Thursday, July 8, 2010

Caster, Serena, and the defense of strong women

I feel sick for Caster Semenya. What a horrible, humiliating, nightmarish experience to have gone through, only to have the IAAF say oops, we bad, sorry, carry on. To be fair, let me quote the IAAF’s full statement:

“The process initiated in 2009 in the case of Caster Semenya has now been completed. The IAAF accepts the conclusion of a panel of medical experts that she can compete with immediate effect. Please note that the medical details of the case remain confidential and the IAAF will make no further comment on the matter.”

Are you fricking kidding me? They destroy a young runner’s life by casting public and humiliating doubts about her sexual identity, and then dismiss their grotesque destruction of her life by saying, oops, carry on. Just like that? No apology, no  explanation, no details? Just, hey Caster, you can go back to running now?

This is wrong in so many ways. And of course part of why this story has gripped my attention is because I remember clearly the awful comments that Venus and Serena attracted when they first started playing tennis. The notion that femininity could be combined with strength and power seemed to be a novel idea to many tennis fans.

In the early days of the sisters’ ascendancy, insinuations regarding their sexual identity became very common on tennis message boards. It’s still the easiest way for fans and non-fans to engage in brutal verbal battles. Wordplays on Venus’ alleged ‘penis’ were common, as were aspersions regarding Serena’s masculinity. Some message boards folded up and disappeared in response to the barrage of hate.

Things only worsened as the sisters began to dominate the sport. Criticizing their appearance became the way to put them down. The insinuation was that the sisters must really be men masquerading as women on the WTA tour. Indeed, for some non Williams fans, references to the sister’s “strength” and “power” were meant to imply that the sisters could play brute power tennis and nothing else. Jut like men.

And to be fair, the sisters did little to help the situation both with their us vs. them attitude (however understandable under the circumstances), and with some of their early comments. Like when Serena reportedly said that she could take a set off of any man in the top ten, or something to that effect (ancient history; you look it up). Or when they challenged a male player who soundly thrashed them  both back to back. To be fair, they did not always seem interested in winning friends and influencing people.

The good news is that it has become much rarer to hear some of these ugly aspersions against the sisters. They might still be called manly but few people would be caught accusing either one of actually being a man. There is no doubting the sisters’ gender identity. Serena certainly has by now appeared in enough fashion shoots (not to mention having dated some fine-looking men), to silence most of these critics. And I suppose the verdict on Venus’ sexuality has been crystal clear, thanks to her panties.

But sometimes I wonder if there is a part of Venus that may be a bit like Lady Ga Ga—so desperately and profoundly hurt by the allegations of hermaphroditism that she (Lady Ga Ga) seeks every opportunity to walk around in panties, showing us as much of her crotch as can be allowed without complete nudity. It’s like she always has to prove that she is not part man after all.

Because at heart these criticisms affect a woman’s body image. Serena addressed this issue straight on in the most recent interview of Harper’s Magazine. She claims that with the help of Pilates, she has lost inches and is down to a size 10 . And while she admits pride in always having been fit (“when I was six or seven in a swimsuit—I look back at those picture, and my arms are cut and my legs are strong. I didn’t realize that I was really fit and most people aren’t), she shares that she used to wish to look like her skinnier sister, but has come to accept her own body: “Since I don’t look like every other girl, it takes a while to be okay with that. To be different. But different is good.” Like most women Serena seems aware of imperfections: "To this day, I don’t love my arms. People want more fit arms, but my arms are too fit. But I’m not complaining. They pay my bills.”

I can only hope for a similar resolution for Caster Semenya. She has not been allowed to run for 11 months. I hope she spent those months continuing to train, continuing to strengthen her physique and improve her speed. Because at the end of the day, her gender identity seems to be all girl. And that to me is perfectly compatible with strength, speed, and power.

Serena Williams reacts during the Ladies Final. Wimbledon Tennis Day 12. London. 03.07.10 Photo By Karl Winter Fotosports International Photo via Newscom


TennisAce said...

Tennis Chick. It has not stopped. The comparisons continue to this day. I just saw this over at Steve Tignor's blog:

"By the end, she was playing what I think of as men’s-style grass court tennis. Her serve, her return, and her first stroke allowed her to clamp down on rallies immediately, to the point where she didn’t even need to assert her superiority with the rest of her game".

If Serena was playing man's style tennis, then I guess Andy Murray, the great tactician was playing women's style tennis seeing as he has no idea how to hit a winner in a match or indeed how to develop a proper kick serve in order that he can win points off his second serve. He also needs to realise that in order to win matches at the Grand Slam level he has to be able to play offensively.

Clearly, he is playing in the wrong league.

Thanks very much for this post as sometimes I think a lot of people do not realise what a disservice they do to women when they continue to compare us to men or indeed diminish our success by comparing it to men. Their loss.

Can this young woman sue the IAAF? I hope she can because this just sucks.

tennischick said...

Nice comments. Thanks for stopping by. I hope Caster can sue. If she was American she would already have!

Yes the negative comments about the sisters continue. I just don't think people always realize (or possibly even intend) the meta-implications of the language they sometimes use.

meeks said...

i hope caster sues.