The Williams sisters and the transgressive beauty of strength

serena williams swinging a tennis racket
Photo by Dewey Nicks for The New York Times

If you haven’t yet, check out this New York Times photo gallery of women tennis players. The accompanying article is about how the sheer dominance of Venus and Serena Williams has changed the sport in all sorts of ways. At first I was annoyed by the Times‘ framing: all about how the strength of these athletes is “beautiful.” Must we always use beauty as the highest compliment we can give a woman? Must we really describe how aesthetically appealing these athletes are? Can’t we just admire their skills and strength for what they are?

But the longer I thought about it, the more I came around to the “beauty” framing. There is definitely something beautiful about athletic prowess as exhibited by women or men. The difference is we very rarely see sheer strength and power portrayed as beautiful and sexy when it’s exhibited by women. A few months ago Amanda Marcotte linked to this survey about women, muscles, and what’s perceived as sexy:

41% said that muscles are never attractive on women. 72% said they don’t think men find muscles on women attractive, and 77% said that they don’t think women find them attractive. I found this entire survey startling, honestly, because I’ve never thought much about a woman who is cut beyond, “Awesome”, and I really love it when I’m working out enough to start seeing muscle definition. I don’t think Hilary Swank looks “bulky” so much as “fucking amazing”. But this survey indicates that there may be widespread prejudice against women with defined muscles, and that this may influence women’s choices.

How depressing is that? Amanda also references this passage from Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography:

Most women are much stronger than they realize, and they can be stronger still with a minimum of investment. I’m not talking about the buff-body ethos of egg-carton abdominals and striated quadriceps that now prevails in places like Los Angeles, New York, and Miami Beach, which is an aesthetic tyranny no less than the tyranny of thinness or of the Face. I’m talking about strong and earthy, a moosey strength, the strength that shrugs its shoulders and takes no bull. I’ve noticed in nearly every gym where I’ve worked out that women on the weight-training equipment use far too low a setting for their strength, particularly when they are exercising their upper body, where they are convinced they are weak. They’ll stick with twenty or thirty pounds’ worth of plates and then do many repetitions easily, and I can see that they could handle twice what they’re pressing, but they’re not doing it, and nobody’s telling them to do it, and I want to go over and beg them to use a higher weight and tell them, Look, you’re blowing it, here’s your chance, your cheap and easy chance, to own a piece of your life and strut and be a comic-strip heroine, so please, stack it up, heave-ho, do it for yourself, your daughter, your mother, the International Maidenhood of Iron.

Back to tennis. I know the Times didn’t see fit to write about this explicitly, but the very idea of labeling muscly, athletic women “sexy” is, in some ways, kind of a revelation. Sure, we saw women athletes in the Olympics endlessly sexualized. But strength and power weren’t the qualities that were being deemed sexy. (It was more like “ass.”) And I think that Venus and Serena Williams’ race has something to do with the changing perception of strength in the sport they play. The article mentions their race only briefly:

Since 2001, the Williams sisters have boycotted the tournament at Indian Wells, in California, one of the tour’s biggest events. Venus withdrew from the semifinals that year, and Serena was roundly booed afterward. Richard Williams, their father, claimed that he heard racist slurs. Despite being cajoled, fined, penalized and begged, they haven’t returned. They’re young, rich, profoundly gifted African-American women who operate as they wish, in a tennis world that’s still overwhelmingly white, conformist and reluctant to acknowledge that race is even an issue.

This is one of the many reasons why I love the Williams sisters, despite my total lack of interest in tennis. As black women who dominate a largely white sport, Venus and Serena are already transgressive. I have to wonder if this fact helped pave the way for other “transgressions” — such as strength and power being seen as beautiful, too. At the very least, it’s something to think about while watching these videos — which are titled “The Beauty of the Power Game.”

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