By Laura Pappano
Sure, the title of The New York Times Magazine cover – Women Who Hit Very Hard – was a provocative run-up to the U.S. Open. It wasn’t, however, sexy-provocative, but take-notice-of-where-things-are provocative.
The article offered an assessment of the physical power that today’s players bring to the court and what that means for the game (among them, that teenagers who used to dominate the Tour’s top echelon may not have the strength to battle full-grown and muscled women).
There are photos and the online version includes slow-mo videos of tennis stars like Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams striking a ball with a racquet. Is this a problem? According to Nicole LaVoi, it is. In fact, she argues that the whole package is “soft core pornography” that “has NOTHING to do with athleticism or tennis. It is pure exploitation of female athletes.”
I like and respect Nicole. I’m generally right there on her team when it comes to outrage over the sexualization of female athletes. But in this case, I just don’t see it. What’s more, I believe it’s critical to have the discussion because if women do ever manage to get more coverage, more attention, more visibility as athletes, it’s going to involve their bodies. We have to find a way to consider athletic female bodies without automatically finding that because they are fit they are sex objects.
There is a difference between titillation and celebration – and it matters that we see a distinction.
Here’s how I read the Times package: Absolutely, the tennis players are wearing cocktail dresses not tennis dresses. But changing the context of clothing does not instantly render it pornographic. The videos (there is nothing racy in the article) are actually quite arty. There are no come-on looks, bared privates, or pouty gestures. Instead, extremely brief videos (one whack at the ball) feature intense expressions of focus and serious demonstration of muscles in action. Set to new age music, it is almost like dance. In this setting, the clothing is a costume that elevates and makes theatrical the ordinary (for them) act of hitting a tennis ball. Watching does not feel voyeuristic or arousing, but dramatic and arresting. It’s cool.
Why does this debate matter?
As we press to normalize recognition of female athletic power, we have to get comfortable with strong women’s bodies. Just as we watch male athletes and appreciate their physical gifts, we must be able to celebrate women’s physical gifts without feeling that seeing is exploitation. Our eyes and sensibilities are in need of recalibration.
The alternative – to consider women’s bodies as inherently pornographic – would have us all wearing floor-length skirts or – for the liberated – bloomers.