Serena Still Reduced to the Sum of Her Parts

With her titles and talent, why can't people stop talking about -- or making fun of -- her physical assets?; Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

This seems like an actual thing in tennis. I’ll have to admit that I don’t watch (unless Serena is playing), but making fun of the sport’s stars is apparently an end-of-the-season ritual. At that same match in Toronto, Roddick also impersonated John McEnroe, Sharapova and Djokovic with jerky arm moves, hair fixing and insistent ball bouncing. But when it came to the black woman, her mannerisms and physical quirks weren’t enough, because they never are. Instead the big booty and her temper get center stage.

All this reminded me of a quote I’ve often repeated from Williams herself. During her one-on-one interview for the first volume of HBO’s documentary The Black List, Williams summed up the challenges of her career:

Every article that I do read, it’s like, you know, “She overpowered her opponent.” Meanwhile I’m thinking, “They don’t know how hard I can really hit,” because I’m telling you, I’m not even hitting the ball as hard as I can. It’s a lot more than just hitting the ball as hard as you can. It’s all about strategy and moving your opponent and just really figuring them out. Like, I never get credit for [the] mental, and it’s kind of frustrating.

Yes, it’s frustrating. Frustrating that even in jest, caricatures are caricatures. The big-chested, big-bottomed black woman is an easy punch line that still hurts. It’s still not OK. Despite her grand slam titles, her gold medals and Wimbledon wins, the sum of Serena Williams can still be reduced to her parts. And people will laugh without a clue (or care) that the joke isn’t just tired —  it’s offensive, it’s dangerous and it needs to stop.

“It’s an image that we have seen before,” explained Whoopi Goldberg on The View Tuesday during a discussion about Wozniacki’s impression.

Not only have we, as black women, seen it, but we’ve tried to sink it. The meme that our bodies are our only means of distinction gets swatted down every day by women who recognize the figurative and literal catcalls. Williams herself is one of them. If only the women like Wozniacki could get that. But we can’t hold our breaths — or the accomplishments.

“You can make as much fun as you want to,” Goldberg said. “She’s still gonna beat your ass.”

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter. 

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