‘Big Babe Tennis’ and the Pitfalls of Liberal Feminism

Originally posted at Left Hook: A Critical Review of Sport and Society 

Taking in coverage of women’s professional tennis is a little bit like watching “Sex and the City” for a feminist.  On the one hand, there are moments worth celebrating.  Think of Samantha calling out a prospective employer for denying her a job opportunity because, years ago, she slept with one of his employees, saying: “if I was a guy, you would have shaken my hand, bought me a scotch, and given me a key to an office.” A statement like that would be virtually inconceivable in prime time television before the show.  These moments are almost - but not quite - good enough to forgive its favouring of white, upper class, materialistic, and heterosexual culture as the main ambition for independent women.

Similar to “Sex and the City,” women’s professional tennis also has its feminist celebratory moments. The history of women’s tennis is enriched with stories of women fighting and succeeding to be treated as respected elite athletes. The most prominent story is of the Original 9, who recently reunited, breaking away from the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) and boycotting a 1970 tournament that offered a women’s purse at an eighth less than the men’s final prize. The USLTA responded by suspending the 9 women from all their tournaments. The two Australians in the group received suspensions from their tennis association and were refused entry to all tournaments in their home country.Instead of submitting to pressure the 9 women started their own tour, with symbolic $1 contracts, which eventually led the course to a USLTA sanctioned women’s tour and the creation of the Women’s Tennis Association. Today, women have pay equity in all four Grand Slam events. An astounding achievement considering the income disparity in all other sports (let alone across the planet in all aspects of society).

I soaked in this history while watching the women’s finals at the French Open this past week with my 92 year old tennis-obsessed Oma. I was delighting over unparalleled achievements in women’s sports: equal prize money, professional and dynamic coverage, individual player promotion (many of these women are household names) and full stands. What first got me to pause was when the camera panned over to the stands and showed Monica Seles taking in the game. Seles, a former world number 1 player, was to be presenting the trophy at the end of the match. What gave me pause was that she was so done up I could barely recognize her. I don’t want that to be misread as a personal criticism but it did bring me back to my “Sex and the City” woes.  That much of contemporary women’s “success” is only celebrated if it fits within a narrow image of feminity and consumerist goals.  This was not the tennis of Billie Jean King’s era.

Mary Carillo, the only woman commentator during the women’s final game at the French Open (though she barely spoke), is famous for coiningthe term “Big Babe Tennis.” This is the dominant modern style of women’s tennis, encapsulated by the Williams’ sisters, which favours strong, powerful women delivering strong and powerful shots. This is in itself is an exciting development as former champion Martina Navratilova has said, “These girls have no fear. They’re positive, they hit out on every shot, they don’t play scared. I love to see that. It’s ‘Big Babe Tennis.’ “

What’s less exciting is calling a group of some of the most impressive athletes in the world “babes.” Imagine “Super Stud Hockey” or “Pretty BoyBasketball.” It takes any attention away from athleticism and focuses it on physical and sexual appearance. What is worse, this is no isolated event – it happens all the time in women’s sports.  It functions as a way to put women athletes ‘back in their place,’ that is, in an inferior gendered status by way of existing predominantly as a sexual object for men.  The fact that, in this particular case, the terminology was created and spread by women in tennis is even more notable as it points to the insidious nature of this sexist culture.  The more successful the female athlete becomes, the more pressure she faces to appear non-threatening by emphasising her “feminine” traits, such as sexual availability or emotional vulnerability. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen sport news coverage favour photos of female athletes crying after a win over fist pumps in the air.

Tennis, with its lack of equipment and individual focus, is an easy product for marketers and management teams to vision a female player in line with society’s demand for the “feminine” female athlete. The marketing surrounding the Williams sisters is symbolic of these pressures.  Not only are they occupying a revolutionary space by merely being women who are elite level athletes they also have to face additional judgments reserved in our racist society for women of colour.  Our notion of womanhood is still based on white ideals so while all female athletes bend gender expectations, women athletes of colour face a disproportionate amount of blunt accusations accusing them of being “men in disguise.”  Most recently we can look at the cases of Britney Griner and Castor Semenya to see this patriarchal racism in fruition.  How to combat these prejudices while maintaining an acceptable public image?  Serena Williams’ marketing team had her do a video game commercial that was so pornographic that it had to be pulled from TV.

Considering these realities of our time, I was still able to see a light at the end of the tunnel as I watched Maria Sharapova celebrate her French Open final win.  It was sparked from an unexpected source: John McEnroe.  McEnroe is a former tennis champion himself, though he was most famous for his fiery temper on court.  He has also said some very uninspiring (not to mentioned untruthful) things about women’s tennis in the past.  Men like McEnroe are often given expert status over women’s sports.  But, these men have had to face women like the Original 9 who continue to inspire tennis players and female athletes alike to demand the respect they deserve.  And it’s working.  As I listened to the live commentary during the trophy ceremony, McEnroe couldn’t help but keep remarking that Sharapova is a “real tennis player.” He didn’t use gendered language because he was obviously so impressed with her tennis skills as an athlete that he wanted to display his respect for one of the best players in the world.  If he is starting to wake up then I have some hope for the rest of our society for the treatment of our female athletes.

Follow Ellie Gordon-Moershel: @EllieGordonMoe

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5 Comments on “‘Big Babe Tennis’ and the Pitfalls of Liberal Feminism”

  • McEnroe remarking that Sharapova is a “real tennis player” IS, in fact, gendered language. (Go on, imagine him saying that about a male tennis player who had just won a major tournament.) It’s a patronizing symbolic pat on the head that he was paid handsomely to impart. It’s no accident that the machine — the one you rightly expose — put him in a position to say that. This man (that you spend a paragraph congratulating for not being an outright misogynist thug while being recorded) was used specifically for continuing to keep women in their place. As long as a MAN says she’s an athlete — a “REAL” tennis player — then she is. Minutes before that, it was in doubt. See how that works? Women are nothing without a man. And John McEnroe, Monica Seles, the other players, the viewing audience that day, and every other person raised in the patriarchy know it. They just have to be reminded from time to time.

    p.s. Vanessa Williams has a “fiery temper” on the court. John McEnroe is an abusive cretin who only got away with abusing other people in the tennis world (and his ex-wife) because he had a dick, an ability to make other people a lot of money, and people were literally afraid of him.

    • Ellie Gordon-Moershel

      You bring up valid points Noanodyne. That last paragraph was re-written several times as I had thought about some of the points you have brought up and one of my editing friends made a similar critique. I was hoping to end with a certain level of optimism as to the lasting legacy of Billie Jean King and other feminists in tennis history for the momentum that even today we can still see. I was hoping not to congratulate him personally but to congratulate them and other feminists fighting in the sports realm generally for their work to create gender equity in sport. You’re right that a manifestation of patriarchy is to have men controlling and defining what ‘real’ women look like or do. In the context of the tennis match the commentary was non gendered in the sense that McEnroe and the other reporters didn’t emphasis that the tennis players were “women” or “girls” in addition to typical ‘feminine’ adjectives …i.e “She’s the most glamorous player in the women’s tournament.” During the awards ceremony when McEnroe kept on mentioning the ‘real’ tennis player comment about Sharapova I was so surprised because it was such an unnecessary thing for him to say. As in there would be no market or production pressure for him to not do the typical objectifying and stereotypical comments about Sharapova’s looks masked in pseudo compliments about her ‘talent’ which we see so often. So when I heard him just glowing over her skill as a real tennis player I was brought back to the accomplishments of the women who have fought for an equal stake in tennis and who aren’t afraid to publicly put McEnroe in his place. I would ultimately be happier to have a qualified woman take his place as a tennis commentator but for right now I do think it’s encouraging and possibly symbolic that he seems be having a shift in attitude.

  • Amna

    This is nothing compared to the Lingerie Football League.

  • Anna

    very nice post

  • oh my god, that video! I can’t believe it!

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