Wednesday, May 25, 2011

More Policing of Serena Williams

From the moment the Williams sisters burst onto the professional tennis courts, Whiteness and patriarchy have attempted to silence, discipline and shame them into submission.  Criticism abounds regarding the sisters and yet, as far as I can see, the most repeated issue that arises, is based solidly in the fact that they are unapologetically Black women. When the media is not attempting to turn them into loud mouth sapphires, they are slut shaming them. Who could forget the media hype over this outfit.

It was hardly surprising when the following image caused a stir in the media.

The above photo was taken for the World Tennis Association’s Strong is Beautiful campaign.  I think the choice was quite apropos because Serena absolutely fits the slogan.  This is especially true when you consider that we have repeatedly been told that strong and beautiful are not characteristics that reside in Black women.   

Williams took the photo down because of criticism.  A man had recently been arrested on charges of stalking her and the image, critics claimed, was exactly the kind of thing that triggered men to stalk her.  She shouldn’t encourage the creeps, said the blogosphere.  Sports columnist Greg Couch, for example, called her a hypocrite for daring to release such a photo and still wishing to avoid being stalked, and then went on to discuss her appearance and clothing choices at length.
The is classic slut shaming and a bit of bait and switch actually.  Serena has repeatedly been called fat  ugly and angry, but of course, now that it serves the purpose of shaming her, her sudden overt slutty sexuality is obscene.  In one deft move, Serena went from Sapphire to Jezebel, because this is the only way that White male patriarchy can understand, oppress and exploit Black female sexuality.

What men like Greg Couch discount is agency.  She chose to pose for that picture however, she did not give permission for a man to stalk her.  The behavior that is unacceptable is that of her stalker and not that of Williams.  Essentially he is suggesting that women walk around in turtle necks and skirts long enough to avoid a vulgar flash of ankle in the true Victorian sense lest some man be unable to control himself.  What happens if a man is over come and finds this look sexual?  Should women then stay in their homes never daring to venture outside lest some man become obsessive?  This has little to do with sex and everything to do with power and control.  If it was even remotely about sex the image would have been seen as transgressive because Black women have historically been cast as the worlds unwoman.

It is easy to look at the image and critique it as appealing to the male gaze, but as a Black woman, I know that it is far more significant than that. It saddens me to know that Serena felt that she had to take the image down, because of the criticism aimed at her.  It saddens me to know that once again White men think that they have the right to sit in judgment of women colour, and deem them Jezebels once again.

I do however respect her decision to remove the image, because part of accepting the agency of all women, is not decrying how and when they choose to display their bodies.  In a perfect world, there would be no need to write this piece, because we would have moved beyond a time when White male patriarchy feels it necessary to slot women of colour into narrow roles for the purposes of oppression. No matter the class privilege that the Williams sisters have managed to amass, and the success they have garnered with their game play, in the end, all White male patriarchy sees are Black women who have yet to learn their place.