The mature and savvy Serena Williams has done what her younger tennis colleague, Sloane Stephens, did before her - put her foot in her mouth. It didn't feel that way when it happened, I'm guessing. It never does. But if God isn't watching, the media is. Especially in this day and age where we all carry the potential—in our electronic DNA—to join the ranks of the rankest media conduits—the paparazzi—with our omnipresent personal cameras on our cellphones, iPads, tablets, etc. But I digress...
We all have uncensored moments—Geez we have a lot in common as human animals!—but some cause more collateral damage than others. If the timeline of the Rolling Stone interview was adhered to in the written article, the vulnerable moment came deep into the interview. Often, at the end of such, one has more than relaxed into a bubble of false security that expands from the moment the recording device is first set in motion, and either forgets or ignores to self-monitor. Journalists have tricks of the trade up their sleeves (Noooo
!) and are known on occasion to play unfairly in the scoop game, especially in this day of the information autobahn where real scoops are practically non-existent. Could it be considered a kidney punch or low blow to have published that part of her interview? After all , there was plenty to write about without.
I speculated in a recent blog post
that Ms. Stephens, unaccustomed to the limelight and attention lavished on her after she knocked Serena out of the Australian Open in the quarter finals this past January, simply naïvely and unguardedly spoke her mind in an interview, and for which she paid the price. "Serena was beaten by the beautiful and - for sports writers -conveniently back Sloane Stephens, leading tennis commentators to call her the "New Serena", is the way Stephen Rodrick put it in The Rolling Stone. It is more than interesting how the media made much ado about the upset whereas little was said about Serena's injured ankle during that match. Might that be called 'stacking the deck'?
The controversy had Sloane Stephens stating that, among other things, Kim Clijsters and not Serena Willliams was her favorite tennis player and role model, indicating, as well, that an angry and frustrated Serena unfollowed her on Twitter and sent out a tweet to her own followers in which she wrote, "I made you". It was generally assumed that the comment was meant for Sloane Stephens.
With all due respect for the 'truth', I went straight to the source, as my understanding was that the Rolling Stone interview of the sixteen-time Grand Slam champion was a lengthy one. The meaning of nearly all phenomena, no matter the nature, is determined—if the possibility even exists—by the context from which it arises.
The article is indeed lengthy and some of it flattered Serena Williams while it revealed a hard truth about our society's myopic view of beauty (I wrote another blog post
on the lucrative industry of the making and selling of feminine 'Beauty' and its skewed, artificially constructed standards). "Serena is the number-one tennis player in the world. Maria Sharapova is the number-two tennis player in the world. Sharapova is tall, white and blond, and, because of that, makes more money in endorsements than Serena, who is black, beautiful and built like one of those monster trucks that crushes Volkswagens at sports arenas. Sharapova has not beaten Serena in nine years... The chasm between Serena and the rest of women's tennis is as vast and broad as the space between Ryan Lochte's ears." (This analogy, I must confess, is lost on me.)Stephen Rodrick writes, after spending the morning and afternoon following Serena around during the interview: "
We watch the news for a while, and the infamous Steubenville rape case flashes on the TV – two high school football players raped a drunk 16-year-old, while other students watched and texted details of the crime. Serena just shakes her head. 'Do you think it was fair, what they got? They did something stupid, but I don't know. I'm not blaming the girl, but if you're a 16-year-old and you're drunk like that, your parents should teach you: Don't take drinks from other people. She's 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn't remember It could have been much worse. She's lucky. Obviously, I don't know, maybe she wasn't a virgin, but she shouldn't have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that's different.'" Whoa!!!
Well, this musing does offer harsh criticism of the young girl's behavior and her upbringing; at the same time, it appears to make contradictory statements by starting out asserting that she does not blame the girl...but
... I mean, in a sense the girl was
lucky, when you consider that there are degrees of 'misfortune'. It could
have been much worse. She could have been raped with several penises, beaten and/or left for dead as has been the case with so many women...and men
too. Consider the young college woman in India who was brutally assaulted, beaten, raped multiple times by multiple rapists, and then thrown on the roadside to perish. She did die later from her wounds. Or the three-year-old New Delhi girl
who was raped and suffered massive injuries as a result.
The sixteen- and seventeen-year-old boys, whose identities have not been protected from the public, were sentenced to juvenile jail until they turn twenty-one. Given what they did, is this too harsh a sentence for presumed first time offenders? The question, whatever side we fall on —and there are those who line up on both sides of the issue—has to be posed. Does the fact that they were sentenced to 'juvenile jail' mitigate the seriousness of being incarcerated? Does it offset the horrific experience of being a possibly virgin
victim of rape?
The Rolling Stone
interview provided opportunity for plenty of scathing backlash from readers spanning the spectrum, from making excuses for the tennis diva to excoriating her for her total lack of humanity towards the sixteen-year-old rape victim, calling her a bully on and off the courts. Someone else suggested that perhaps she was just thinking out loud. After all, she was in a nail salon basking in the attentive care of mani/pedicurists, recovering from a morning of court practice and strenuous workout at the gym. I believe Serena was truly baffled, though there are those who think that her statement
of apology was weak and insincere and..gee whiz...flawed, when those looking to find fault infer that what she didn't say was that the older you are the less horrific the rape because you are not as likely to be a virgin...uh, if
“What happened in Steubenville was a real shock for me. I was deeply saddened. For someone to be raped, and at only sixteen, is such a horrible tragedy! For both families involved – that of the rape victim and of the accused. I am currently reaching out to the girl’s family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article. What was written – what I supposedly said – is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame. I have fought all of my career for women’s equality, women’s equal rights, respect in their fields – anything I could do to support women I have done. My prayers and support always goes out to the rape victim. In this case, most especially, to an innocent sixteen year old child.”
Now, doesn't that sound more like someone who's had time to give it some thought? (Maybe she went a wee
overboard...?) I mean, I wonder had she been on The Tonight Show
in Jay Leno's hot seat would she have made such unrehearsed and insensitive remarks as reported in her interview.
Sloane Stephens was being honest—and transparent—in her interview, for which she later apologized. She'd said, however, what she felt and thought. Any apology after that does not erase the fact that she believed at the time what she stated. Following the same logic, Serena's musings were probably fairly close to what she really subscribes to, given, as has been pointed out, her Jehovah's Witness upbringing. Well, that's off topic, but it's great fun ruminating about it.
While chewing the cud seems to be front and center in this post, who other than myself finds it strangely disturbing that in the Rust Belt Red State of West Virginia, two high school boys, one European American and the other African American, would act in solidarity to commit a sexual crime against what appears to be a European American female? Do sports and potential star athletes wield that much clout? Is this some sick sign of 'progress'? Or, once again, is it all about the media?
Anyway, many thanks, Serena, for stirring my sleeping muse from her nap, however brutally you tickled my funny bone.
In service to my coming out as a committed writer in search of a meaningful career, I experienced a setback moment approximately a week ago after certain comments were made regarding a 'byte' I posted to my professional Facebook page. I thought long enough and hard enough—just short of talking myself out of it—before posting it. It was a bold move done in the spirit of artistic freedom, in the hope of generating discussion. The critique, meant to be constructive, was a behind the scenes one that unintentionally punched me square in the viscera. So, again, I asked myself this old familiar question: Does an artist—a writer, in my case—have a right to any and all attitudes, perceived or real, when it comes to certain sensitive and potentially explosive subject matters, that might cause hurt, pain, misunderstanding? Are we permitted to use loaded language/imagery, or controversial or inflammatory words in the service of our art?
Shortly before that incident, I became aware of the controversy surrounding American tennis' latest female hopeful. In a publicized interview, Sloane Stephens, rising star, dared to criticize Serena Williams, currently number one female tennis player in the world and fifteen times Grand Slam trophy snatcher with a total of fifty-one career titles. Sloane has three titles but no Grand Slam—yet—and to get there she has to play and beat the big dogs. At nineteen years of age and ranked number twenty-nine at the time, she beat Serena in the quarterfinals at the Australia Open this past January, one of the four major tournaments (Grand Slams), the other three being the French Open, aka Roland Garros, England's Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. Towards the beginning of the third set, a frustrated Serena was lead to destroy her racket in a temper tantrum. Sloane did not go on to win the title but she snatched it away from Serena who had been blazing a trail, and put it into the hands of the Belorussian, Victoria Azarenka. After her upset win, the twenty-year-old Sloane says Serena stopped speaking to her altogether, sent out a tweet saying "I made you", leaving little doubt in most minds who the target of that tweet was, and then 'unfollowed' her on Twitter. Sloane caught a great deal of flack from media sages, and cyber fanatics who have nothing better to do than tweet like twits every fissure in a moment they find. "Whatever you say is going to get blown out of proportion," is what Martina Navratilova had to say. Maybe I should have provided some context for my Facebook posting, suggested my well-meaning critic—who experienced her own gut reaction—so that readers could understand better where I was coming from, that I wasn't being "flippant" about the horrific history of slavery in this country. Pundit or player? Scholar or artist? Is history sacred? Is art untouchable? Are pop icons and superstars off limits if we don't share their status? I spent a lot of time trying to get a handle on the myriad thoughts and feelings that sprung into my head like wildflowers after a wet rain, surfacing around these two disparate occurrences (Sloane's experience and mine), resulting in even more questions to myself: When does an artist not be true to herself, keep her voice in check, in favor of not appearing sacrilegious? Just putting the questions to page kicks up pesky issues, like shaking a rug out the window dislodges inert particles of existence disturbed into motion.
I have a tendency to philosophize (which can get in the way of making a point, and the one I'm trying to make here is already evasive enough): It is human nature to reduce complexities to manageable dualities. Simplify with contradictions. Build on binaries. Make clear decisions based on opposites. Male or female. Black or white. Sane or insane. Rich or poor. Awareness of the vast expanses existing between two poles becomes mired with the ease of pretending they don't exist because it's easier to deal with extremes, to become polarized, to define something—and ourselves—by what it/we are not. Crossroads happen, creating murky spaces. Lines blur and bleed. I also have a tendency to free write, a natural urge, and a tool that many writers use to get their juices flowing. Both—waxing philosophical and writing off the top—are different manifestations of the same voice.
There it is again. Voice. I wrote about it in a recent blog post. Voice cannot be circumvented. Voice is who you are when you choose to express yourself.
The one sure thing that Sloane and I have in common, aside from being African American women, is we both spoke out. Each used her voice to say what was on her mind at a given moment under a certain set of circumstances.
Bill Macatee, sports broadcaster for the French Open, describes Sloane as "bubbly and unfiltered". This is why she is liked, he explained, for her freshness. I would add that with that freshness comes a certain political naïveté. The Williams sisters have many detractors—and Serena is not always 'warm and fuzzy'—among whom you'll find plenty of black people who, among other things, don't like that the sisters are currently dating non African American men. But they also have a huge support base and following, a great deal of status and respect, and have paid their dues many times over, from being discriminated against on the courts (the blatantly wrong line call
in Jennifer Capriati's favor during the 2004 U.S. Open quarterfinals that handed the match to Capriati over Serena), to the murder of their sister, serious injuries, a pulmonary embolism that had Serena believing she would not live much longer, and Venus' diagnosis of Sjorgren's Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that causes fatigue, and drying of tear ducts and salivary glands.
Putting words into the young players' mouths, senior writer for Sports Illustrated, Jon Wertheim, commented that "...you don't want us to be oatmeal. You want us to have color.." And when they do they get taken to task for it. "You want to be out there. You want to be open and candid...", he said. Now Sloane is criticized for being "robotic" in her interviews, practicing circumspection, wary of putting her foot into her mouth again and incurring even greater disdain from mountaintop dwellers. She has jumped back in line, censored for now. The lesson learned is not to say what she is thinking. In all fairness, this rule of thumb applies to everyone to some extent, and certainly until you learn how to say what's on your mind without pulling the pillars down around you.
My Facebook posting got little attention but I pulled it anyway. The visceral response was too strong to ignore. It settled in for days. I had taken a calculated, sober risk, to the extent of deciding I wanted to post on my recent 'professional' page rather than my 'fun' page which has been around years longer. In my opinion, nothing is taken seriously in terms of art on the 'fun' page. There is way to much going on and, as one Facebook friend recently posted, some people just need to keep a journal. My posting was a creative
inspiration and I thought it belonged on my 'professional' page.
Midweek I began to understand what I was feeling. Shame. It wasn't the only emotion, but it was the strongest. It felt like the time I was told as a young girl of eight or nine to go put on a shirt because I was getting too large to go bare-chested. It was a hot summer Sunday in San Antonio and I was twirling like a spinning top with my brothers who were also naked from the waist up. Our chests all looked pretty much identical, but because I was a girl, there was something different about it that I could not see, something that placed a burden on me as a female. I was made to feel that I had done something wrong because it could lead to other things happening, ugly things, that it was in my control to prevent. I had done something morally wrong that I did not understand but which had a profound effect on me.
Shame is a powerful emotion. Toni Morrison writes about shame. It is what distorts and deflects the life of her character, Frank, in Home
: "How he had covered his guilt and shame with big-time mourning for his dead buddies. Day and night he held on to that suffering because it let him off the hook... Now the hook was deep inside his chest and nothing would dislodge it."
When we allow ourselves to feel shame, we are viewing ourselves through a moral lens. A powerful lens of inordinate magnitude and power. When we are marked at a very early age with shame, a trigger later in life can cause it to manifest, often disproportionately so to the trigger. I'm not a psychologist; I have lived this. I felt shame that I might have crossed some unspeakable and invisible boundary, that I'd made an awful mistake without knowing it, even after much contemplation. How would I ever know or be able to trust my instincts ever again?
Taking a chance and succeeding means surviving the risk. I didn't. Not this time.
Sloane is toughening up and so am I.
To say or not to say? That is, however, still the question...