Serena Williams recently made headlines, not for her continued domination of women's tennis, but for an insensitive quote in a recent Rolling Stone article, in which she perpetuated the victim-blaming tendencies around sexual assault that are so pervasive in our society.
I obviously don't want to defend Serena's comments. However, I still think that the media and fan response to these statements has been disproportionate, particularly in comparison to how journalists and fans treat male athletes who themselves commit sexual violence. The media all too often provides a negative portrayal of powerful and successful women, particularly black women like Serena, and the public was primed to have a viscerally negative reaction to her quote by dehumanizing language that was employed against Serena throughout the Rolling Stone article.
Here's the original quote that set off the controversy:
“We watch the news for a while, and the infamous Steubenville rape case flashes on the TV — two high school football players raped a drunk 16-year-old, while other students watched and texted details of the crime. Serena just shakes her head. 'Do you think it was fair, what they got? They did something stupid, but I don't know. I'm not blaming the girl, but if you're a 16-year-old and you're drunk like that, your parents should teach you: Don't take drinks from other people. She's 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn't remember? It could have been much worse. She's lucky. Obviously, I don't know, maybe she wasn't a virgin, but she shouldn't have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that's different."
And here's the ensuing apology from Serena's website:
"What happened in Steubenville was a real shock for me. I was deeply saddened. For someone to be raped, and at only sixteen, is such a horrible tragedy! For both families involved — that of the rape victim and of the accused. I am currently reaching out to the girl's family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article. What was written — what I supposedly said — is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.
"I have fought all of my career for women's equality, women's equal rights, respect in their fields — anything I could do to support women I have done. My prayers and support always goes out to the rape victim. In this case, most especially, to an innocent 16-year-old child."
I agree that Serena's apology failed to accept accountability. (And the Rolling Stone writer now claims to have the comment on tape). Furthermore, it inappropriately equated the tragedy of the victim with the tragedy of “the accused” — who (of course) have already been convicted.
However, just because Serena was wrong does not mean that the reaction against her is productive, or that the disproportionate backlash was not motivated in part by the pervasive racist and sexist portrayal of Serena in the media.
I no longer cheer for my hometown football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, as their Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is probably a serial rapist. He was accused of rape twice in nine months. Though he was not convicted, I highly doubt that women across the country are colluding with false allegations to accuse him of sexual assault. (The case was settled out of court, but there was enough evidence for him to be temporarily suspended by the NFL.) Furthermore, I have many friends who attended Penn State who I watched defend Joe Paterno even as more and more evidence came out that he had failed to act to protect children from Jerry Sandusky. Some male athletes have even had successful returns to their sport after being convicted of sexual assault.
I have been waiting for the righteous outrage to come through in all of these cases, but I have been let down. But the online-sports-news-social media-blogosphere world is suddenly unforgiving about sexual assault when it's time to put an uppity and aggressive black woman back in her place, even though the transgression in question is a stupid statement rather than the act of sexual assault itself.
Let's just take a quick look at some of the other racist and sexist language used in the Rolling Stone article that included her comments on Steubenville, as it encapsulates many of the ways the media has distorted Serena's public image.
The tagline of the article reads: “No athlete alive dominates a sport like Serena Williams does women's tennis. But on the whole, she'd rather be eating cinnamon rolls.” Sports commentators love to insinuate that Serena has a poor work ethic or lacks commitment to tennis, and that she is fat. Serena has now won Majors in three decades and has recently overcome a life-threatening pulmonary embolism to return to the sport as the oldest woman to ever hold the number one ranking in tennis. This would certainly not be possible if she were unfit or lacked determination.
The first paragraph in the article compares her both to a brutal dictator and a patient with a mental illness in a single sentence: “She runs women's tennis like Kim Jong-un runs North Korea: ruthlessly, with spare moments of comedy, indolence and the occasional appearance of a split personality.”
The second paragraph goes on to describe Serena as being “built like one of those monster trucks that crushes Volkswagens at sports arenas.” This was potentially intended as a compliment, but is dehumanizing and implies that she is aggressive and out of control, particularly to a woman like Serena who is also involved in the fashion industry.
I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Serena is constantly being condemned for some of the very things that make her successful — her body, her muscles, and her competitive spirit — even when journalists are trying to write with awe about her physique and her skill. She is criticized for being angry and over-aggressive — stereotypes that are very familiar to black women — at a rate disproportionate to the small verbal outbursts she has committed, outbursts that are tolerated and even celebrated in men's sports.
By the time that the reader makes it to the end of the article (where the quote about Steubenville is unveiled), the reader is primed to understand Serena not as an impressive female athlete with an unfortunate lack of education about victim-blaming and sexual assault, but as a dangerous and out-of-control monster who should be punished for her ignorance. This is where the backlash comes from.
Many who are uniquely critical of Serena are also forgetting that victim-blaming and rapist-sympathizing was incredibly widespread throughout television coverage of the case and the ensuing reaction on social media. It is also worth noting that Serena grew up in Compton, LA, and her sister was killed by a gang in a case of mistaken identity. I would not be surprised if Serena internalized ideas about victim blaming as a matter of survival in a dangerous context, while academic feminists and bloggers have the distance from violence to place the blame on the rapist where it belongs.
Serena Williams, and her sister Venus, continue to be strong women who are absolutely pioneers for African Americans and women everywhere. They broke racial boundaries in tennis, which in the 1990s was one of the whitest sports around. Through their power, skill and athleticism, they raised the level of public interest in women's tennis and then sucessfully fought to be paid equal prize money as the men.
In the words of feminist writer Shelby Knox on Twitter:
To other feminist writers and online journalists: We've allowed “celebrity feminism” to go too far.
Though it can be fun and occasionally informative, and though it can bring new readers in (since many more people will search on Google for celebrities than feminist topics), we've reached the point where more attention is paid to how Anne Hathaway or Beyonce are or are not a good feminists than the gender wage gap. We are at the point where we think that dragging Serena Williams's name through the mud for something stupid she said while watching TV months ago is a better use of our time than combating the heteronormative and misogynist rape culture that exists among many male sports teams.
Yes, the first lesson of feminism is that the personal is political. But, feminist writers, please remember that the personal lives of everyday women are as political as the personal lives of celebrities, and that the SEO market is a part of the capitalist market. Together, they can distort our thoughts, our words, and our focus in profound and destructive ways.
Serena has now reached out and talked things through with the Steubenville rape victim and her family. According to a statement released by the family's lawyer:
"We are sure Serena has & will continue to use her God-given talents to advance women's equality and send the message that rape is never acceptable under any circumstance... We are fans of Serena and will continue rooting for many more championships but more importantly watching her advance the cause of rape victims who are never to blame."
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