Thursday, July 16, 2015

Defending the "indefensible" : Why Ben Rothenberg has committed no sin in his article on body form in women's tennis.

By now my timeline is inundated with articles and related status messages espousing my fandom towards Serena. It is no secret that I consider her amongst the greatest tennis players of all time and one of the greatest athletes of our times. I have been labelled her fanboy and it is a label I wear proudly. I have had my share of friends, decent good-natured people, throwing racist and sexist comments at her. It is no secret that she has not gotten due credit for her extraordinary achievements because she does not fit into the majority view of good looks, be it because of her color or her body form. Tennis forums across the internet are filled with venomous hatred for her, questioning her on the basic identity of her womanhood. It is a deeply saddening commentary on the nature of some of the sports fans. It is even more disturbing when famous names have question her commitment and her drive amongst other things. I don’t know why it feels like a personal offense, but it does. And yet, I did not find the article published by Ben Rothenberg on New York Times which throws light on the issue of body form in women’s tennis even mildly offensive. The headline got my racism alert on. But that is where it stopped. The article in itself was largely filled with views of individual tennis players on how they balance their tennis ambitions with their perspective on how they should look. And even on that count, three players (Radwanska, Sharapova, Petkovic) were not in favor of a bulked up image while five (Bascinszky, Keys, Bouchard, Wozniacki and Watson) were in favor of attaining whatever physical form would serve them best to succeed in the game and make any adjustments later, if necessary.

Just as one is not to judge a book by its cover, one cannot judge an article by the headline. Headlines are necessarily sensationalist. And from my little understanding of the business, it is not a call that the writer takes. If anyone is to be blamed, it is the editorial and marketing team at NYT which gave this a negative spin through the headline and clickbaiting on Twitter. But in this world where attention spans are shorter than the life cycle of bacteria, the reaction was not unexpected. Anyone who is on social media is aware of how trolls operate. Individuals who hide under anonymity fire cheap shots when they can. That cannot be stopped. Lesser the attention to them, the better.

What worried me though, is the content in some of the articles wanting to take a stance against racism and sexism. They have only managed to reinforce the stereotypes. Take the example of this article from Sports Illustrated where Elizabeth Newman blows hot about the inherent racism in the NYT article. After deploring Ben for his views, Elizabeth displays the very same traits that she accused him off. This from the concluding paragraph: “While many deplored the commentary and defended Serena on social media, the World No. 1 dazzled at Sunday's Wimbledon Champions' Dinner, celebrating her 21st Grand Slam trophy in a form fitting, pink dress. “Swerve," she wrote in an Instagram post of the floor-length gown, which featured pearl and rhinestone embellishments, a mesh bodice and a silk train.”.  Criticizing an article which talks about looks by praising Serena’s looks and dress does not exactly help. It is plain hypocritical and displays an acute lack of confidence in the basic argument – why talk about looks at all? And worse, this reinforces the women and pink stereotype. How lovely!

And then there is this article on Huffington Post which has elevated the art of taking offense. There is a link to a clip which points to Caroline Wozniacki making fun of Williams’ body. It was exactly that. Serena may or may not have seen that clip, but what is striking is that Wozniacki and Williams are best buds on tour. They display much respect and affection for each other, through social media and otherwise. Clearly, there is much more to people and their thought processes than a 1 minute stunt. And there is a big difference between mimicking and mocking. A nuance which writers for even well-known media houses appear hesitant to latch on to, for the fear that it runs contrary to the story they are building. If anything these half-baked, poorly argued articles harm, more than help, in the fight against racism and sexism.