It’s a loaded word to use in the context of women, especially a woman who represents a group that has been historically belittled, ridiculed, marginalised, and held to a far higher and unfair standard than most of her peers — both men and women. I’ve been grappling with this word for the past three days, wondering if it is merited at all. Would the same behaviour from a man, or even a white woman, receive the same scornful description?
It would. Absolutely.
Look, I get it. Any woman would. At a certain point, you get so nauseatingly sick, so irreversibly fed up, so furious with the bone-deep knowledge that the cards will always be stacked against you, that you just… snap. Like a cable that has been growing brittle with rust for years, until one day it finally gives way.
Every woman I know has experienced at least one moment of that blood-roaring-in-the-ears, eyes-flashing-with-fire anger when, before they know it, they find their sanity and better sense reduced to cinders. Later, with some distance between them and the event, they wonder if the infraction merited the reaction. The tragic thing about the straw that breaks the camel’s back is that more often than not, it seems so petty and inconsequential, in retrospect. Not that an international controversy and censure on a global stage are in any way matters that can be dismissed with an embarrassed shrug.
As an African-American sportswoman who has risen to becoming one of the biggest all-time legends in sporting history, I’d be surprised if Serena hasn’t weathered storms, indignities, and double standards worse than this one. And this isn’t the first time she’s lost her cool in the middle of a game. Plenty has been written about her temper in the past. Even so, I get her moment(s) of rage. Perhaps it’s easy to empathise with them because of the BS she’s had to wade through all her life to get to where she is.
What I don’t get, and what makes me uncomfortable, is Serena’s increasingly frequent, and seemingly opportunistic use of feminism and motherhood as shields against any kind of criticism. Serena might be a lioness on court and a feminist idol for the grit and blinding force of will she has displayed through her illustrious career, but that still doesn’t make her bigger than the ideology she claims to defend.
Ideologies, without introspection and soul-searching, devoid of the will to probe or understand cultural context, in the absence of learning, unlearning and relearning, and minus the ability to course-correct to respond to the shape-shifting nature of the socio-political landscape that it hopes to affect change in, is religion.
So the question blazing in my mind when I read hastily scribbled impassioned editorials, fiercely defending Serena’s outburst, calling the backlash against racism, sexism, while never failing to mention her near-fatal childbirth experience, and a laundry list of everything she’s ever had to endure — is this: are we in danger of turning Serena Williams into a religion, a goddess, or worse, both? Are we so in thrall of her, so blinded by our awe for her talents (and tennis is only one of them) that we’ve started to think of her as above reproach, and capable of doing no wrong? And is she starting to take her own celebrity a bit too seriously?
I find it disturbing that as a collective, we’ve left so little room for examination and discourse that is neither for or against a much-loved public figure. Are we so threatened by the thought of our idols behaving and making mistakes like, well, human beings, that we’d rather just bury our heads in the sand and pretend the world around us has vanished? What is so frightening about liking someone for one thing, but being able to recognise their failings at another? Questioning her behaviour, or calling BS on it does not in any way imply that her critics cannot see the sexism at play when a newspaper comes out with a deeply offensive cartoon with obviously racist overtones, it simply means that one is not so blinded by her glittering list of achievements that adulation morphs into worship.
I find it ironic, that while trying to pass off her tantrum as a fight for the next woman who is scolded for having emotions, and while rallying against the many privileges that non-black, non-female sportspersons enjoy, Serena can be so utterly blind to the privilege she enjoyed over her opponent, Naomi Osaka. As a 23-time Grand Slam winner playing a 20-year-old virtually unknown newcomer, it is absurd to even suggest that she was the underdog or the one in need of protection on that ill-fated court.
Which is what elevates her outburst to the disrepute of a tantrum. Much like a toddler who picks the most public place available to throw himself on the floor and kick his feet in an attempt to embarrass his parent to get his way, Serena was able to have her little meltdown for one reason, and one reason alone: she knew she had scores of enthusiastic women (and men) who would leap to her defence, no matter what she did. Simply put, she knew she could get away with it, mostly unscathed. Osaka didn’t have that luxury.
Threatening an umpire that he would never again be seen on any of “her” courts for “as long as he lives” unless he apologises to her are not the words of a person in a vulnerable position, they are the words of someone secure in her power, even arrogance. Such a pronouncement is the very opposite of vulnerability. Instead of asking ourselves why women aren’t allowed to behave as badly as men — I don’t know why behaving poorly is something to aspire for anyway, but never mind that — we should be asking ourselves if we be quite this charitable if Osaka had so spectacularly lost her cool as the game slipped out of her hands, while playing Serena? My guess is, no. Osaka would live to rue the day she disrespected Serena.
Lets’s face it, what Serena did to Osaka was nothing short of oppression — the kind that women everywhere deal with daily, from men. We get shouted down and, unnerved, often submit to silence in the face of aggressive displays of strength and the violence of angry words, which is EXACTLY the behaviour Serena demonstrated on court.
To spin the tantrum as some kind of feminist, equality-seeking agenda is not just disgustingly disingenuous, it is dangerous to all the impressionable minds who will go on to learn that as long as they have legitimate reason to feel oppressed by one section of society, they get a free pass to oppress someone else. It terrifies me to think of a generation of feminists running around the world, secure in the knowledge that their poor behaviour choices are somehow desirable because they’re fighting a war and are not to be concerned with the littler battles.
So no, I’m not willing to accept that Serena was fighting for women. No matter how understandable her fury was, there is no escaping the fact that she was fighting her own battle, not feminism’s. I love it when she has the gumption to wear a tutu as her uniform of choice while blasting through a world record, but not nearly enough to turn her into a goddess for a religion I never signed up for.