Serena Williams GQ magazine cover. (Image Credit: twitter.com)

GQ Magazine recently found itself in the hot seat after honoring tennis star Serena Williams as its Woman of the Year in the magazine’s annual Men of the Year issue. On the cover featuring Williams, the word “Men” in the “Men of the Year” tag is crossed out and replaced with the word “Woman.” What was seemingly a benevolent gesture on the part of GQ — the magazine is geared towards a male audience — became controversial after individuals on social media began questioning why the word “Woman” was in quotes.

Throughout her illustrious career, Williams has been at the center of several controversies. Prior to GQ’s publication, for example, the tennis star had a widely publicized run-in with officials at the US Open Women’s Final during her loss to tennis player Naomi Osaka. However, one of the most notable points of contention with Williams has been her appearance. Various entities have referred to the tennis star as too masculine or “manly” because of her muscular physique. Some have even questioned if she was, in fact, born a woman. Due to this, many were offended that quotes were used when referring to Williams as Woman of the Year.

Individuals who took offense to GQ’s cover can be labeled as such: those who were offended on behalf of Williams and those who identify with the tennis star’s plight as a Black woman. The first label was already addressed. However, Williams’ troubles due to the intersection of her race and gender allow for a much larger discussion.

A Complex History

To begin, when criticizing the tennis star’s physique one must understand the history behind such scrutiny regarding Black women, specifically when it comes to the White male and female gaze. A famous example, though not happening in the US, is that of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, an African woman who lived during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Baartman was known for being showcased in European freakshows due to her large buttocks. Though happening in Europe, this negative relationship between Whites and the physique of Black females was carried into the US. More recent examples of Black women being criticized for their bodies include Georgia teacher Patrice Brown in 2016 and WFAA Channel 8 News traffic reporter Demetria Obilor in 2017. A study of New York City Police Department stops and searches by Kwate and Threadcraft (2015) furthermore found that compared to White women Black women were more likely to be labeled heavy — meaning overweight. Thus, attitudes and stereotypes about the Black female physique are deeply ingrained in the psyche of many, specifically White individuals.

Williams has also received pushback for her competitive nature in tennis. Revisiting her loss to Osaka in the US Open Women’s Final, one of the most significant moments in that match came when the tennis star was penalized for mouthing off at the chair umpire Carlos Ramos. Many felt Williams was punished for being a Black woman, especially since — as she pointed out — male tennis players have yelled at chair umpires in the past without consequence. The tennis star’s competitive nature has also resulted in many calling her too masculine. Essentially, critics of Williams have subscribed to the Sapphire stereotype. As was explained by Suzane Jardim in her article entitled “Recognizing Racist Stereotypes in U.S. Media,” the Sapphire stereotype characterizes certain Black women as angry, devoid of maternal affection, and taking on “the man’s role.”

Ultimately, the scrutiny faced by Williams, as well as other Black women, is unique and should not be dismissed. Failure to address negative attitudes towards this demographic can have ramifications elsewhere. For example, Nnawulezi and Sullivan (2013) stated that Black female victims of intimate partner violence are not welcomed in some domestic violence shelters. Nnawulezi and Sullivan (2013) furthermore mentioned that some shelter directors have refrained from helping Black women due to concern over controlling stereotypes such as the “Strong Black Woman.”

In Defense of the Accused

Despite the arguments in support of Williams, however, GQ noted that the handwriting used to cross out the word “Men” and write “Woman” with quotes was that of Virgil Abloh, who designs the tennis star’s sportswear, is an artistic director for Louis Vuitton, and has used quotes in his work as a stylistic choice. It is also worth mentioning that Abloh identifies as Black/African American. Given this understanding, one would assume the magazine was not in the wrong for its cover featuring Williams. Nevertheless, many on social media were still critical of the quotation marks. One Twitter user going by the name @kyalbr stated, “I think when you’re marketing Serena Williams, you’ve got to have a bigger clue on how things are going to be read.”

GQ has been incorporating women in its annual announcement of Men of the Year honorees since 2003. Up until this year, none of the women featured in the magazine were built like Williams — curves and all — or have dealt with as much criticism over their looks. In fact, to date there have only been two other Black women, singer and businesswoman Rihanna and actress Naomie Harris, featured as Woman of the Year — though English singer and songwriter M.I.A. can also be classified as a woman of color. Staff writer for Vulture E. Alex Jung stoked the fire of outrage even more by posting a side-by-side comparison of actress Gal Gadot’s GQ cover from last year with that of Williams. Gadot was depicted as “Wonder Woman of the Year” — in reference to her highly praised role as Wonder Woman — without any quotes used.

One could argue that Williams must have had some creative control over the outcome of her magazine cover. Despite this, however, criticism over the final product is the result of multiple factors at play. As of now the tennis star has yet to comment on this matter. However, if she is satisfied with her cover’s design this might not change the way many, especially Black women, feel toward GQ and those who approved putting the word “Woman” in quotes. Williams may be a tennis star, but to her fans and onlookers what she represents, along with the scrutiny she’s been through over the course of her career, means much more.

References

Kwate, N. O. A., & Threadcraft, S. (2015). Perceiving the black female body: Race and gender in police constructions of body weight. Race and social problems, 7(3), 213–226.

Nnawulezi, N. A., & Sullivan, C. M. (2014). Oppression within safe spaces: Exploring racial microaggressions within domestic violence shelters. Journal of Black Psychology, 40(6), 563–591.

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