It is not unusual for Serena Williams to be a topic of discussion during tennis season. Nor is it unusual for her to make a statement. Equally, it is not unusual for a tennis player to get angry on the court, and yet Williams’ anger has caused a media meltdown well beyond her own impassioned emotions.
On September 8, the world went insane over Serena Williams and her reaction during the US Open women’s singles final. Committing three code violations according to chair umpire Carlos Ramos (receiving coaching, racket abuse, and verbal abuse of the umpire), Williams was at first calm, but later furious at Ramos’ decisions. When Osaka was awarded the trophy, she called out the audience for their booing, saying ‘let’s give everyone the credit where credit’s due…let’s not boo any more,’ and seemed to quieten the unruly crowd, demanding the respect Osaka deserved.
Having a go at a referee is not the best form in a match, and no matter the opinion on the calls Ramos made, Naomi Osaka’s monumental win was overshadowed by the discussion after the match about Serena Williams’ words and the treatment she received. What makes this discussion atypical is the fact that the intensity of criticism that Williams has received has never surrounded men such as John McEnroe, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray (to name a few) whose volatile actions are always expected on the court. Rebel Girls uploaded a montage of extreme reactions from male tennis players on Facebook, all of which have received less commentary than this one episode alone.
We have all heard about the contentious Australian cartoon. But prior to that, there were numerous articles from press outlets, including The Guardian and ABC News, that referred to Williams’ furious response as a ‘meltdown’. Claims of a ‘meltdown’ with regard to Williams is reminiscent of the old fashioned ‘hysterical’ woman stereotype: unstable and overemotional. In calling her response a ‘meltdown’ she is patronised, particularly at a time when people are questioning how long her career will continue due to her age.
John McEnroe on Good Morning America highlighted that ‘this would have probably have been handled differently if it were men playing,’ acknowledging his own history of throwing a few rackets onto the artificial grass. By pointing out that she did not receive the same reaction that men would have received, McEnroe has given voice to the concern that the media’s response has raised – female tennis players are not treated equally to male players in the media. I am not well read in the tennis rule book and do not deign to enter the debate on who was right and wrong, but the response from the media diminished Williams, taking her from a titan to the typical stereotype of a ‘hysterical’ woman.
Mark Knight’s cartoon for the Herald Sun took this response further with a drawing that has caused outrage. America’s National Association of Black Journalists criticised the cartoon as being ‘unnecessarily sambo-like’ while others have commented on the perpetuation of an angry black woman stereotype with the speech bubble from the umpire containing the patronising phrase ‘can you just let her win?’.
Satirical cartoons are often fun to read and if it weren’t for the questionable features of this cartoon, I would almost understand the need for an illustration calling out a reaction people disagreed with. But this cartoon attempts to belittle Williams further, degrading her to a racist stereotype. It simultaneously demeans the winner of the match, Naomi Osaka, by not only having her as a set piece in the cartoon but also by whitewashing her, despite the fact she is of Haitian-Japanese descent.
No matter your point of view on the match itself, the media seems to have lost its mind this week over a woman acting in anger despite the wide acceptance of men behaving this way. The media’s double standard and degradation of not one, but two women, has not only ruined the powerful win of one, but the confident stand of another.
Image: Edwin Martinez, US Open 2013 Part 2 668, commons.wikimedia.org