The racialized, sexualized, dehumanizing comments about her — which are nearly impossible to imagine being made about any of her peers — are a genre unto themselves, offering a case study on how biases make their way into media coverage. As James McKay and Helen Johnson write in a 2008 article published in Social Identities, about what they called the “pornographic eroticism and sexual grotesquerie in representations of African American sportswomen,” even so-called complimentary commentary about Williams’ athleticism is often grounded in stereotypes about black people (animalistic and aggressive) and black women specifically (masculine, unattractive, and overly sexual at once).
These remarks don’t always take the form of explicit racial slurs or threats of bodily harm, like the ones reported at Indian Wells did. But if Williams were to boycott every tennis event at which someone made an offensive, dehumanizing reference to her body’s size and shape, she’d have to quit the sport altogether.
It’s true: Williams is black, she’s very muscular, and she’s a skilled player. But breathless commentators sometimes talk about these qualities in a way that buys into what sociologist Delia Douglas, in an article on the Williams sisters published in 2004 by theSociology of Sport Online, called “the essentialist logic of racial difference, which has long sought to mark the black body as inherently different from other bodies.” The result is that Williams’ athleticism is attributed to her ethnicity.
Dr. Peter Larkins, in an apparent attempt to compliment Williams, contributed his medical opinion in an interview with Australia’s Herald Sun for a 2006 piece that compared her fitness to a competitor’s. “It is the African-American race,” he explained. “They just have this huge gluteal strength … Jennifer Capriati was clearly out of shape and overweight. With Serena, that’s her physique and genetics.”
This thinking is part of a tradition Douglas dubbed the “ancient grammar of black physicality.”
Ironically, Williams’ mistakes have also been attributed to her race. At the 2007 Sony Ericsson Championship in Miami, a heckler was ejected from the stands after yelling at Williams, “That’s the way to do it! Hit the net like any Negro would!”
But most of the racialized comments about Williams have been more carefully coded, rarely mentioning her ethnicity outright.
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