Drawing by Aran Macfarlane
At their post-match interviews for the 2015 Australian Open, Serena Williams and Eugenie Bouchard were asked by a journalist to, “give us a twirl!”
That Serena Williams and Eugenie Bouchard were subject to that infantilising request in their post-match interview at the 2015 Australian Open – that a journalist could conceivably believe it appropriate, before world-class athletes, to enact the role of a doting parent behind a video camera at their toddler’s first ballet recital – was baffling. The incident received its due share of media criticism and outcry, but what it represented was not an outlier (unlike the arguably objectifying connotations of Judy Murray’s christening of Feliciano Lopez, “Deliciano” Lopez). Rather, the request for Williams and Bouchard to twirl was paradigmatic of the pervasiveness of pejorative attitudes towards female athletes taken to a ludicrous extreme. In its cringe-worthy explicitness, ‘twirl-gate’ only brought to the surface gendered assumptions which silently underlie the arenas of professional sport daily, breeding a culture of sexism and inequality in the industry.
Perhaps most problematic is the fundamental assumption regarding the inherent superiority of male athletic ability. Serena Williams has highlighted the way in which this assumption is embedded in the linguistic discourse of male and female athletic achievement. While Roger Federer was lauded with the acronym “GOAT” (Greatest of All Time) after breaking Pete Sampras’ record for the most Grand Slams won in the open era at Wimbledon in 2012, Serena Williams at Wimbledon in 2016 was asked about being "one of the greatest female athletes of all time". The word “male” did not enter the discourse surrounding Federer. He was not the GMOAT – because that would have been a tautology in a world operating under the logic that to be the world’s best male tennis player is equivalent to being the overall best tennis player. This same sexism was at play in William’s Wimbledon press conference with the demeaning act of an interviewer asking a female athlete to twirl before a camera. The logic of the former discourse is the more insidious for the covert way in which it functions, and as such, represents an even more problematic paradigm. Refusing to play the demure role often expected of women in society, Serena Williams called out the covert sexism of the press’ discourse, replying to that journalist: "I prefer the word 'one of the greatest athletes of all time'".
Perhaps what is most worrying is that while I have used examples of the challenges which beset women’s tennis, this is one of the sports in which female athletes are considered ‘better off’. Indeed, reforms over the last few years have seen female prize money in tennis’ Grand Slams equal that of their male counterparts. Yet, in many other sports the pay gap remains astoundingly vast. Within football for example, while the prize money for the male winners of the FIFA World cup would be between 35 and 50 million, the Women’s FIFA World Cup prize money amounts to roughly 2 million. Unfortunately, such an inordinate pay gap between male and female athletes is a majority. When it comes to the world of professional sport and a discourse of “millions” in terms of prize money comes into play, there is a temptation to see it as negligible, immoral even, to be discussing the issue in terms of injustice. However, the pay gap in the world of professional sport is part of the wider struggle of women in all professions to be recognised as equals to their male counterparts, and it is a vital struggle.
It comes back to the need to change the perceptions and assumptions that pervade our culture and imbue sport as a male prerogative. The need to recognise female athletic achievement in the professional sphere is vital, not only to do justice to the female athletes themselves, but for the example it sets to the younger generation of women. They need to see female achievement in sport validated in order to view their own efforts within that realm as legitimate. When female athletes are paid less, given less exposure on television and in the media generally – and when they are given media attention, demeaned – how are we to expect girls and women to be encouraged to play sport for leisure, let alone pursue it professionally? Leading an active lifestyle is a health issue, but more pressing is the wider issue of equal opportunities that should be open to women no matter what career they want to pursue.
Bouchard put her hands to her face in embarrassment after she was asked to twirl. But it’s not the likes of Bouchard who should have to feel ashamed; it’s those of us who participate in a culture of demeaning female athletic achievement – who use the off-hand remark ‘you throw like a girl’ – who should feel a sense of shame. •
Tasha May is a first year English Literature student and is the Pembroke Street photographer. You can find her reviews of all things food-related on the website.