Why is Serena Williams the new poster child for rape culture?

Serena WilliamsI spoke yesterday on Huff Post Live about Serena Williams’ recent comments on Steubenville, but I was upset that we didn’t talk about the racism of the media response. Look: I think the remarks were 100% wrong. Williams expressed sympathy for the assailants and cruelly blamed the survivor for her own assault because she was drunk–and, in doing so, sent a dangerous message to Rolling Stones readers about who is responsible for rape (right answer: rapists).

We have to be able, though, to call out both Williams’ sexism and the racism of the media response. Should we publicly criticize her? Yes. Are we singling out Williams as the new poster child for rape culture because of her race? I think so. As inexcusable as her victim-blaming was, it reflects a disturbingly common belief, particularly within the athletic world. Yet the media pounced on the recent French Open champion after ignoring similar remarks from many others.

Sam Bakkila has a great piece at Policy Mic about the racist response. He writes:

I no longer cheer for my hometown football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, as their Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is probably a serial rapist. He was accused of rape twice in nine months. Though he was not convicted, I highly doubt that women across the country are colluding with false allegations to accuse him of sexual assault. (The case was settled out of court, but there was enough evidence for him to be temporarily suspended by the NFL.) Furthermore, I have many friends who attended Penn State who I watched defend Joe Paterno even as more and more evidence came out that he had failed to act to protect children from Jerry Sandusky. Some male athletes have even had successful returns to their sport after being convicted of sexual assault.

I have been waiting for the righteous outrage to come through in all of these cases, but I have been let down. But the online-sports-news-social media-blogosphere world is suddenly unforgiving about sexual assault when it’s time to put an uppity and aggressive black woman back in her place, even though the transgression in question is a stupid statement rather than the act of sexual assault itself.

Bakkila breaks down the common stereotypes of black women that have been levied against Williams in the coverage of the response, and the whole article is worth a read here. I don’t agree with his argument that we should stop paying so much attention to celebrity sexism: rock stars and actresses and MVPs are public figures, and their words shape our world, however absurd that may be. But we need to criticize all, equally, when the need arises. And when one figure rises as the target above all others, we, as a community of writers, need to investigate the ugliness driving our culpability.

Washington, DC

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at Feministing.com. During her four years at the site, she wrote about gender violence, reproductive justice, and education equity and ran the site's book review column. She is now a Skadden Fellow at the National Women's Law Center and also serves as the Board Chair of Know Your IX, a national student-led movement to end gender violence, which she co-founded and previously co-directed. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she is the co-editor of The Feminist Utopia Project: 57 Visions of a Wildly Better Future. She has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice at campuses across the country and on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, ESPN, and NPR.

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at Feministing.com.

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