Serena Williams Is Not A Costume

By Guest Contributor Jessica Luther, cross-posted from Speaker’s Corner in the ATX (scATX)

Lots of news outlets are reporting on Caroline Wozniacki stuffing her top and skirt with towels at a match this past weekend against Maria Sharapova. She did this in order to enhance her chest and butt so that she could imitate or impersonate Serena Williams. She did it supposedly as a joke.

In case there is someone out there who has never seen a picture of Serena Williams:


Since Serena Williams turned pro in 1995 in a predominantly white sport (though that is changing, thanks in large part to the barriers broken down by the Williams sisters), her not-white body has endured an endless amount of scrutiny. I didn’t seriously start following tennis until about seven or eight years ago, though I had watched Wimbledon religiously for years beforehand. I am not as familiar with what she must have gone through in the first years–even decade–of her career. But I will never forget watching the 2007 Australian Open.

Williams hadn’t won a Grand Slam since the 2005 Australian Open, and she had been absent from the professional circuit for so long before the Australian Open that she went in unseeded. When she won that year, she became the first unseeded player since 1978 to win the title. Of the seven matches she played in the tournament, six were against seeded players. The thing that I remember most clearly, though, was the constant commentary in every single match she played about how not physically fit she was and about how fat she had become–always with the conclusion that she couldn’t possibly win.

Yet, it turned out that she was physically fit enough and she was, by far, the best women’s tennis player at that tournament. I was so angry for Serena and so tired of that commentary. That will forever stand out for me as a prime example of the extreme level of focus on Serena’s body and the negative commentary that accompanies it no matter how well Serena is playing. She literally couldn’t play well enough for the commentary to cease.

In her first match after that Australian Open, this happened in Miami:

Serena Williams was subjected to racist heckling by a male spectator at the Sony Ericsson Open, and was told to “hit the ball into the net like any negro would.”

Yeah.

Here are some more examples from over the years of criticism against Serena’s body and/or her actions:

That’s just a quick Google search.

When Wozniacki decided to “impersonate” Serena by adding towels to her breasts and butt, she wasn’t doing so inside of a vacuum where all of this hatred doesn’t exist.

How Yahoo! Sports wrote up the incident:

The Dane lost the match 6-2 7-6, and didn’t seem to be taking things too seriously as she padded the, er, top and bottom of her outfit to give herself a curvier look.

The likeness to Serena, you’ll surely agree, is uncanny.

Tennis impersonations are usually the preserve of Novak Djokovic – the madcap Serb has taken off big rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, as well as women’s stars Williams and Sharapova.

This comparison of what Wozniacki did with Djokovic’s impersonations of Nadal, Federer, and Sharapova (I’ll return to his impersonation of Williams in a moment) is flawed. Tennis players are famous for repetition. They do the same things over and over again before every single serve. Sharapova pushes her hair behind her ears, Nadal picks his butt (yes, I’m serious). When Djokovic copies these things, he is mimicking their actions. We can have a whole other discussion about whether that kind of mimicry is funny or mean. But that is fundamentally different than altering your body in order to “impersonate” someone, especially when the body you are mimicking has been the target of vitriol and judgment for years and even more so when you are white and much of that vitriol and judgment of the person’s body that you are mimicking has been racist.

Serena Williams’ body is not a costume for another tennis player, especially a white tennis player, to put on and use for laughs when they feel like it.

If Wozniacki had chosen instead to paint her face black in order to impersonate Williams, would we be questioning if this type of display is racist?

And Wozniacki has done this before (Nov 2011):

Apparently, Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic have also done this recently:

I find it interesting that news is blowing up over Caroline Wozniacki doing this but not Roddick or Djokovic, both of whom are much higher profile players in the US. Funny that.

There is nothing hilarious about this. There is no joke here unless you think black women’s bodies are jokes. Plenty of people over the years have let Serena Williams know that that is exactly what they think of her body. That she has to endure that from people in her own sport, Roddick who is a close friend of hers, too, is terrible.

This kind of thing always make me ask the same question: If Serena Williams, a 15-time tennis grand slam singles champion, a 13-time grand slam doubles champion, and the reigning gold medalist in women’s singles and doubles, cannot get the respect she deserves within her sport because her body does not match the other women’s whom alongside she plays (and repeatedly beats, especially Wozniacki), who can?

For more:

Update: Before anyone says something about how Wozniacki and Serena are supposedly good friends, I want to go on record and say that making fun publicly of your friend’s body is a terrible thing for a friend to do. And friends do terrible things to each other all the time so the idea that because they are friends, Wozniacki or Roddick or Djokovic have some sort of magic pass to be offensive seems silly to me.

Also, this post is not written to defend Serena or to speak for her. She’s a public figure who holds her own just fine and certainly doesn’t need the likes of me sticking up for her. It’s possible she is just fine with these gags and even herself finds them funny. If she does, she and I disagree about the humor in this. I wrote this post because I personally am uncomfortable with tennis players using Serena’s body as a costume. That is all. I don’t need anyone else’s permission, including the person being mocked, for me to find this offensive.

Jessica is a historian and freelance writer. You can find her all over the internet.

  • icelandic

    Venus Noire comes to mind. That tragedy is apparent here. The Black woman’s body as public mockery and possession.

  • icelandic

    WELL DONE!! One of the best things I’ve read on race and sports-ever.

  • http://twitter.com/Ellington3 Rhonda Yearwood

    Wozniacki sadly thinks she is very witty and funny. She just seems to like to making fun of people, she did a really lame mocking of Rafa Nadal when he had seriously cramped up during a press conference, and that was not funny.
    Serena Williams is a higher level of player than Caroline Woznicki and I think that she knows this, everyone she makes fun of is far better than her at the game of tennis. Maybe this is her way of making herself feel better by making fun of those who have done so much more than her in her chosen profession.
    I just find her pathetic.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rrfriedman Rosa Friedman

    I think it’s also worth noting the manner in which these players chose to “imitate” Serena, who isn’t particularly busty or curvy. Black women have taken so much attention to and ridicule of their breasts and butts and it all ties into the stereotype of them as primitive and excessively sexual. Stuffing your bra and underwear isn’t a way of making fun of Serena in particular, it’s a way of mocking black women in general. So not cool.

  • Beth

    I agree that a body is not a costume. No one’s body should be the fodder for another person’s jokes (especially a ‘friend’), and no one’s body is public property. It’s ridiculous that her body is a bigger focus than her talents. I’m not surprised that the men could get away with such offensive behavior. A prime case of a racism-sexism combo with the treatment of Williams, and then more sexism with the fact that it’s apparently okay for the men to be this offensive.

  • boomer

    Of course it’s not funny but attacking Woz like this is unfair. Roddick, Djokovic and even Yannick Noah have done the same impression at exhibitions and nobody thought it was malicious. For your information, Wozniacki was the only female tennis player to visit Serena Williams when she was seriously ill last year. The controversy is as much about gender as it is about race.

    • ihana1

      That others have done this actually mentioned & addressed in the article…

      • boomer

        I mentioned Yannick Noah because he is of african descent. Which only confirms the fact that this controversy is mostly about sexism like others have suggested. Also, I don’t think Serena is sitting somewhere feeling bad about this, but It’s all very positive that the media is finally talking about her body being repeatedly ridiculed. I just don’t agree with the way it’s done.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1066800965 Danielle Bolden

          I cannot imagine you don’t see an intersection of sexism and racism here. You’ve entirely missed the point.

  • Nina Easter

    Athletes in the public eye are role models—Serena is a wonderful role model—–This Wozniacki person NOT!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003101772277 Queenie Creole

    Why should the body shape of a woman champion within a sport be a source of ridicule and derision to players and audiences alike? Is it because she is different? She gets criticised endlessly (her crip walk celebration), her bodys is mocked ridiculed, called names, she still wins and some people think she should just take it… I don’t, I think it’s a disgrace… This girl should apologise as should the boys…It’s unbelievably disrespectful….

  • http://twitter.com/SedatedGodzilla SedatedGodzilla

    I was a fan of Wozniacki’s before I saw that video. It really disgusted me. I had no idea Roddick and Djokovic had done the same thing. Totally offensive on all of their parts, I’d love to see Serena address it. God, I feel like I can never watch/discuss women’s tennis without encountering some bullshit like this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/elyn.blackman Elyn Blackman

    This is just awful. I can’t help but notice that I’ve never heard of Wozniacki before and Williams is, of course, a household name. I guess when people aren’t that talented or popular they have to resort to mean-spirited pranks to garner attention.

  • http://twitter.com/shackle52 Deborah Taylor

    Thanks for this. I am a huge tennis fan (actually a Federer fan) and I was in the “no big thing camp” because I didn’t want my world disturbed since this happened during his tour of South America. However, the truths you outlined need to be presented, no matter how inconvenient.