Are Venus Williams’ “Risque and Revealing” Outfits Fair Game?

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The 2010 US Open is currently underway, and you’d think everyone would be talking serve speeds, match points, and “love”.

Alas, they’re only talking underwear. Venus Williams’ underwear, to be specific.

This is a public service announcement.

Attention: sportscasters John McEnroe and Dick Enberg, mainstream media outlets like the Huffington Post, non-mainstream media outlets, internet commentors, sports aficionados, coercive nazi-stylistas, Nsenga Burton, and all you other haters out there!!!!

Stop STOP Stop commenting excessively on the outfit choices of Venus Williams, one of the most talented professional athletes of all time.

Stop hosting “tug counts” to mark the number of times she adjusts her outfit while on the court.

Stop using sexist words like “hoochie” to describe her.

Stop objectifying her black body at your own whim and for your own aims.

Stop forcing her to play a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t game of female style choices and acceptance.

Stop ratching up hit counts by posting pictures of Venus Williams playing tennis under headlines like “Venus in her Underwear”.

Stop using Venus’ outfit choices as an excuse for discrimination and racism by saying things like “Other than outright bias, perhaps people don’t treat Venus and her sister, Serena, like the champions and brilliant tennis players they are because they don’t represent themselves as such — hence the rocking of a bedazzled long T-shirt that rolls up at the U.S. Open.”

You may think you’re just giving your opinion on the latest issue of the day, but the truth is that you’re only the latest to be contributing to a played-out narrative in which female bodies- and African-American bodies especially- face heightened scrutiny, objectification, exploitation,

Ann posted several weeks ago on the NYTimes magazine piece on female tennis players, including the Williams sisters, and the transgressive beauty of strength. She expressed her initial annoyance at the Times‘ framing: all about how the strength of these athletes is “beautiful” before coming around to the “beauty” framing, since  ”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.”

It strikes me that it is perhaps a marked discomfort with watching a woman publicly and explicitly aim to be both strong AND beautiful and sexy- and a black woman at that- which is behind all this outfit-related hullabaloo.

So, back to the original question. Are Venus Williams’ outfits “fair game” for excessive public scrutiny?

Nope. Not if you’re interested in supporting female athletes, or women in general, for that matter.

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One Comment

  1. Posted September 9, 2010 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    HuffPo is mainstream now?

    I think it can be fair to do the following:

    1) Acknowledge a particularly interesting outfit.
    2) Objectively discuss the merits of an outfit as it affects the player’s ability to play in the match.

    What is NOT fair is to:

    A) Be judgmental about an outfit as a matter of taste.
    B) Repeatedly draw attention to the same outfit without having something particularly insightful to add.

    The issues of fundamental importance are the matches themselves. It may be difficult to focus on them when Venus Williams is handily beating her opponents (I guess those outfits aren’t really interfering with her play that much), but the matches themselves are the stories.

    The juxtaposition to a beach volleyball picture with the Venus Williams pictures is an interesting one, but there are some qualifications that can be made:

    1) Women’s tennis is far more successful, so the sports are paid different levels of scrutiny.
    2) Fair or not, tennis and beach volleyball have different standards of “etiquette.”
    3) Williams stands out because she is breaking norms, and she (unfairly) faces extra criticism for it. Actually, I don’t think it’s just about her sport — if she was a beach volleyball player dressed this way, I don’t think she would face much better criticism.

    I think #2 and #3 may point to the idea of racism that has been alluded to. Sports leagues have often started out as white-only or white-dominated ventures, so it is white people (and probably white men) who dictate the “normal” clothes for the occasion. Not all white people think alike and think the same way across generations, but it does invite a lack of respect for the culture and preferences of non-white people. However, I don’t think this issue is as much about race as much as people who are “different.” People need a greater respect for those who do not conform to particular social norms.

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