‘Big Babe Tennis’ and the Pitfalls of Liberal Feminism
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 occasional 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 this 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, in spite of its obvious class limitations. 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 one 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. It was a reminder that much of contemporary women’s “success” is only celebrated if it fits within a narrow image of femininity 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 coining the 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 – 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 Boy Basketball.” 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 female 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 ray of 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.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel is a Left Hook contributor and a radio journalist with the Vancouver-based feminist collective The F Word.