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Slut-shaming Serena

There’s been a scandal in the tennis world. Usually I stay away from anything to do with sports- I don’t understand it, it scares me, whatever- but this caught my eye, because it’s all feeling a little too familiar.

So. Serena Williams posted a photo of herself on Twitter. It’s quite a beautiful picture- very classic and romantic, with lovely use of light and contrast. You see Serena almost as a silhouette, shielded behind a gauzy curtain. The curves of her figure are clearly outlined, and if you look closely you can see that she’s actually just wearing underwear and heels. It’s sensual, but tastefully done.

But within half a day, there was so much criticism that she took it back down.

The thing is, a man was recently arrested for stalking Serena. So when she posted this picture of herself looking gorgeous, a flurry of critics called hypocrite. If you don’t want to be stalked, they say, don’t put up sexy photos. In other words, if she gets sexually harassed again, it will be her fault for asking for it.

Victim-blaming of this sort seems to be the rule, not the exception. Remember the reaction to Lara Logan’s sexual assault in Cairo? And it happens on all different levels every day.

Our Serena is in a bit of a double-bind. Female athletes are cast as either a sex symbol or a “dyke”. Tennis players, with their sport of choice having naturally somewhat more glamorous connotations, are usually placed in the former category, and Serena and her sister fit into it nicely- even more so because there are two of them. So she’s going along with it. To be honest, the photo is not all that much more revealing than the tennis outfits she is expected to wear for her job.

Sports columnist Greg Couch scorned Serena for apparently saying through that photo, “Peep at me, but don’t stalk me.” Well, if that was her message, I’d suggest the word she’d use would not be “peep.” It might be something more like, “Admire me, but don’t stalk me.” Which personally, I think is fair enough. Surely she’s allowed to be sexy without being stalked. Surely she’s allowed to know she has an incredible body, and be proud of it, without being blamed for inciting sexual harassment.

The message I get from that photo is more about fearlessness. It’s about not letting the creeps win. Her timing timed correlated with the release of the World Tennis Association’s Strong is Beautiful campaign, which features Serena and other prominent female tennis players and plays on the delicate balance between graceful, feminine beauty and the incredible strength and athletic prowess of these women. The videos for the campaign are cheesy, but the idea behind it is interesting. And Serena’s photo does get that same message across. Except, of course, that she was shamed into taking it down.

2 thoughts on “Slut-shaming Serena

  1. I agree that female athletes are often over-sexualised in the media, but to generalise that they are cast as either dykes or sex symbols is a bit off.
    Yes, female tennis players are expected to wear dresses but both Serena and Venus seem to have embraced that expectation and have used it as an avenue to experiment with various ‘fashions’. e.g. Venus caused a stir with her lingerie inspired dresses and Serena with her midriff top and faux denim mini.
    No way are those outfits the norm. Whatever Serena’s going along with, it’s to the beat of her own drum.
    I agree with the sentiment of your story, that she has and will be blamed if any unwarranted sexual attention comes her way, but in terms of sports attire…I don’t think her sexy clothes are doing any favors to those who push to have people take female sport and athletes seriously.

  2. Thanks for this article! I enjoyed it! I find the discussion of women athletes and their looks interesting. There’s something to be said for being a good looking athlete, just like male athletes, but it shouldn’t override their abilities. There’s a good discussion of this over at TC Huddle. I found your article looking for more opinions on this.

    This is a good article. Thanks! Here’s the article if you’re interested: http://www.tchuddle.com/2011/07/women-athletes-and-the-need-to-objectify/

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