Serena and Venus Play for the Male Gaze

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy that Serena and Venus Williams were on the cover (left) of The New York Times Magazine last week. Sure, I might have been happier if either of them were wearing a shirt, but with Serena’s 24-pack on display in its full muscular glory, I can see the shirtless argument.

What’s absurd, however, is the New York Times video “Sisters On Set,” which is running with the article online. By “On Set,” the videographer means on the photo shoot set, and indeed the entire three-minute video is a film (shot by a man) about a photographer (also a man) taking photos of the two heavily made-up athletes who are not playing tennis and wearing sports bras but no shirts.

Given the cleverness of The New York Times Magazine (the secondary mag article is about a fugitive monkey in Florida who may or may not be a metaphor for American libertarianism), you would think that this video is a parody about the male gaze. Unfortunately, it’s not.

Since I’d hate to increase the viewership of this video, here instead is a play-by-play of the shoot:

First 30 seconds– Shots of an empty tennis stadium in Miami. Soothing female voiceover talking about not Serena and Venus but Damon Winters, the man who shot the cover photo of the two athletes on a “sweltering day in July.”

:30–Venus picks up an adorable small dog and cradles it in her arms like a baby. She is joined by Serena, who stands quite close to her sister and the dogs. Both are shirtless.

:36–A makeup stylist with long manicured red nails applies lip-liner to Serena. Close-up on Serena’s calm face.

:42–A different makeup stylist applies blush to Venus’s cheeks. She smiles as if she enjoys the experience of a stranger brushing tinted powder all over her face.

:48–More lip liner for Serena.

:55– Serena and Venus (still shirtless) walk down a hallway with their backs to the video camera. In the center background of the shot, viewers see the photographer taking photos of the two athletes from in front of them. They are sandwiched between two male gazes and a narrow hallway.

One minute mark–Adorable shots of Serena and Venus as children. Both are wearing shirts and seem to have no makeup on. No complaints here.

1:05– Once again adults, the two smush their faces close together and smile for the camera, gazing off into the distance as if in a Cover Girl commercial.

1:10– Shots of the photographer taking shots of Serena and Venus sitting on a bench. Click. Click. Click. Click goes the camera’s lens.

1:24–The sisters hug for the camera.

1:28– They hug again. Serena stretches her arms above her head and arches her back. Venus gazes longingly into her sister’s eyes.

1:30– Fan blows wind into their face so their hair waves in the breeze.

1:49– More hugging.

2:12– CUT! Break to adjust hair.

2:20– The two stand in front of a white screen, still shirtless, holding hands. The photographer takes photos of them. This shot ends up being the magazine’s cover.

2:30– Serena and Venus have–gasp–picked up tennis rackets. But instead of, you know, hitting balls over the net and engaging in the type of athletic activity that has made them two of the most celebrated athletes in history, instead they just circle each other with runway-model ferocity.

2:41–Venus whispers to Serena seductively.

2:42–Outfit change! Venus is now wearing a shirt. Serena is still wearing only a sports bra, although this one is a pretty turquoise color.

2:43–TENNIS! They are playing tennis! They begin to lob the ball. It flies from one racket, to the next, to the–Cut! That’s it.

2:46– They come together to high five and gaze longingly into each other’s eyes.

2:48– Extended handholding.

2:50– Credits roll.

Crossposted from Alternet.
Photo of The New York Times Magazine cover of Venus and Serena Williams from The New York Times.


  1. Dusk Devi says:

    Woah. This is not a feminist statement of fact on the friction women face in a ‘man-gaze’ world… this is a bitter diatribe.

    “venus whispers … seductively” what are you seeing?? do you not have siblings? do you not understand how close these sisters are and what you see as “seductive” is their ‘insider’ camaraderie and the result of your closed mind?

    For once, FOR ONCE, bodies that aren’t skin and bones and considered curvy because they have a waist dent and impossible air-brushed Victoria Secret bodies, etc, are put on a magazine cover and are filmed in their physical glory and you whine???

    Venus and Serena are physical goddesses. With bodies created by years of dedication and focus. Strength built for purpose. Do you not understand how it is pleasurable and indeed, empowering for other women (straight and gay) to see that powerful, strong, women are beautiful and feminine and sexy?

    I am a photographer AND A FEMINIST and I would have photographed Venus and Serena naked. Because my feminist beliefs do not rely on clothing nor lack of it.

    Oh I am so disappointed in this excuse of an article.

  2. This blog post was so ludicrous (yes, I just went to watch the video — oh, horrors, they do put make-up on people for magazine covers, and sometimes, worse yet, photographers are men) that I, proud and often angry feminist, am speechless.

    • Claire Garcia says:

      I agree with you, spielcat~ My thought on reading this blog was “Oh, please”~ and after seeing the video, I suppose that the author believes that any celebration of “strength and prettiness”, any use of make-up for a photography shoot, any use of male photographers~ constitutes “performing for the male gaze” (boo hiss.) Are we only to see photographs of the amazing and beautiful sisters in “actions that reflect[..] their sport”? How about thinking of this video not only in the context of the NYTImes story, but also the history of white supremacist stereotyping of black women as strong, unsexed or hypersexualized, and one dimensional. How about looking at this story in the context of previous coverage and images of the Williams sisters. How about looking at this video in the genre of the “behind the scenes of the photo shoot” that is all over the internet these days. It’s precisely the sort of knee-jerk, decontextualized “feminist analysis” reflected in this blog post that makes my work as an FGS and Race and Ethnic Studies scholar even more difficult than it already is.

  3. The sexism here is not only about the lack of clothing, but the passive, rather than active, poses. Like we saw with the ESPN Body Issue, the female athletes are usually portrayed in passive poses (Suzann Patterson lying on the beach, Daniela Hantuchova standing still) rather than in actions that reflected their sport. This passivity reinforces the notion that women’s bodies (even these highly talented, elite athlete bodies) are objects to be consumed, rather than the athletes’ tools to carry out her incredible gift.

  4. Bizarre, to say the least. Haven’t times changed? Apparently, not as much as we would like. The Williams’ Women have enough power to dictate the terms of such media, and yet they chose not to do so. Why?

  5. Why didn’t they demand female photographers! It’s a known fact that the minute a woman gets famous in Hollywood, she’s handled by male agents (almost all of them are men), photogs, etc. I hate to say this, but we only have the female stars to blame. I’ve just made my first feature indy film, A TOUCH OF THE DEVIL, which I made sure involved a woman killing the scary guy in the end, a woman handling knives, a woman telling her husband to get a life. I did this on purpose because I’m sick of seeing lifeless women used as decorations on sets!

  6. The world has been sexualizing the female athlete since the first pitch was thrown…It isn’t so much you throw like a girl but that you don’t and it reeely bugs people who feel women should been seen and not heard. But then considering some of the things I have heard from La Williams I think these “girls” can take care of themselves. Another aspect might also be racism. Black women have generally been the tough, no nonsense, uber strong centers of their families since times of slavery, and were often not allowed to be, (or perceived to be in any way) the dainty, feminine (weak) protected lady that white women were for the most part of our nations history. it is probably a lot of things, but mostly, it is probably just another commercial……

  7. Wow, black women can NEVER get a break with you people – yep, I said ‘you people’. So what if the Williams sisters are beautiful and showing off their bodies and ripped abs which they worked hard as hell for? Why shouldn’t we see them in a different light? Why shouldn’t they be playful, affectionate and loving toward one another? Oh but I forgot black women are only supposed to be seen crying after their man has been lynched or their son being carted off to jail…or being stoic in the face of some major dehumanizing shit cuz we so strong…the mule of the world. So we can’t enjoy makeup, clothes, being beautiful…nope it’s stay in the fields for us. Then, because we have been forced to be ‘strong’ we’re accused of being emasculating, unfeminine, ugly bitches… And now we’re supposed to uphold the so-called ‘ideals’ of a feminist movement that never really included us anyway (except as an afterthought). Black women just can’t win…while white women continue to be and do anything they want. Whatever.

  8. Andie Marshall says:

    Where’s the mystery? The boys are just trying to reduce their sense of intimidation at the Williams sisters’ physical (and likely economic) superiority by reducing them to two ‘little girls.’ Adorable sisters who while tigers on the court, are likely kittens in the sack. In short, more than just adorable… f–able. Wild cats to be sure but nothing a real man can’t handle.

  9. Michelle Morris says:

    I have to strongly disagree with the author’s article. I didn’t see the male gaze. I also did not get the whole “sister gaze longingly at the other.” i saw them as long of admiration and and sly glances that sisters share. I think that the Williams sister as aware of how they are portrayed in the media. To appear in a sports bra does not mean it is for the male gaze. They are powerful and muscular and look straight at the camera in a level, challenging gaze. For black women to do that is pretty powerful. In context with the article is it about how their very presence is a challenge to the tennis world. They are still the most dominant American tennis players.

    I think it would be better to analyze the article through the lens of how race and gender intersect. Someone above says the pose is passive, but is black women even this pose looks like a challenge to acknowledge their existence and not write them off as players past their prime (which some people believed they were because they dropped in rankings) until their gold medal wins in the Olympics this year. Even for them to be thought of sexy as black women seems like an accomplishment considering how they were criticized as being too masculine, unfeminine, strong, or different from other tennis players, who are usually white, but now it’s normal to hear female players grunting with exertion on the court.

    As with other thing, I find this article says more about the writer and how she views them and the world than the Williams sister, who have learned that how the media, world, and others want to portray them isn’t really about them and they should live their lives as they see fit. If they had a problems with the photoshoot or the article they would have said something of the sort by now.

  10. I think this author is so blinded by feminism, she misses the point of this artistic endeavor. The photographers motivation was to show the perfect juxtaposition of beauty and strength that is the Williams sisters. Without the shirts, we can see how amazingly strong these two athletes are. With shirts, it just becomes a fashion shoot. The artist is using the body as art. This is a perfectly acceptable purpose.
    We use male athletes in the same way all the time. Just because two women are the subject of this photographer’s work doesn’t suddenly make it sexist. I suspect this author would have had nothing good to say about the cover even if the girls were wearing parkas. Sometimes art is just art.

  11. I love the Williams sisters as the strong and talented athletes they are, and always have been. The video as described sounds somewhat like soft porn, and it is obviously meant to be titillating to a male audience that has no problems with same sex images, as long as they are of two females. I’m tired of it, most of us are tired of it, and what else is new?

  12. Hi Serena and Venus

    I would disagree with this article. I’m happy to see nontraditional tennis players featured on the cover. Not only are these tennis players female, they are women of color, and they are also not super skinny. YES YES and YES. I am talking about Serena in particular who is a woman who takes up space. She’s not rail thin. She’s not bones and abs. We need every example of strong women who take up space we can get. Why do you care that they have their shirts off? How dies that offend you? I will take what I can get. For more info see Project Enough

  13. You’ve got to be kidding me. This author needs a reality check. The comment, “though I wish they were wearing a shirt” was downright infuriating. These women, for once, in this photo shoot and video, are NOT being sexualized. This is what empowerment looks like. Take a step back and reread your post. It’s insulting.

  14. Tennis Fan says:

    I’m a feminist, huge tennis fan, avid tennis player and am not offended by this video in the slightest. I also read the article in full which is a very well written, thoughtful, and insightful look into the Williams family, and worth the lengthy read. The video, a minor adjunct to the article, shows the loving relationship between the sisters, as well as them enjoying the rewards of their hard work…media attention and their beautiful physiques. They clearly enjoy both, and I’m certainly not going to begrudge them that.

    Also, I’m just not getting the “male gaze” here and I’m also very confused by the “looking longingly” into each other’s eyes deal. Where’d that come from? Did we watch the same video??

  15. I just saw the video. It’s not very good, visually … a little too arty and yet kinda rough-cut, for my eye. Several things come to mind, having previously read the critique …

    They are wearing outer-wear… not underwear. Those are not “sports bras” but sport tops for use on the court, etc. They do not require a shirt or “cover” in order to be appropriate dress in these locales.

    Remember the old saw, “You and your dirty Rorschacks” … methinks the author of the article was reading her own biases into the “looks” between the sisters. I guess she is an only child.

    Looks like the Williamses took it all in good humor. It’s the kind of thing they have learned to put up with over the years. Would that Laura had as much good sense.

  16. They are both sex symbols, just like certain male soccer players, whats the big deal? They look great, in fact I could argue an embracing of muscular women is positive for gender equality, find something more worthwhile to be angry at…honestly..

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