Sunday, April 26, 2009

"¿En la mayoría son feas, no?"

I was on my way to Charleston, channel-surfing for some interesting music because I had packed my Ipod and did not wish to waste time pulling over to find it. I ran across a Spanish-language station (98.9 I believe) and quickly realized that they were discussing tennis. One man was updating the scores and the other provided the entertainment, which consisted of him asking his colleague why the majority of woman tennis players were so ugly.

To be fair, the reporter valiantly continued to try to focus on giving match updates. But the man he was speaking with would have none of it. The laughter accompanying his verbal antics seemed canned. It would chime in every time he changed the conversation to commenting on the ugliness of the women tennis players. The reporter then switched to giving basketball updates. No comments on the looks of the men. No canned laughter. Just a straight sports report. I sucked my teeth and changed the channel.

It always irks me when anyone suggests that we are living in a post-feminist era in which we have accomplished so much and have leveled the playing field so completely that we can stop talking about women’s issues. No we can’t. No we haven’t. In the same way that the election of a Black president does not mean that our problems of racism are over, the ascendance of the Kardashian sisters does not mean that women are free to be all that they wish to be. No, as women we continue to be overly defined by external beauty.

And this is as true in the world of tennis as it is on Vh-1. Ana Ivanovic sells magazine covers not because she is a brilliant tennis player (which she is) but because she happens to be a pretty one. Anna Kournikova would have been jettisoned completely out of the world of tennis were she an unattractive woman; her pointless presence is tolerated because she happens to be beautiful. A more subtle example -- just before her ascent to the #1 spot, the homepage on Dinara Safina’s website was re-done; her updated image is of a stylized beauty. And Monica Seles (photo at left, from her website) recently admitted in a network interview that she felt out of place in the new tennis world because she wasn’t pretty enough. Post-feminism my ass.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that men do not get judged by their looks, because they do. This is why the current cover of Spanish Elle features photos of the bare-chested Spanish armada looking their hottest. But the achievements of these men in the world of tennis remain independent of how good-looking they happen to be. But for women, achievement does not count if it is not accompanied by good looks. For the women, appearance is everything.

No where is this better captured than in the recent response to Britain’s Susan Boyle. Before she opened her mouth and a nightingale popped out, the cameras cut to young women and men rolling their eyes in disgust at this frumpy-looking woman who dared to enter a talent contest. And then she sang and the world got bowled over. But alongside the conversation about the beauty of her voice ran a parallel discourse about her physical unattractiveness. News anchors wondered in grim seriousness whether she would get a beauty make-over. Would she get a breast-lift? And lipo? Maybe some Botox under the chin like Madonna (allegedly). When Ms. Boyle finally did pluck her eyebrows and dye her hair, it made international news. Apparently we cannot have a sensationally talented woman winning a talent contest. She must be pretty too.

Thank goodness for Simon Cowell. He recently warned Ms. Boyle not to get carried away by her new found fame and concentrate on winning the competition, not her looks. He commented that her new hairdo and improved wardrobe are the product of the public scrutiny of her appearance, and warned her not to get carried away with worrying about her looks. He reminded her that she needs to focus on winning the talent show that brought her to fame. Imagine that -- it took a man to tell Ms. Boyle to get a grip. Or maybe he was talking to us all.