When women look strong: The sexism at Wimbledon

“Do you think Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little, ‘you’re never going to be a looker, you’ll never be a Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight?'”

These words were uttered by the BBC’s John Inverdale on Radio Five Live when Marion Bartoli won Wimbledon 2013. Bartoli had just proven herself one of the top tennis players in the world–a woman of strength, skill, and athleticism. But instead of comparing Bartoli’s win with other female tennis players’, Inverdale took stock of whether she was as beautiful as other tennis players.

Reducing women to their physical appearances, no matter their accomplishments, is misogyny. It undercuts women’s achievements and suggests that if you are female, nothing is more important than your sex appeal.

Unfortunately, this misogyny is everywhere: As the media spotlight focused on Bartoli, hoards of viewers took to social media to complain about Bartoli’s appearance. The twitter stream about Bartoli was truly ugly and filled with obscenities.

The tamest of the twitter comments said that she “didn’t deserve to win because she is ugly,” that she is a “pig,” and that she “looks like she’s a cross between a man and an ape.” Why did so many comments fixate on suggesting Bartoli was an animal and/or a man? Well, as Judith Butler argues, femininity is not naturally occurring; it is a performance. It requires artifice and careful planning: pretty makeup, coiffed hair, stylish clothing, and a body that is controlled–slim and slight but curvy. In today’s world, people expect that any self-respecting woman will make being feminine a priority at all times. (Think about how many women won’t leave the house without makeup on, lest people judge them negatively.)

Bartoli, on the tennis court without makeup, was not performing femininity. She was being athletic: running, sweating, driving her body to function at its peak. She looked strong because she is strong–and because our culture associates strength with masculinity, it’s really hard to appear strong and feminine at the same time. Hence, the ape/pig/man comments.

Apparently, then, Bartoli’s appearance was an affront to countless people because a woman in the spotlight who does not perform femininity is shocking. It’s a sad commentary on our culture that when a woman is confident in her natural appearance, she is regarded as unnatural, unfeminine, masculine.

This is why the spectacle of Bartoli’s body in its natural state, devoid of artifice, was judged and roundly condemned. We’ve become so used to female public figures being heavily styled, and always dramatically retouched when appearing in print media, that we have deluded ourselves. We believe that they–not the rest of the women in our world–are the normal ones. Unlike fictional strong women (think Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Charlie’s Angels), whose physiques are so slight they might blow away in a strong gale, Bartoli’s physical strength is evident. She, herself, is a force of nature.

We need more women like Bartoli in the public eye. Bartoli is a perfectly normal looking woman, but she is exceptional. Her body is a tool. It is strong. It is powerful. It is not decorative. She uses it to do tennis, and there is no reason for her to be apologetic about that. She proves that women’s bodies have tremendous value even when they are not primarily decorative. Women can brim with strength and athleticism, and look unapologetically human, and win events on the global stage.

I’d like to see posters of Marion Bartoli on every little girl’s wall. She’s exactly the kind of role model that we need.

For further reading: #Bartoli and #Sexualization

Rebecca Hains is a media studies professor at Salem State University in Salem, Mass. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

14 Comments on “When women look strong: The sexism at Wimbledon

  1. Marion Bartoli is not ugly. In fact, she is better than average and her body is fantastic. People have said equally nasty things about Serena Williams, Steffi Graff and Martina Navratalova. Hopefully one day we will get past all of this and focus on what’s important, like how capable these women are.

    • Agreed! When the focus is on appearance, the important things, like their capability, gets lost in the noise. And then we wonder why women are so often treated like second-class citizens.

  2. I was at the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport RI, last weekend, and what impressed me most about the history of the game, is that it has included women as competitors almost from the beginning. In the early 1900’s there were nationally known star female tennis players on both sides of the Atlantic. The money has never been equal (until recent years) but no other sport, industry, or cultural institution has been as inclusive of women as tennis. (I’ll also point out that tennis is the only sport where women and men compete directly against each other.)

    It’s amazing to me that tennis is not part of the zeitgeist of the womens movement, and that female tennis players are not held as definitive examples of success.

    • Indeed. So sad that in this day and age, an experienced commentator like him didn’t think twice about judging her in that way.

  3. Here, here! We seem to forget that gender is something we put on for societal reasons, and therefore we can decide as a society to appreciate all forms of beauty. Personally, when I saw her win, I thought her power was beautiful. But more importantly, inspirational.

  4. Brilliant post, Rebecca! I love your comments on femininity being a performance, one that requires smoke and mirrors to get right.

    And this: “Reducing women to their physical appearances, no matter their accomplishments, is misogyny. It undercuts women’s achievements and suggests that if you are female, nothing is more important than your sex appeal.”

    A woman is more than the sum of her parts. She is all those things + a Wimbledon trophy.

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