Of course this is a controversial image.
The last women to grace this particular SI issue solo were “American Sweethearts” Mary Decker (1983) and Chris Evert (1976). Decker’s photo layers a portrait of the runner in her street clothes over another image of her finishing a race. She leans into the picture, her body excised by the image’s frame. She is dressed like a pretty suburban mom in a monochromatic jacket and turtleneck. Her pose and her expression suggest a woman embarrassed to be taking up even the space she occupies here. Sorry! she says with a smile.
This is, actually, light years ahead of the cover for the 1976 issue of SI dedicated to Chris Evert. There is no way on earth Serena Williams isn’t acutely aware of this photograph.
Evert is wearing the kind of restrictive tennis costume women players were forced to wear, in another century. She does not look like she has just walked off a tennis court. She looks like she just fell into an Edith Wharton novel. She is the picture of a proper white lady.
The 2015 issue is notable for oh so many reasons. Among those reasons is the way the cover sidelines the issue of gender difference and also foregrounds it. Gender difference is always a problem for women athletes who must both demonstrate that yes, they are women and apologize, as women, for existing. This cover image is assertive and unapologetic about Serena as a sexual subject.
The title of the award itself has been loosened from gender — this year it is “sportsperson” instead of “sportswoman.” This is a signal: things are getting more interesting. In years past, even in the context of issues dedicated to more than one athlete — e.g. 1984’s issue, celebrating Mary Lou Retton and Edwin Moses or 2011’s issue dedicated to Pat Summitt and Mike Krzyzewski — the awards were titled “Sportsman” and “Sportswoman” of the year.
The thing about that word “sportswoman” is that it asserts a regime of femininity, at the expense of the athlete’s sexuality. It reminds us that the entire world of sports is segregated, and that its rituals tend to body forth contradiction, ambivalence and anxiety regarding just what that segregation is about.This is how one arrives at the idea of putting Cris Evert in Edwardian Lady Drag. That outfit is not about asserting her athleticism or her sexual power. It is, in fact, about restricting both. It is about framing her body within the gendered architecture of restricted movement.
Sexuality, in Serena’s cover image, pushes back against the raced and classed codes of femininity that govern the “proper” presentation of women athletes around the world. In this image, sexuality is freed, if you will, from the discourse of gender difference which evacuates all signs of strength and power from the feminine subject. That, of course, is entwined with racist discourse which figures a black woman’s sexuality as excessive, and as “unfeminine” and in which a black woman’s athleticism appears as some kind of interference with her womanliness — indeed, with her humanity.
A number of writers defend Serena’s cover image as a celebration of her femininity. But this is only part of that image’s story. For what is her femininity? The fuck-me heels? The spread of her legs? The dare in her expression? Femininity is a very poor word for Serena’s styling, pose and posture here. The proper feminine subject, for example, does not spread her legs for anyone. She does not wear shoes like that. She wears more clothes. Especially if she is an athlete, she makes herself look demure, or sexless.
I see, in this image choice, the ghost of Evert’s corset, re-presented here within the language of sexual domination.
Here, Serena gives us a glimpse of her sexual power. This portrait is intentionally sexy. It is dominating. She is the master of her sexual power, and in this context, that mastery is a shiny reflection of the control she has over her athletic power. With this image, she asserts that she will do exactly what she want to do, and that this is, in fact, also what we want her to do.