Thursday 19 September 2019

Sinead Kissane: Serena Williams sabotages own equality battle with soft-porn photo shoot

By baring all, World No 1 reinforces sexist view that what women look like is more important than their achievements

'By baring (practically) all in this Swimsuit issue, Serena has loaded importance on her body parts rather than what her body enables her to do as a tennis player.'
'By baring (practically) all in this Swimsuit issue, Serena has loaded importance on her body parts rather than what her body enables her to do as a tennis player.'
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

'I've never actually worn a thong bikini . . . the thong is perfect, it really made me feel comfortable. I'm officially a thong girl now".

This quote isn't from a member of the Kardashian mob on their latest attempt to break the internet - it is a line from one of the best tennis players ever.

This week photos and a behind-the-scenes video of Serena Williams' shoot for the Sports Illustrated 'swimsuit issue' were published.

In one picture Serena is wearing a blue swimsuit lying on a beach with her arm behind her head, looking as uncomfortable and awkward as someone trying to scratch an itch on their back that they can't quite reach.

There is the highly original 'shower scene' photo of Serena in an itsy, bitsy, teeny, weeny bikini posing under a shower with her arms provocatively resting against a wooden stand (because, obvs, that's the way women stand under a shower after a day's work).

And there's the money shot of Serena pictured topless with her arms covering her breasts and wearing a thong. You see, she's officially a thong girl now.

The pictures broke a recent trend for Serena. She has done her bit in the past to raise the issue of equality in sport.

Last year she said she wants to "see people, the public, the press, other athletes in general, just realise and respect women for who they are and what we are and what we do".

In November she wrote an open letter about equality and equal pay: "Women have to break down many barriers on the road to success. One of those barriers is the way we are constantly reminded we are not men as if it is a flaw. We should always be judged by our achievements, not by our gender."

The exception to the last line, it seems, is when you want to get your kit off.

When an athlete like Serena goes from acing another Grand Slam to taking her clothes off for a magazine (just because the words 'Sports' and 'Swimsuit' are in the title, Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue doesn't make it anything other than soft porn) it shows success doesn't change some women's desire to be validated for how they look.

In the behind-the-scenes video, Serena says: "I want people to come away with the fact that its okay to be comfortable in your body. I feel like its okay to look strong, to be sexy and to be a woman."

Hold on Serena. So to look strong, sexy and to be a woman involves baring your butt and boobs? What happened to being "judged by our achievements and not by our gender" or was that way of thinking inconvenient for this kind of glamour photo-shoot?

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?

Maybe, she doesn't want tennis to define her. It's hard to forget her sassy Sports Illustrated front page cover a few years ago when she had one high-heeled foot draped over the arm-rest of a golden throne. I even liked (not really) the way she danced (terribly) in Beyoncé's video Sorry.

But by baring (practically) all in this Swimsuit issue, Serena has loaded importance on her body parts rather than what her body enables her to do as a tennis player.

These kinds of photos are reductive, they're about how women look rather than about what women like Serena have to say (cos there ain't all that much going on in America these days).

These photos switch Serena into the traditional passive role for women who are objectified as things to be ogled.

The most laughable notion is that these photo-shoots are 'empowering' women as if they're something to celebrate.

To some, women like Serena who are not short of money, have fit athletic bodies and decide themselves to take their kit off is proof of how far women have come.

Oh please, it does nothing of the sort. It instead underlines the historical and societal value which continues to be placed on the way girls and women look, and girls and women's part in playing out that role.

Serena isn't the only tennis player in this Sports Illustrated issue. Eugenie Bouchard (hugging a big inflatable swan in one picture, for goodness sake) and Caroline Wozniacki (in the issue for the third year in a row, is there someone she's trying to impress?) are also giving readers a license to lust after them with their topless shots. I guess if you can't be the best, then at least try to be the most famous.

It is almost too easy to blame the folk at Sports Illustrated for enabling all this. A look through their Twitter timeline over the past few days and the rare times female sports stars got mentioned was when they were promoting this Swimsuit issue.

If sportswomen want to scratch an itch and take their kit off they become willing pawns for others to objectify and degrade. And instead of solely trading off their performances on the courts, they allow themselves become a commercialised version of 'sexy'. And we all know how that sells.

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