Even The World’s Best Athlete (HINT: Serena Williams) Can’t Escape Sexism
“She seems much less intimidating since she had a baby,” the female commentator said as the top-ranking athlete of all-time pelted the 115 mph tennis ball over the net to secure her 100th win at the ongoing U.S. Open.
I wouldn’t want to be on the other side of that net, and I imagine the commentator—who probably doesn’t realize her words were weighted with sexism—probably wouldn’t either.
Tennis gets it right more often than many other sports when it comes to equal attention and treatment paid to women (though the pay gap isn’t as gargantuan as with other sports, it remains uneven). Female tennis players have become household names and Serena Williams, in particular, has been crowned the best athlete in the world. Not the best female athlete, or the best tennis player regardless of gender, but simply the best athlete.
Still, sexism and misogyny are raising their ugly heads right before our Primetime eyes this week as the U.S. Open delivers action-packed entertainment, inspirational athleticism, with a side dish of double standards for the great females taking the courts by storm.
I’ve been watching the U.S. Open every day. There were no less than three times in the past week when commentators referenced which female tennis players were moms. There were zero mentions of male players who were dads.
“Meet the four moms in the U.S. Open mainstage,” says one article on the U.S. Open site. As if being a parent with a vagina somehow impacts your swing or your swagger, your backhand formation, more than being a parent with a penis.
It’s entirely understandable that we’re in awe of someone like Serena Williams not only for her unmatched, superhuman athleticism, but also for her incredible ability to grow another human being, birth her, and return to the court with equal or greater fury and championship than ever. She even endured some extraordinary, related health problems following the birth of her baby that were potentially life-threatening. Not only did he overcome that, she went on to win a Grand Slam a year later. That type of admiration and discourse is perfectly acceptable. We should applaud women for their bodily feats. It is truly amazing that we can grow human beings and still win national championships, or the next big business deal or teach the next generation, or heal people, or all of the other things that women do day in and day out without fanfare.
But that accreditation is not what is happening when a commentator says that Serena is somehow less of a threat, softer around the edges because she is a mom. That is called misogyny. Plain and simple. Especially when that same commentator would never give thought to how Roger Federer’s fatherhood impacts his game.
Of course, we know about the widely publicized French Open gaffe when judges banned Williams’ catsuit because the dress code required her to wear a skirt. But the U.S. Open is supposed to be different, the more enlightened, more festive, more open America. But then in the middle of intense matches between two female players, the on-screen focus pans away from the match and to a male tennis player on the sidelines being interviewed. I have not seen them do this during a men’s match. Those several seconds of the camera cut are the epitome of what women feel every day as we work twice as hard to get recognized while a man off in the periphery gets the closeup without having to break a sweat.
These recurring moments during the U.S. Open is so nuanced that they risk going unnoticed to most viewers. A reference to motherhood here, extra airtime to a man during a woman’s match—they are tiny moments that in isolation seem petty, but in add up to a grim picture where women are second class, where we’re reinforcing double standards that women don’t deserve our full attention, that motherhood somehow has to factor into the conversation about our worth, about our ability to bring our game.
Can you imagine a construction worker being forced to wear a dress while dangling from a sixth story building beam? Can you imagine Federer being asked what it feels like to be a tennis player AND a father? Can you imagine the camera peeling away from the last game in a match with Nadal to interview Maria Sharapova? It seems ridiculous, unheard of, and yet we do it the other way around with women every day.
As the recent World Cup showed women in sports have the power to dominate the discourse, entertain the masses and inspire greatness on the field and off. But the U.S. Open female commentator’s banter shows just how deeply entrenched the double standards that we impose on women are; so pernicious that even women are perpetrators. It’s a double fault that we need to correct. We ought to grant equal pay for equal play to female tennis players and indeed all athletes and workers more broadly. But we also need to check ourselves, the tropes that we reinforce, the rhetoric that we ingest and expunge. It’s not only up to every man but also to every woman, every person on the court and off, to ensure that we’re spreading ideas and language that treat people equally, no matter their gender.
Serena twisted her ankle during the quarter-finals a couple of nights ago. It looked like it could have been her demise. But rather than withdraw off the court, she rubbed her ankle a bit and jumped back in the game and went on to win against Petra Martic. Just one day later, tennis star Novak Djokovic left mid-match after a shoulder injury acted up. Could Williams’ physical endurance be greater because she went through pregnancy and childbirth? There’s no real way to know, but some studies show that women can handle pain better than men. According to her achievements, though, some women have the advantage of winning more than men. That much is clear. We still live in a world where you can be the best athlete in the world and still be treated like a second class citizen. It’s time we fix that.