Comment / Sport

Serena Williams swimsuit criticism serves a fault

Tennis icon should be lauded, not chastised for photo shoot.

Sinead Kissane's column on Serena Williams in the Irish Independent

Sinead Kissane has written many very good articles on sport for the Irish Independent, but her latest column on Saturday was not one of them. There are so many things wrong with the brainless and tone deaf nature of this piece it’s difficult to know where to begin, but let’s start with the premise that posing semi-naked is somehow un-feminist behaviour.

Kissane argues that by appearing in front of the camera in a swimsuit for Sport Illustrated, she is undermining her own battle for equality. This is a preposterous argument; feminism does not require women to be hide their bodies in order to feel equal. If anything modern feminist ideals encourage women to be proud of their bodies, free from judgement and objectification.

“Why does Serena feel the need to wear barely-there bikinis to “be a woman” when the best advertisement she gives of being a woman is the way she plays?”

Well Sinead, why do you feel the need to have a hard-and-fast definition of what it means to be a woman? The irony is that in arguing against making women objects, Kissane has gone out of her way to critique both Williams’ decision to appear in the magazine and her body itself. She defeats her own argument in many ways. 

The claim that Williams reinforces the notion that looks are more important than the successes in her life and career is absurd. A photo feature, for one, could never overshadow her accomplishments, we are talking about one of the greatest American athletes of all time here. But even if Serena did care about her looks more than tennis, then so what? Whether we like it or not, our self-esteem is often inextricably linked to our appearance. It’s why people of all genders where make-up, or buy suits, or get haircuts. It’s more important to some than others, but that’s how it is. In any case Williams has never come across as a narcissistic individual.

Despite her sporting prowess and fame, Serena is no different to the rest of us. She is human, she has insecurities. This should not even need reminding, but then we still get pieces in national newspapers telling us what women should be prioritising. A quick online search would have revealed to Kissane as much. Last year the tennis player gave an interview to The Times in which she admitted it’s “been a struggle to love my body.”

“When I was younger, it was hard seeing all these thin athletes when I had more muscular curves and was big-busted,” she said, adding “I know I get flak for my physique and it has been a struggle to love my body, but now curves are in and I’m happier in myself.”

It’s a shame that when we should be appreciating the insane talent of one of the game’s greats, instead we get commentary on her appearance and her body shape routinely during tournaments. Indeed, Kissane could, and should, have penned an entirely different piece on the matter. She could have written about body diversity, about how Serena is blazing a trail, not just on the court but for women who feel as if their body types don’t conform to conventional standards.

The lack of consistency in the approach she did take, however, was also noticeable. Many of her peers — all of whom she has ground to dust at some point or another on the court — have used their image to make a lot of money. Anna Kournikova comes to mind, the Russian star who shot to fame very early on in her career, but never won a Grand Slam or ranked higher than eighth in the world. Another Russian, Maria Sharapova was the highest paid female athlete in the world for eleven years running up until her failed doping test in 2016, earning nearly $300 million, but only won five major titles compared to Serena’s 23. Of course Sharapova very actively sought marketing opportunities in order to maximise her earning potential, which she is entitled to do, but it’s important to recognise that companies also sought those two women out because of their supposed marketability. Yet somehow I don’t see Kissane writing 900 words criticising those women for getting their “kit off” anytime soon. 

This is what publications like the Irish Independent do though, and I realise I am feeding right into the snarling mouth of the monster. Get someone to write some half-baked feature or think piece — see this and other ‘efforts’ by Niamh Horan — and wait for a reaction. It’s not so much what the words in the article say, but what the outcome is: traffic. The furor over Kissane’s piece mean that is at the top of the website’s Most Read sidebar. Ironically, two down from that is a piece on a tennis commentator who was sacked for calling Venus Williams a ‘gorilla’ (he claims he was using the word ‘guerrilla’).

Editorial oversight doesn’t see to have been on the agenda at all when this piece was submitted, evidenced by the use of the word ‘sassy’ in relation to a black athlete. Any editor worth their salt needs to nix that sort of language immediately, but that is no excuse for the author to use it in the first place. It exposes her lack of awareness on the need for intersectionality, something White Feminism ignores wholesale.

Kissane mistakenly believes that objectification of women is the biggest issue here, but if we continue to tackle gender inequality through a one-dimensional lens and ignore race, then we do nothing but self-righteously punch down.

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One thought on “Serena Williams swimsuit criticism serves a fault

  1. Excellent. I thought Kissane’s piece was pernicious, condescending and spiteful. Her problem is not porn and she doesn’t know what feminism is. Drivel and probably racist as well.

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