Serena Williams has dominated women’s tennis for more than a decade and is considered by many to be the greatest athlete of our time. Though she has been called inconsistent, her skill and precision are unparalleled and some predict that she will win another seven or eight major titles to add to the twenty she already has before she retires. Unfortunately, it seems that people have more important things to talk about, like her race, physique, and all of the ways that she fails to fit into their idea of a traditionally attractive woman. As a result, Serena has been forced to respond to many inappropriate and dehumanizing comments from high profile individuals. While Serena and her supporters are well aware of the prejudice she faces, it can be hard to believe that the comments about her are that bad, so below is a small sample.
"With a reduction in glut, a little less butt and a smidgen more guts, Serena Williams would easily be as big as Michael Jackson, dwarf Tiger Woods and take a run at Rosa Parks." - Jason Whitlock
“Williams, who will be vying for the Wimbledon title against Garbiñe Muguruza on Saturday, has large biceps and a mold-breaking muscular frame, which packs the power and athleticism that have dominated women’s tennis for years. Her rivals could try to emulate her physique, but most of them choose not to.” - New York Times
Russian tennis official Shamil Tarpischev called Serena and Venus the “Williams brothers” and stated, "It's frightening when you look at them. But really you just need to play against the ball."
“I can’t even watch them play anymore. I find it disgusting. I find both of those, what do you want to call them—they’re just too muscular. They’re boys” - Sid Rosenberg, Imus in the Morning
Discussing this (totally awesome) tennis outfit:
On some women [the catsuit] might look good. Unfortunately, some women aren’t wearing it. On Serena, it only serves to accentuate a superstructure that is already bordering on the digitally enhanced and a rear end that I will attempt to sum up as discreetly as possible by simply referring to it as “formidable.” - Sydney Morning Herald
“[Serena Williams] is helping to transform the nature of women’s tennis into a game of muscle and power. She is turning the tennis circuit into a more diverse place. But her tight black tennis romper was the stylistic equivalent of trash talk. It looked trashy. And it did her a disservice.” - Robin Givhan, Washington Post
A spectator to Serena’s father: “I wish it was '75; we'd skin you alive."
“Tennis star Serena Williams cruised to a victory in the finals of Australian Open women's singles on Saturday and then dispatched her buttocks on Sunday to secure the doubles title. Serena beat her sister ... to win her fourth-straight major. On Sunday, her butt muscled its way to a 6-2, 6-1 title victory over the doubles pair of Virginia Ruano Pascual and Paola Suarez. The feat is the first-known occurrence of a body part winning a professional athletic contest.” - Sportspickle
"Generally, I'm all for chunky sports stars ... but tennis requires a mobility Serena cannot hope to achieve while lugging around breasts that are registered to vote in a different US state from the rest of her. - Matthew Norman, The Independent
@serenawilliams @WTA Serena the gorilla won again pfff, grunts like one, looks like, is one. #Wimbledon— Richie (@DickLongYo) July">https://twitter.com/DickLongYo/status/619918113824... 11, 2015
"Serena Williams look like a man with tits, its only when she wears weave she looks female tbh, what a HENCH BOLD GORILLA!
— Lighty Makhaye (@MeLighty) June">https://twitter.com/MeLighty/status/60779569122686... 8, 2015
@serenawilliams is way more manly than ANY man in the #FrenchOpen It's absolutely disgusting. She's the original #CaitlynJenner
— Eric Annable (@EricAnnable) June">https://twitter.com/EricAnnable/status/60719246036... 6, 2015
Watching Serena Williams play tennis makes me feel less manly #sheisananimal #RG15
— Eric // Burnett (@eric_m_burn) June">https://twitter.com/eric_m_burn/status/60650688671... 4, 2015
Serena Williams looks like a gorilla, and sounds like a gorilla when she grunts while hitting the ball. In conclusion, she is a gorilla.
— Jeremy Frary (@Zonkednerd) June">https://twitter.com/Zonkednerd/status/607171288550... 6, 2015
At this point, you are probably (hopefully) disgusted at how many of those comments were published in newspapers or said on nationally syndicated radio programs, and you may have noticed some transphobia in addition to the racism and sexism. You may be thinking, "sticks and stones, she's so successful she should just ignore it," and to a certain extent you are right. These comments are demoralizing and not worth Serena's acknowledgment. However, I would imagine that it is tiresome when your success is attributed only to your glutes, or when people ignore your skills because they are more interested in your outfit. What many don't realize is that this attitude about Serena does actually harm her. Serena wins more prize money than any other female tennis player, by far, but makes nowhere near as much in endorsements as some of her competitors. For example, Maria Sharapova is much higher paid because she is tall, slender, and blonde and fits better into the mold of the ideal feminine athlete. While we cannot individually change how much Serena is paid, we can change how we talk about her.
- Serena Williams is black, and while that identity is an important part of her, it does not make her a "savage" or "barbaric" player. It is inexcusable to compare her to a gorilla or any other animal. She is a human, and a very talented one at that.
- While Serena's blackness is important because she and her sister have paved the way for other black tennis players, it does them a disservice to focus solely on that. Serena and Venus changed the game of women's tennis. They brought power and skill that no one had ever seen before, and to say that "increasing diversity" (read: happening to be black and also good at tennis) is their biggest accomplishment ignores their tremendous ability as players.
- Serena identifies as a woman. She happens to also have been blessed with a genetic predisposition for muscle growth. It is acceptable to speculate about how she would hold up when competing against a great male tennis player. It is not acceptable to say that she is not feminine enough, or that she is not female.
- It is okay if you do not find Serena attractive. She might just not be your type and that's totally fine. I highly doubt that she will lament over your opinion while looking at all of her trophies. That being said, if you are personally uncomfortable with the fact that she has more muscle than you do, don't go tell the Internet. If you feel emasculated, either take a sociology class and thoughtfully examine your perceptions of gender, or hit the gym. Do not take your own sense of inadequacy out on someone who has never done anything to you.
Serena has achieved outstanding success in tennis and there is nothing to suggest that she will not continue to do so. It is about time that we shift the focus from how she looks and the identities she was born with to her skill as a player, charity work, great personality, and how many more titles she'll win before she retires.