“Serena Williams is built like a man.” “Serena Williams looks like a gorilla.” Serena Williams should be ashamed of her body. From random blogs to the pages of the New York Times she is told by the world of media both old and new that her body, a body that has scaled the heights of athletic performance, a body that has been honed through years of excruciating hard work and discipline, is too big, she is too heavy, her arms are too muscular. Former George W. Bush speechwriter and current editor at The Atlantic, David Frum, even insinuated that Serena Williams uses steroids.
Why Serena? Why is one of the greatest tennis players in the history of the sport subjected to this sort of bodily scrutiny? Why don’t MLB and NFL players face the same sort of hyperanalysis of every portion of their bodies? What could it be?
The answer is simple, at least on the surface… Our media culture tells us that women’s bodies are supposed to be soft, sexy, seductive—not athletic, not strong, and most importantly not powerful. Feminist media scholars have long pointed out that preoccupation with what Naomi Wolf called “the beauty myth” constrains women from achieving personal, professional and political success. Through the media’s policing of Serena Williams’ body it becomes clear that no woman, not even a Grand Slam champion is free from these narrow expectations.
However, Serena Williams’ real affront is not that she is unfeminine. Rather, she is attacked because her success challenges institutions that benefit from the status quo. And in a time when more and more women of color, like Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Bree Newsome, to name just a few, have gained visibility for their important roles in effecting social change, the power base seems to be shifting. When power is challenged it fights back. And often this fight is centered on the bodies of the challengers. And this is where it gets a little more complicated. Because Serena Williams is not just a woman. She is a woman of color.
In his devastating new analysis of American racism Ta-Nehisi Coates employs the word “body” over and over and over as he explores what we should actually be ashamed of: Not bodies themselves but the horrors inflicted on black and brown bodies that were measured and prodded and poked in ways that white bodies never could be and are still subjected to surveillance and peril and violence in a manner that those with white male bodies will never fully appreciate.
This is little comfort, but Serena Williams is far from being alone. White America has been obsessed with black bodies since the earliest days of this nation. This is not a unique case that might only be understood with a brand new paradigm. Ms. Williams’ body is being subjected to a technologically enhanced version of the same white male gaze that black women have known since the founding fathers first dragged their bodies to the auction blocks. The body shaming of Serena Williams is consistent with the twin legacies of misogyny and racism promulgated in the media environment we all inhabit. Coates notes simply, “black beauty, was never celebrated in movies, in television, or in the textbooks I’d seen as a child.”
This is just one reason why media education is so vital. Higher levels of awareness and media literacy must be cultivated in all of us: journalists, bloggers, advertisers, tweeters, media CEOs, and the young people who ingest their goods. Poisonous messages are toxic to our minds, just as poison is toxic to our bodies, but antidotes to both are available. Late in his book, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about developing a critical awareness as a form of power… “because they could no longer insult me by lying to me.” The media industries tell many lies about race and gender but lies can be deconstructed and in this act of deconstruction comes a new sort of freedom.