Five thoughts on sexism in tennis
In case there was any doubt, this fortnight has made it abundantly clear that sexism in tennis didn’t end with Billie Jean King’s triumph over Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” or even with Wimbledon’s joining the other Slams in awarding equal prize money in 2007. That it persists reveals itself in many ways: both in specific instances, like the All India Tennis Association’s treatment of Sania Mirza leading into the Olympics, and more generally in how we – fans as well as players – think, talk, and act. But this doesn’t mean sexism is always hostile, blatant, intentional, or even conscious. It’s often subtle, and it certainly isn’t just something men do to women. Rather, sexism is a social condition that affects us all.
Gilles Simon, whose remarks on the state of women’s tennis have been the focus of much attention in SW19, is actually (though perhaps inadvertently) right when he says, “It’s really not me. It’s just everybody.” Here’s a useful comparison adapted from the work of scholar Beverly Tatum: cultural sexism – “the cultural images and messages that affirm the assumed superiority of [men] and the assumed inferiority of [women] – is like smog in the air. Sometimes it is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in. None of us would introduce ourselves as ‘smog-breathers’. . . but if we live in a smoggy place, how can we avoid breathing the air?” We may not be able to avoid sexism altogether, but there are a few ways we might clear the air in tennis.
Role-Play: Sexism, understood correctly, is as bad for men as it is for women. Among other things, sexism reinforces unduly narrow social roles and causes those influenced by it to look equally askance at a female player who is “too muscular” (therefore unfeminine) and a male player who cries after losing a match (he is called “emotional” or “weak”). By this point in history, shouldn’t human beings be free to be – and express – who they are, regardless of how neatly such expressions fit within prescribed notions of gender?
The Trouble with Normal: As tennis fans, we can agree that rules, standards, and traditions are as important in sports as they are elsewhere in social life. The dimensions of the court, the scoring system, the convention of keeping quiet while a point is in play – all serve a purpose. But there are other norms that need to be discarded because they are outmoded, inconvenient, and sometimes even oppressive.
While it might seem uncontroversial, the expectation that women will wear skirts for match-play is a norm that likely feels old-fashioned to some players and restrictive to others. This strikes me as quite different from Wimbledon’s rule about “predominantly white” attire, which affects all players equally and is a way to honor and preserve tradition at the sport’s oldest tournament. The tennis-dress is a legacy of a different sort – a remnant of the days when gender roles were more strictly defined, women didn’t wear trousers at all, and tennis was exclusively a leisurely activity.
That female players donning skirts for tournaments is a given can be seen not only in the fact that almost all of them do, even when it doesn’t flatter their form or suit their personality, but also in the raised eyebrows and occasional snickers that greeted Victoria Azarenka’s decision to wear shorts at this year’s Australian Open. If you’ve ever been in a gym or observed players during practice, you won’t have seen many women wearing skirts during their workouts. There are reasons for this, ranging from comfort and utility to self-expression. I’m not saying female players shouldn’t wear tennis-dresses or skirts – merely that we should neither encourage them to do so nor disapprove when they choose not to.
“She plays like a man”: This observation is made often enough about top female players that there’s little point in singling anyone out for thinking it’s a compliment. Still, it’s worth considering why comments like this are problematic. First, it makes men the measure of all things, a move that is at the core of male chauvinism. Historically, the belief that men and, usually, not just any human with a certain anatomy but particular types of men – are the standard by which all humans should be judged has gotten us in a great deal of trouble (if such an understatement can even begin to capture such wrongs as denying certain groups basic rights, treating them as property, beating them, withholding education from them, paying them less, and so on). Simply put: “like a man” isn’t a synonym for “good.” Surely we can wield the tool of language with greater precision.
Second, this comment confuses equality with identity. Women don’t have to be – or play -“like men” to be valued or to deserve equal rights, opportunity, respect, or pay. In the case of tennis, men and women play the same sport but not the same game. Given the physical differences between the sexes, and the different techniques and styles of play that emerge from these differences, comparing men’s and women’s athletic performance is a losing proposition. Though this may be harder to grasp in tennis than in a sport like gymnastics, where men and women compete in different events geared to their respective upper- and lower-body strengths, it is nevertheless the case. If one is to watch and enjoy both men’s and women’s tennis, it helps to understand and appreciate the games on their own terms, rather than compare them and find one or the other lacking.
He Said, She Said: Last week, the WTA announced plans to set and enforce acceptable noise levels via the use of a handheld device (the so-called “grunt-o-meter”) during women’s matches. Especially as there’s no indication yet that the ATP will do the same, it’s tough not to worry about introducing a double standard.
In today’s professional tennis, players who don’t grunt when hitting the ball – especially during intense points or long, tight matches – are the exceptions who prove the rule. Often, this exaggerated breathing is as much a way to discipline the body and focus the mind as it is a byproduct of exertion. Yet, according to USA Today’s Doug Robson, the grunting “issue is not perceived to be a problem on the ATP World Tour and has not been raised.” Why is this? Leaving the shrieks and whoops of the top-ranked female players aside for a moment, I wonder: has it been established that female players, on average or across the board, grunt louder or longer than male players? Fans, players, and the media would benefit from this sort of empirical data, which could help put grunting in perspective.
Before the WTA institutes anti-noise legislation, I think it’s important to clarify precisely what bothers people about grunting – and why. The volume and length of grunts, as well as related concerns about gamesmanship, are equal-opportunity issues and should be addressed accordingly, with one set of standards for all players. However, gender does play a role in spectators’ reactions to grunting, in at least three regards. First, physiological differences between men and women determine what sorts of tones they emit: it’s simply a fact of biology that women’s vocal chords produce higher pitches than do men’s – hence, the notion that women’s grunts are, in Martina Navratilova’s words, “more abrasive.” Second, physiological differences between the sexes also affect how our ears and brains process different sounds (if there are any evolutionary biologists reading this, perhaps you could help us understand what purposes these differences serve!). Third, assumptions about gender contribute to some people’s negative reactions to behavior they consider outside the norm. This is a particular problem for female athletes, as much of what they do to excel in their chosen professions runs counter to expectations that women be pleasing, graceful, and demure – in a word, “ladylike.” Given the complexity of these issues and the potential for disadvantaging female players by imposing noise restrictions, I think the tennis governing bodies are correct to proceed slowly.
Sex Objects: Now, let’s get something straight: there are a lot of fair faces and beautiful bodies in tennis and many of us – male and female, old and young, queer and straight – like to look at them. In fact, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that spectators’ opportunity to gaze with admiration at these bodies in motion is one of the many pleasures of the sport. But there’s a difference between admiration and objectification, a common form sexism takes. The latter reduces the person in question to little more than a thing used for aesthetic or sexual gratification.
Though valuing women based on physical attractiveness, exclusively or above all else, is nothing new, that doesn’t mean it’s not a significant issue in women’s tennis, where professionals would ideally – or first and foremost – be judged by the quality of their game. An egregious example of the objectification of female athletes is the Bleacher Report’s list of “hottest Olympians.” Though several tennis players appear on the list, the familiarity of the sport means they escaped comments like this: “You are watching a team of women row a boat faster than the other women. Uh, yawn. But there is a six-foot, 157-pound reason to enjoy it this year. Her name is…” (you get the idea: she’s hot). For a more subtle example, think back to Roland Garros, when Maria Sharapova’s entrances on Court Philippe Chatrier – her place of work for the day – were regularly greeted by wolf-whistles from the stands. It would be great if we could get to the point where fans grasp that this is not appreciation, but disrespect.
It would be naive, of course, to think that physical attractiveness played no role in a player’s popularity among fans or success earning endorsements – and few would begrudge Ana Ivanović her Rolex ads or Rafa Nadal his Armani shoots. At the same time, it is striking to compare the ATP and WTA websites and note the divergence in how they present their respective players. While the WTA’s “Strong Is Beautiful” campaign does provide stories focused on players’ character, skills, and achievements, there’s little doubt that what most people will remember about it are the images, which seem to suggest that female athletes must be conventionally attractive, even sexually available, in addition to powerful, deft, agile, and other traits associated with tennis prowess. Why this might be so is both obvious and unfortunate: they are commodities in the sports marketplace and sex sells, often better than success (exhibit A: Anna Kournikova). We can do better.