena is at once too Black, too masculine, too sexual, too aggressive, too “ghetto,” and too confident. Her bust and butt are too big, her hairstyles are too flashy, and her clothes and makeup are too distracting. And if she were to respond to these hateful taunts with more frustration and emotion, she would be deemed too angry as well. In summary, she is too much yet somehow not enough.

DES MOINES, IA - JUNE 21: Natasha Hastings competes in the Women's 400 Meter Dash on day two of the 2013 USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Drake Stadium on June 21, 2013 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Natasha Hastings

This type of commentary is not new for Williams or any Black woman in the sports industry. A cursory Internet search of the media coverage of athletes like Brittney Griner, Natasha Hastings, Gabrielle Douglas, and Caster Semenya will reveal a long history of misogynoir in sports. The inability of sports media outlets to reconcile Blackness and athleticism with femininity is blatantly apparent, simultaneously unsettling and unsurprising. Sport spectators, especially in professional and top-tier collegiate sports, become the consumers of athletic bodies: the muscles, sweat, sounds of exertion, the dexterity, and grace. There is a need to separate Blackness from femininity in order to make successful Black female athletes more palatable for consumption by a white heteronormative patriarchal gaze.

It seems as though no amount of success or fame is insurance against dehumanizing caricatures of the Black female body that harken back to the days of Saartjie Baartman, otherwise known as “Hottentot Venus.” So how are young Black female athletes protected in the pool, in the arena, on the field, court, track, or on the playground if even the best of the best is not safe from having her body dissected and demeaned simply because it is present?

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