When I read this column about Serena Williams by sportswriter Jason Whitlock, I had to include it in the blog for obvious reasons. The column wasn’t about Serena’s third Wimbledon Championship or 11th Grand Slam title, but a critique of how good she could be if she would rid of her “unsightly layer of thick, muscled blubber, a byproduct of her unwillingness to commit to a training regimen and diet that would have her at the top of her game year-round”. Whitlock couches his comments by saying he is really a big Serena fan, that she “has limitless potential” and that people are going to accuse him of being sexist…but really he just has her best interest in mind.
Using flattery and sham transparency (I know you’ll call me sexist, so I’ll do it first, but I’ll say it anyway) to buffer sexist (or racist, misogynistic, homophobic) remarks is a classic diffusing technique used by those who make them. A real “fan” would not make such remarks as research demonstrates that sexist remarks have negative implications for the target’s (i.e. Serena) well-being and can lead to self-objectification. A real fan, let alone a sportswriter, would not focus on Serena’s “back pack” no matter how big or small it is perceived to be, and no matter how much it is perceived to help or hinder her play. The problem here is that instead of focusing on Serena Williams’ play and accomplishment, Whitlock is trivializing both. Whitlock uses his personal views to prescribe what he thinks is “hot and attractive”, perpetuates a narrow conception of beauty, reinforces the idea that only “in shape” women are attractive, and in the end proclaims that only attractive female athletes are worthy of being watched during prime time TV on Centre Court.
UPDATE: Listen to Dave Zirin’s Edge of Sports radio spot in which Zirin rails Jason Whitlock’s column.