Women’s Tennis Has a Model Problem

women's tennisWhile traveling this weekend, I heard on the radio that Anna Kournikova had described Venus and Serena Williams as “masculine Amazons,” calling them bad for the sport. The way the quote was presented on air, it seemed to have been a recent jab, so I joked on Facebook, “Anna Kournikova says Venus and Serena Williams are the worst thing to happen to women’s tennis because they look like “masculine Amazons.” Turns out Kournikova meant to say “magnificent athletes,” but misspoke because she doesn’t actually know anything about tennis.”

After some research, it appears that Kournikova said this back in 2001, and it’s hard to tell if she was quoted out of context or misquoted, because most online references to this remark have been removed. Leno did joke about it on air at the time, though, and it’s interesting that this buried quote managed to find its way back to the surface the day after a British newscaster made rude remarks about 2013 Wimbledon champ Marion Bartoli’s looks.

According to The Guardian:

While chatting on air about Bartoli’s technique as a player, [commentator John] Inverdale said: “I just wonder if her dad, because he has obviously been the most influential person in her life, did say to her when she was 12, 13, 14 maybe, ‘listen, you are never going to be, you know, a looker.

“‘You are never going to be somebody like a Sharapova, you’re never going to be 5 feet 11, you’re never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that.

“‘You are going to have to be the most dogged, determined fighter that anyone has ever seen on the tennis court if you are going to make it,’ and she kind of is.”

Inverdale was asked by his bosses to apologize to Bartoli, and he has reportedly sent her a personal letter of apology. The BBC itself called the comment “insensitive” in its apology. When trying to describe to the public on air what he meant by what he said, Inverdale showed just how insensitive he is by saying:

Before we start, I probably ought to just briefly return to yesterday and a clumsy phrase that I used about Marion Bartoli which has understandably caused something of a furor. The point I was trying to make, in a rather ham-fisted kind of way, was that in a world where the public perception of tennis players is that they’re all six-feet-tall Amazonian athletes, Marion – who is the Wimbledon champion – bucks that trend.

NPR reports he went on to call Bartoli “a fantastic example to all young people that it’s attitude and will and determination together, obviously, with talent that, in the end, does get you to the top.” He added, “She is an incredible role model for people who aren’t born with all the attributes of natural athletes.”

There’s so much to pick apart in Inverdale’s words. He wonders if Bartoli’s dad, her former coach, sat her down to teach her how to face the world as an ugly woman. Because that’s a father’s job: not only to teach his daughter how to deal with being an ugly woman in a tough world, but to tell her that she is in fact ugly. To determine her beauty for her, and therefore her worth. Mind you, Bartoli’s father didn’t say anything like that to her, in fact, in response to Inverdale’s comment, Bartoli’s father said, “The relationship between Marion and me has always been unbelievable so I don’t know what this reporter is talking about. When she was five years old she was playing like every kid and having fun on the tennis court. She’s my beautiful daughter.”

As much as I despise Inverdale’s point of view, I do believe him when he says he was trying to pay Bartoli some kind of backhanded compliment. I believe that he really could picture a father setting his daughter down and teaching her about the dangers of being ugly in a world that demands physical perfection from women, because my own father used to do the same thing to me. My father whom I loved – and though he’s deceased, still love – very much. I have a vivid recollection of him sitting in his chair at the dining table and asking me, “How are you going to be a choreographer with those fat thighs?” I think he really thought he was trying to do me a favor by letting me know that only thin women win in this society. Of course that’s changing bit by bit, but it’s slow going. You know, because heavy burdens are hard to carry.

Some have criticized Inverdale for projecting his own thoughts about Bartoli’s looks onto her dad, as if he couldn’t own them himself, and that criticism and assessment is fair. What’s really interesting, though, is the way Inverdale shoves his foot in his mouth even further in his follow-up explanation of his original comments. Before Bartoli was just not model hot, now she’s not even been “born with all the attributes of natural athletes.” I’d like to quote every tall person here who has ever said, “No, I don’t play basketball.” There are no “attributes of natural athletes.” Some people are naturally athletic, and they come in all shapes and sizes. (See: football.) Some people are even unnaturally athletic – supernaturally athletic – like the kind of women who win Wimbledon, for example.

One of those women is Maria Sharapova, who according to Forbes is the highest paid female athlete in the world. Her millions haven’t come from winning tennis matches, though. Her fortune was created, says Forbes, from her deal with Nike. Like Kournikova before her, Sharapova is a blonde Russian beauty, considered “model hot” by the type of men who say things like “model hot.” Both Russian women have modeled professionally since gaining fame as tennis players, and both are celebrated for adhering to what is still the cultural beauty standard in the West: the tall, thin, blonde white woman.

Whether her father taught her about it or not, Bartoli understands the commoditization of blonde hair. In her response to Inverdale’s comments, she said, “I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact. Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No. I’m sorry. But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes. And to share this moment with my dad was absolutely amazing and I am so proud of it.”

Having grown up squatty and brunette myself, with a plain face that can look totally wonky at the wrong angle or when my smile gets too wild, I understand the soul of Marion Bartoli, someone who has to be described as scrappy, “dogged, determined” and a “fighter.” Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with those terms; in fact, one might even derive a sense of pride from being the underdog. But at the heart of all of that language, what’s there to hear whether you’re really listening or not is that we squatty brunette women are dogs. We are the women on the bottom of the pile, begging at your feet for scraps. See us, feed us. If you don’t, some of us will show you we’ve got some bite, in the hopes that you’ll show us respect. And you’ll acknowledge our talent and gumption, but you’ll kick us anyway, because, hey – that’s what you do to dogs. Even if it’s just on accident because you couldn’t see us amidst all those long, sexy blonde legs.

In a now widely shared clip about the making of the movie Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman tearfully tells the interviewer, “There’s too many interesting women I have not had the experience to know in this life because I have been brainwashed” into believing that women must be beautiful in order to deserve our time and respect. Maria Bartoli is just such an “interesting” woman, and yet we’ve all been distracted from her incredible Wimbledon win by all this talk about her physical appearance. And don’t get me wrong – there’s a way Inverdale could have legitimately lauded Bartoli’s strength as a player in spite of her size without even mentioning her “beauty” or lack thereof. But that’s not what happened. It doesn’t matter, though. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I bet Marion Bartoli is looking pretty good to herself in the reflection of that giant silver trophy she just won.

Photo credit: iStock


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