Serena Williams and the Politics of Hate(rs)

January 13, 2024
8 mins read

By David J. Leonard |with thanks to NewBlackMan
Saturday, January 14, 2012.
Following a first-round victory in the Brisbane International tournament, Serena Williams expressed her sentiments about tennis, sport, and her labor of unlove.   “I mean, I don’t love tennis today, but I’m here, and I can’t live without it … so I’m still here and I don’t want to go anywhere any time soon,” she explained. “It’s not that I’ve fallen out of love; I’ve actually never liked sports, and I never understood how I became an athlete. I don’t like working out; I don’t like anything that has to do with working physically.”  Williams comments, not surprisingly, elicited widespread commentary, most of which used her confession as a source of criticism and demonization.
In “Woe is Serena: Tennis star says she doesn’t love tennis,” Chris Chase criticizes Williams as narcissistic and otherwise incapable of being self-reflective and self-critical.  While acknowledging her candor, he uses that candor as a source of condemnation:
From one view, her candor could be seen as refreshing. Here’s a top athlete discussing the delicate balance of passion and obligation and fear of the unknown. She’s revealing herself to the press, something she rarely has in the past. Then you step back and realize Serena has the least self-awareness of any great athlete of the past decade. Two years later, she can’t bring herself to acknowledge that she was wrong to threaten a lineswoman at the U.S. Open. She’ll likely never admit her actions in last year’s U.S. Open final crossed the line. Unless she gained some insight in the past four months, these quotes are selfish nonsense.
Chase, unwilling to limit the criticisms to the quote, rehashes and recycles those previous incidences that in his mind provide context for understanding Serena’s dislike of tennis.  In other words, just as she violated the rules of tennis, just as she has been unable to apologize for her past missed deeds, and just as she hasn’t been able to acknowledge her own faults, these comments are construed as evidence of her deficiencies as a person and athlete.  Chase goes on to argue:
Nobody is surprised Serena doesn’t like tennis. Like Andre Agassi before her, she seems to only love the winning and is willing to put up with what it takes to get there. The grind doesn’t interest her much. These aren’t new insights into her soul. The underlying tone isn’t that Serena is a reluctant sports hero, it’s that she’s able to be so much better than the rest of the tour without caring about the game like they do. Her “I don’t love tennis” quote isn’t a revelation, it’s a self-congratulatory declaration. It’s as if she’s saying, “Just imagine what I could do if I cared.”
Pete Bodo, with “The real question facing Serena Williams,” expresses a bit more sympathy given Williams’ litany of injuries.   Yet, he still concludes: “Serena’s problem appears to be that she likes the reward (celebrity and money) but not the process. She would like to win the Australian title and any number of other tournaments, but she hates having to go through the motions – you know, the long practice sessions, the diet, the gym workouts and even that messy business of playing matches. It’s not a good problem to have, at least not for an athlete.”  Beyond the efforts to link her comments to selfishness and a sense of victimhood, several commentaries link her disinterest with tennis to her diverse interests (fashion specifically), as if that is a shortcoming. 
More instructively and disturbingly are the comments that are found alongside many of the articles.  Here are a few examples
Scar City: It shows what an idiot she really is. Because if it weren’t for sport, she’d be sitting on her increasingly fat bum, watching the shopping channel, buying cheap junk, because she became too fat to leave the house !….(and I have no doubt her expensive “Tastes” are as bad as anyone else’s poor tastes)………She’s vile !
DanielaCG: No amount of shopping or trying to act feminine could change the fact that she looks like a beast!
etweinberg: How ungrateful can one person be? I would do anything to have that kind of natural talent in a professional sport. Are we supposed to feel sorry for her? “Awww, Serena….you don’t like your job that you get paid millions of dollars to do. Poor, poor girl…..”  Considering the way the economy is right now, with all the social unrest because of it…..pretty bad timing, I’d say.
Elijabeam: Serena’s movement reminds me of a cow grazing over a filed for grass, but what do you expect at 30 if you don’t practice or train?? She has taken soo much integrity away from the sport, it’s nice to not see so many double standards anymore!!
Chris.Klarner: She plays because she’s built like a man and can over power the other woman playing. She’s a fat piece of trash and proved it with her comment.
Mslewis: The fact that Serena does not like tennis has not been much of a secret for a very long time. She has been out of shape and listless for years now and the only reason she wins matches is because she’s bigger and hits harder than most of the women.  When she is ahead she looks   totally bored and goes through the motions, but when her opponent shows some spark and beats up on her, Serena just gives in.  (See: U.S. Open 2011 final)
I believe Serena hangs around because her “acting” career hasn’t worked out nor has her “designing” career, so what else will keep her in the spotlight . . . tennis.  Either that or she has run out of money because she and Venus support her large family of hangers on and she needs to continue to play for the money she gets from exhibitions, endorsements, etc.
Her father said years ago that he hoped Serena and Venus would retire before they turned 30.  Guess that hasn’t worked out the way he thought.  Whatever!  Cry me a river.
What is striking about the comments and several of the commentaries as well, is the demonization of Serena Williams.  Focusing on her body (reinforced by the many pictures that sexualize Williams), her attitude, and her shortcomings as a player, the responses pathologize Williams.  “The Williams sisters have been criticized for lacking ‘commitment’ by refusing to conform to the Spartan training regime of professional tennis, restricting their playing schedules, having too many ‘off-court interests’ in acting, music, product endorsements, fashion and interior design, and their Jehovah’s Witness religion” (McKay and Johnson).  Her comments here are merely positioned as evidence for the longstanding criticism.
The subtext is even more instructive with so much focus on her body.  For many, Williams is a wasted talent, as someone whose laziness, lack of work ethnic, limited dedication, and absent focus has precluded her from reaching her greatness.  The ample discussion about her body as evidence of her lack of commitment illustrates the profound ways that these comments are used to authenticate the narrative of Serena Williams as failure.  This is nothing new as tennis commentators and fans alike have long criticized her as fat, out-of-shape, and otherwise lack commitment to be great. “The Williams sisters also have been subjected to the carping critical gaze that both structures and is a key discursive theme of ‘pornographic eroticism’,” writes James McKay and Helen Johnson.  Similarly, Delia Douglas argues, a “particular version of blackness” is advanced within the representations of the Williams sisters.  We see the “essentialist logic of racial difference, which has long sought to mark the black body as inherently different from other bodies.  Characterizations of their style of play rely on ‘a very ancient grammar’ of black physicality to explain their athletic success”
What also guides these comments is the ways in which Williams has been celebrated as evidence of the American Dream – because of tennis she was able to secure tremendous wealth and success, otherwise unavailable to her.  The anger and condemnation embodies this belief that without sports Serena Williams would be working at McDonalds or some other minimum wage job.  Guided by narratives of race and class, Williams is thus reimagined as ungrateful, as disrespectful to what the game “has given her.”  In many respects, this explains the very different reaction to the similar comments from Andre Agassi.  Agassi, as white male, is seen to have had many options in life to secure the American Dream, whereas Williams is render incapable of success outside the realm of sport prompting this sort of demonization.   
McKay and Johnson offer important analysis in this regard, noting how the long history of demonization is very much connected to a narrative of the American Dream
They have been constructed within a ‘ghetto-to-glory’ narrative: a journalist referred to their ascent as a ‘fairy tale, that astonishing narrative of the ‘‘ghetto Cinderellas’’ ’ (Adams, 2005), one described Venus as a former ‘teenage curio from a Los Angeles ghetto’ (Muscat, 2007), and another stated that, ‘Only in America would Venus have risen from her cradle of crack dealers and grunge courts to contest the women’s singles final at Wimbledon’ (Mott, 2000). Patton (2001, p. 122) refers to these sorts of narratives as ‘an Africanized version of the Horatio Alger story in which athletics provides a route out of the ghetto’.
The reactionary discourse and the outrage that has surrounded Serena’s recent comments is a testament to the ways in which the Williams sisters have been imagined “an Africanized version of the Horatio Alger story in which athletics provides a route out of the ghetto’.”  Her purported refusal to accept and be grateful for the fantasy narrative is the source of outrage.  Her refusal to substantiate the narrative of sport as great equalizer compels the demonization.   
Clearly the outrage directed at Serena Williams reflects a systemic erasure of the labor of athletes.  Whether in reference to collegiate or professional athletes, dominant narratives ubiquitously erase the labor and the conditions of labor under which athletes work.  By imagining sport as game, fun, and hobby, the hard work, the dedication, the sacrifice, the pain, and exploitation are all rendered invisible.  “The truth is, sports is labor, most of it invisible. (Even the visible labor — weightlifting, workouts, wearisome travel — is mostly invisible to the public.),” writes Steve Rushin.  “When a guy is sitting on a stool, staring into space in a state of semi-dress, he is almost always working. This is the kind of work done by a starting pitcher on game day, when nobody goes near him, or by a writer jackknifed over his keyboard, nibbling his thumbnail to a nubbin.”  The denied work of athletes is exacerbated by race and gender given the ways in which white supremacy and patriarchy leaves the work of black women invisible.
The invisibility and erasure is quite evident with both the shock and outrage over Serena Williams’ recent confession.  Whereas others see tennis as sport, game, activity, hobby, Serena makes clear that tennis is labor; it is handwork; it is injury; in many regards it is an assault on her subjectivity. Tennis, a job, ain’t nothing but work.  In reminding people that tennis is a job, a tough one that she doesn’t like and has never liked, Williams powerfully challenges those who see her identity as determined by her profession. 
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis.  Leonard’s latest book After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness will be published by SUNY Press in May of 2012.

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