SERENA, misogynoir, and the rest of us
I have 3 points I care about as the news continues to cover the U.S. Open Debacle: women’s ambition, women’s rage, and women’s bodies.
1. I watched the HBO documentary about Serena Williams in July because I wanted to see how she was going to reclaim her place in elite tennis. And as Serena made so clear in the Series, she was not coming back to play, but to win. Two days before the US Open match I posted on Facebook: “I’m rooting for the one who was recently pregnant, gave birth, had life threatening complications, and is demanding her body reboot and win!!!”
Two days after the match Serena is being fined $17,000 for the three warnings she received from the umpire, Carlos Ramos. What happened? Serena herself has spoken about demanding fair play and equal treatment as a woman in the game. Less has been said about her being a Black woman, but I think both are intrinsically connected. As Moya Bailey might say, misogynoir was in play. She was first and foremost an “angry Black woman” on the court, before she was Serena — greatest tennis player ever.
2. Rebecca Traister in “Serena Williams and the Game That Can’t Be Won (Yet)” and Brittney Cooper in Eloquent Rage have importantly focused on how Black women’s rage is so often misread and misnamed. But I also want to flip the focus and ask why was the umpire in such a rage, even if masked by rules? Why did he see rage from Serena when she was just speaking up for herself? She did not curse him; she just said he was a thief for taking her point away.
He overreacted as men often do to women. I like most women have been verbally attacked when we have no idea what we supposedly did or said. Psychoanalyst Dorothy Dinnerstein argues decades ago that men rage at women for the unstated anger and/or hatred they have for the mother — the person who has policed and regulated them their whole lives. This is often the story of domestic abuse, sexual violence, etc. Misogyny was present on the court with or without anything Serena did. So was racism as Claudine Rankine has written about in 2004, 2009, 2011. Rankine writes in CITIZEN:
“…it could be because her body, trapped in a racial imaginary, trapped in disbelief — code for being black in America — is being governed not by the tennis match she is participating in but by a collapsed relationship that had promised to play by the rules. Perhaps this is how racism feels no matter the context — randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you…”
When people go back and forth on all this — the overwrought and too fragile Ramos who over-stepped and then would not re-evaluate his misuse of the rules — say that the tennis is unfair to women and has a double and triple standard. Yes, the unfairness structures the court and the air breathed.
3. I really cared about the match because I wondered if Serena would be able to push her body far enough to win against Naomi Osaka a terrific 20-year-old player. Would Serena’s skill and strength be able to reclaim her fabulous steely body from pregnancy and emergency surgeries for embolisms, for elite tennis. After all, she has only had about a year to regain/reclaim her former body — and she is 36, and aging in the world of professional sports.
In the HBO documentary Serena says she never knew how hard it would be to come back. As someone who also has been pregnant — and with harsh complications from the rare disease diabetes insipidus due to a traumatized pituitary…I knew what she meant. And, as someone who has had her body carved to remove cancers, I also knew how foreign her own body must feel. It is so hard to reclaim a strong body after it is smacked back.
There are so many women, disabled or not — whether they have been pregnant or not, who know what Serena faces/d. We are not elite athletes so we have a different challenge — but “we” — no matter our race or class or gender identity — our bodies universalize the particular challenges. Most of us do not have the magnificent talent for elite sports. I myself am athletic — I hike or run daily, lift weights, and do a variety of sports — all very ordinarily like most able-bodied. But Serena and Naomi Osaka play to win.
This is what was at stake at the US open. Many of us just wanted to see what Serena could do, would do, knowing that winning means everything to her. We were rooting for her.
And on the subject of winning: winning always means someone loses. When Naomi was asked how she was able to concentrate during the distractions of the game, she said she was unaware of them. She was focused on the game and concentrating on winning. This kind of intensity let her win.
When I taught Adam Smith, who described life in capitalism as a race I always asked my students what this means for society if its like a race; and a race is about winning, and there is only one winner to any race. All the rest lose.
On this particular day, everyone did lose, even Naomi. We lost the chance to see if an older woman — at 36, and post-partum — could beat a young woman of 20. Some say Naomi would have won even if there was no confusion/confrontation. Naomi has been gracious and has not said she would have won; but she has said that in all her dreams when she has played Serena, Naomi has won. Serena, in all her post-game graciousness also has not weighed in here. But I am sure that Serena feels totally cheated out of the chance to really know.
There are so many of us out there watching, and knowing the difference between what we are watching, and who we are. So I am really pissed that misogynoir erased the possibility of knowing, and seeing more. If I am pissed, imagine Serena.