On September 8th, 2018, Serena Williams, one of the world’s most famous professional US tennis players, competed against Haitian-Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka in the final game of the US Open. During the final, 20-year-old Osaka beat Williams, giving Japan its first Grand Slam singles title.
Williams won $1.85 million for finishing as runner up at the US Open, but was fined a total of $17,000 for three code violation citations given by chair umpire Carlos Ramos. After Ramos gave Williams a warning, alleging that her coach used hand signals in an attempt to coach her from the sidelines, she smashed her racket in an act of frustration, for which Ramos deducted a point and issued a second citation. In the last violation, an increasingly angry Williams began sparring back and forth with Ramos, demanding an apology, adding “I have never cheated in my life!” At one point, Williams called Ramos a “liar” and a “thief” for stealing a point from her, which Ramos then cited as a “verbal abuse” violation, for which she was docked a game. Williams called in a referee to appeal, citing differential punitive measures between her case and that of male players. Despite Serena’s efforts, Osaka was crowned champion, defeating her idol.
Subsequent discussion of this event has turned to rhetoric that stems from Williams being a darker-skinned Black woman. Since the start of her career, the media and general public have demonized Williams based on her appearance, rooting their insults in misogynoir. Misogynoir, a term coined by Moya Bailey and Trudy in 2008, “describes the anti-Black racist misogyny that Black women experience.” A quick search through the comments section about Williams on various social media platforms will produce a number of comments expressing disgust at her physical appearance. In an interview with The Guardian, Williams discussed her belief that being a Black woman shapes the public’s perceptions of her: “I feel like people think I’m mean… Because I’m Black and so I look mean? …They say African Americans have to be twice as good, especially women.”
A concrete example of the appearance-based misogynoir that Williams routinely faces is the catsuit controversy that surrounded her in May, when officials at the French Open tournament banned her from wearing her catsuit, which served to relieve life-threatening blood clots caused by her pregnancy. Her dress was labeled an issue of “respect[ing] the game and the place.” Black women are incessantly policed for their clothing and public presentation because they are seen as outside the bounds of what a woman is. Accordingly, people deemed to be “officials” will go out of their way to penalize Black women for being able to play by restricting their expression and individuality as much as possible.
Afua Ofori-Darko, a Tufts student and former member of the women’s tennis team at Tufts, provided a personal account of the policing of Black women’s bodies and clothing. She recounted, “In my town, parents have complained that tennis players who were Black girls should not be able to wear spandex because ‘too much is hanging out’—that was even turned into a rule at some tennis tournaments. There are always so many microaggressions and stereotypes that we face as Black women in the game.”
This fixation on Black women’s physicality is manifested in the racist political cartoon that was published in the Australian newspaper The Herald Sun by its artist, Mark Knight. In the cartoon, Williams’ frustration is depicted in an exaggerated and minimizing manner, resembling a large toddler throwing a tantrum while she jumps up and down on her smashed racket on the floor. Knight draws her crying and with her tongue sticking out, reducing the situation to being that of a fussy child rather than the reality of an athlete insisting on respect and equal treatment. Meanwhile, Naomi Osaka is depicted as a White woman with blonde hair, standing in front of Ramos as he asks her to let Williams win. The artist’s decision to contrast Williams and Osaka not only in how he illustrates their demeanors, but also their physical appearance, reveals his the misogynoir in his connection between the two aspects of the athletes. He emphasizes Serena’s “abject” qualities by drawing her twice the size of Osaka and her wide nose and full lips larger than they are. Knight’s portrayal of Williams strikingly evokes minstrel caricatures during the Jim Crow era. On the other hand, the change in Osaka’s skin color and physical features can also be traced back to colorism and manipulation of Osaka’s biracial identity, in that he chose to depict her as White as to erase her Blackness and create an even larger contrast between Osaka and Williams.
Ofori-Darko provided her input on the cartoon, remarking, “Obviously, Naomi Osaka is visibly Black and was whitewashed; on the other side, everyone gives Serena this ‘angry Black woman’ representation all of the time. It’s ridiculous that big newspapers and publications can spew terrible and racist things like this and they’re not really punished for it.” This can also be connected to the media’s labeling of Williams’ behavior, putting the blame solely on her by labeling her reaction an “outburst,” referring to her as “angry,” “loud,” and using other abrasive descriptors that all serve to feed into the aforementioned “angry Black woman” trope.
Seble Yigletu, another Tufts student who played tennis competitively up until her senior year of high school, gave her personal take on the entirety of the situation. “Being a Black woman who used to play tennis competitively, I find the whole situation very disheartening because Serena has paved the way for so many other Black women in the field, including Naomi Osaka. It is very sad to see that although she is a trailblazer for Black women in the game, she is always under a lot of fire for just being herself and speaking her mind. As someone that sees her as a role model and a hero in the tennis world, it is very upsetting to see her receive so much backlash all of the time.”
So, this experience of misogynoir in sports is not exclusive to Serena Williams—hers is simply afforded more visibility due to her fame. Serena Williams is considered by many the greatest active athlete yet is unable to demand respect for herself and her gameplay without being dehumanized, disregarded, and disenfranchised.