It seems like Serena and Venus Williams just can’t catch a break. Though both have been ranked No. 1 in women’s singles tennis, taken home armfuls of trophies and been credited with ushering in a new era of American women’s athleticism, nasty comments about their bodies—and gender performance—continue to plague their careers.
The most recent gaffe comes courtesy of Russian Tennis Federation President Shamil Tarpischev, who referred to Serena and Venus as “the Williams brothers” on a talk show. But unlike other high-profile instances of body-shaming, this one was met with international outcry.
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) swiftly banned Tarpischev from any tour involvement with the WTA for a year, and WTA Tour chairman and CEO Stacey Allaster said that Tarpischev’s comments were “insulting, demeaning and have absolutely no place in our sport.” Proving that they mean business, the WTA also fined him the maximum of $25,000 allowed under tour rules and said that he owes the Williams sisters an apology. (Tarpischev, for his part, issued a pseudo apology).
Because their bodies fall outside of Eurocentric and thin-centric beauty ideals perpetuated by Western cultures, they are considered fair game for jokes and taunting. I would go so far as to say that some people, such as Tarpischev, view the Williams sisters’ bodies, especially Serena’s, as invitations for harassment.
The type of body-shaming in Tarpishchev’s comment, while subtle, comes gift-wrapped in a triad from hell: misogyny, racism and transphobia. By referring to the Williams sisters as “brothers,” Tarpishchev resurrected the tired notion that black women are unattractive because we are more “masculine” than other women and are “indistinguishable” from men. These types of jokes are used to say that black women aren’t “real women,” that there’s something just not right about our bodies, not feminine enough, too muscular, too “scary” and that we’re worth less because of it. Look at radio host Sid Rosenberg, who called Serena an “animal.” Imagine how many black women are internalizing these messages. There’s little difference between Tarpishchev’s words and the transphobic slur the late Joan Rivers used to slam First Lady Michelle Obama, calling her a “tr*nny.” Both use black women and trans people as the butt of a body-policing joke.
As world-class athletes, it obviously makes sense that the Williams sisters have some muscles. But this is lost on those who, by bullying the Williams sisters over their bodies, simultaneously attack their psyches and their livelihoods. Think of all the girls who could become top athletes but quit sports because they’re afraid of having too many defined muscles and being made fun of or called unattractive.
We live in a society that pretends women and men are treated equitably, but drags individuals across the coals for not adhering to gender norms. Women can be world-class athletes, but their bodies are still hyper-visible, shamed, sexualized, criticized and exploited to foster gossip about their love lives and sexualities. “Sex sells,” we’re told.
However, the Williams sisters have stood strong and continued to succeed. People like the remorseless Tarpishchev haven’t stopped Serena Williams from earning over $60,000,000 in prize money, the most earned by any woman player, or holding 87 titles. They haven’t stopped Venus Williams from becoming the first black woman to become World No. 1 during the Open Era in 2002 or successfully advocating for gender-equal tournament prize money (seriously Wimbledon, what’s up with that?). Plenty of people celebrate the Williams sisters and it’s incredibly positive to see the WTA and numerous advocates publicly take a stance against the verbal abuse of two black women. It doesn’t happen enough.
Hopefully the WTA’s sanctioning of Shamil Tarpischev will send a message that bigoted critics should pack up their bags and move along. Neither the Williams sisters nor their bodies are something to laugh it.