Today we woke up to yet more disappointing, racist imagery of Serena Williams. It was like looking straight into a magazine from the deep South in the 1950s.
In this toon, published in the Herald Sun, Mark Knight’s caricature of Williams portrays one of the greatest athletes of our times as a tantrum-throwing child who is upset because Naomi Osaka won't let her win. This presentation is made even more offensive against a backdrop of a now whitened, blonde Osaka (who is also a woman of colour).
Knight's caricature prompts us to look at how black women’s bodies have been represented in white media from the times of Sara Baartman to Jim Crow. Her body is made the subject of mockery, with overexaggerated, grotesquely racist physical features which are an attempt to make Williams unattractive and unappealing, and to diminish public sympathy towards her.
On the other hand, Osaka is made to look, attractive, calm, innocent and a victim of Williams' anger.
When approached for comments about the cartoon, Knight said “The world has gone crazy” and that “It’s [just] a cartoon about poor behaviour …nothing to do with race.” The contradiction here is, most artists, politicians or people who carry the power to name and label [and in this case to draw] others are often quite aware of the dominant stereotypes that can successfully drive their point home.
This toon encapsulates the hostile misogynoir Williams has endured for decades while playing this game. But while it is an imagery through which the tropes of racism and sexism can be unpacked, it also presents an opportunity to look at how double standards function to penalise “misbehaviours” from men and women differently.
The double standards
During the game this weekend, Williams confronts Ramos, calling out what she deems as an unfair penalty. She points at him, accuses him of stealing a game from her and demands an apology. He characterises this as "verbal abuse" and penalises her “bad and unprofessional” behaviours. The most obvious manifestation of the double standard is that when male players engage in similar or even worse outbursts, they get away with a slap on the wrist, are excused or even celebrated for “showing passion” in their game.
The referee Carlos Ramos has often tolerated worse behaviour from male tennis players. The best example is the Australian Player Nick Kyrgios who after receiving a warning for his raised voice, angrily yelled and cussed at Ramos calling his decision "f***ing bulls**t". Kyrgios was never penalised. Other male players who have angrily confronted Ramos include Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori …and the list goes on.
The depth of Serena’s anger is palpable. The greatest sportswoman of our times was accused of cheating in a game that she has spent decades mastering. So, yes, she is angry. She is angry because as she articulated during the intervention, “This has happened to me way too many times.”
She is tired of the racism, the sexism and the double standard that continues to follow her even at the highest level of her sporting career. In this CBS News article, the authors argue that “the amount of criticism, disrespect and hardship [Serena Williams] has overcome to dominate this sport would be enough to break other players, yet she has consistently proven herself in the face of it all.” Yet her vocalisation of that anger is penalised and punished.
The angry black woman
Raise your hand if you are a woman and you have been told many times over that your anger was unnecessary, a display of displaced and dislodged emotions, a sign that you are probably menstruating and therefore unreasonable and irrational, or as a sign of mental illness a.ka “you are crazy”. Raise your second hand if you are a woman of colour who has had their anger somewhat amplified, animated, made to look more threatening or somehow tied to your race a.ka “the angry black woman.”
The trope of the angry black woman originates from the stereotypes of the Sapphire caricature which portrayed the black woman as the overbearing female who is aggressive, sassy, loud, threatening and domineering. The black woman, who passionately expresses her frustration and annoyance, is seen and treated as a Sapphire.
In a society that does not particularly like “angry” women, those who dare to challenge, and to stand defiantly in the face of injustice by expressing their resistance through anger are marked and silenced.
In reflecting back to Serena Williams' case, her anger, her agency, her resistance and her defiance was used to punish her in a manner that male players aren’t. Fear for this kind of punishment- in whatever form- is what drives the culture of silence and one of the reasons why so many women prefer to curate their anger, rather than deal with the pathologisation that comes afterwards.
Kathomi Gatwiri is an African-Australian writer and university lecturer. Her research focus is on complex trauma, African women’s health and well-being. She has been awarded the “Young Kenyan of the Year” for her work with African communities in Australia.