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Why people are bugging out over Serena Williams’ new GQ cover

With 23 Grand Slam singles titles and no sign of slowing down, Serena Williams is truly the GOAT. Yet, William’s remarkable sporting accomplishments continue to be undermined as her professional tennis career cannot be disentangled from her identity as a black woman –especially when competing in an elitist and historically white sport.

The release of GQ magazine’s 2018 Men Of the Year edition recently raised eyebrows as the magazine included the tennis superstar as part of its list. Not only did her inclusion as the only female amongst a male list of public figures garner criticism but her cover image has produced a heated debate.

The magazine’s choice to use scare quotes around the word “woman” in reference to Williams has been perceived by some fans and cultural critics as pejorative.

Others insist that people are reading to much into the punctuation’s meaning and have pointed out that the cover was a collaboration with William’s on-court clothing designer Virgil Abloh who frequently uses scare quotes across his body of work.

Nonetheless, this isn’t the first time the media’s treatment of William’s image has been riddled with controversy and representational issues.

Her catsuit at the French Open provoked criticism from the French Tennis Federation President Bernard Giudicelli who expressed in an interview that he viewed the outfit was “disrespectful to the game” and that the catsuit went “too far.”

Plus, when the tennis champion lost the U.S. Open women’s final against Naomi Osaka following a heated dispute with umpire Carlos Ramos, an Australian newspaper published a monstrous and demonized caricature of Williams that drew on racist tropes.

Each of these instances demonstrates that Williams’s physical appearance, on-court fashion, demeanor, and temperament are always under high scrutiny. More pointedly, these occurrences are emblematic of the way in which Black sportswomen’s womanhood and femininity are incessantly challenged and questioned.

When viewed in the context of the media’s coverage of Serena Williams, the GQ cover is ultimately insensitive to the fact that the tennis star, across the span of her career, has continually combatted racism and sexism.

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It is no secret that the world of sport is considered a male domain. And while many are aware that gender discrimination and sexism are characteristic of sports coverage and the representation of women athletes, there is a notable absence in assessing the way in which this type of gender discrimination is also racialized.

The media’s preoccupation on William’s body and the propagation of her ‘muscular physique’ are employed as a way to ‘other’ African-American female athletes from white female athletes. As a result, this discourse reinforces a historic binary between Black women and white women.

The point is, is that Williams should be allowed to wear an empowering “Wakanda-like” catsuit that is indicative of her awe-inspiring athletic capacity.

Her three-decade-long career exemplifies her commitment to breaking down institutional barriers for Black women and ultimately shows how Williams is an important role model for Black women and young girls to believe in themselves and continue to “aim higher.”


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