Last week David Frum was widely denounced for reacting to a New York Times article about Serena Williams’ late career resurgence to Barry Bonds-like dominance (and how her rivals are hamstrung by society’s outmoded body image prejudices that discourage them from bulking up like Serena does) with bemused skepticism rather than with the conventional hosannas for Serena’s strength and feminine beauty.
Here’s Wolf Blitzer grilling Frum on CNN over his lack of blind feminist patriotic chauvinism. How dare Frum express doubts just because of the last 27 years of doping scandals befalling sports heroes and heroines? Has he no faith in America’s millionaire jocks?
Sure, in 2011, the Toronto Star ran a pictorial comparison of the biceps of top tennis players called “Wimbledon Arms Race” that concluded with this caption:
But really, Serena Williams takes the cake. Her arms look more muscled than Roger Federer’s thighs. No wonder she has such a powerful serve.But why is that reason for anything other than all-out praise of our latest sporting superheroine? That would be Noticing, which can get you in trouble. What journalist ever got fired for Not Noticing?
Meanwhile, the poor freelancer who wrote the NYT article about how the other women players are too hamstrung by societal body image prejudice to Serenaize themselves got himself lambasted by NYT readers and its Public Editor:
Double Fault in Article on Serena Williams and Body Image? By MARGARET SULLIVAN JULY 13, 2015 Comments“Having a conversation” is SJW for “STFU.”
When The Times’s sports staff gave the green light to an article proposed by a frequent freelancer, Ben Rothenberg, intentions were good. Here was an opportunity to illuminate a pervasive problem in women’s sports, the old and troubling notions of what a female athlete should look like, and to do so through the views of the athletes themselves. Mr. Rothenberg even had the tennis superstar Serena Williams on the record with thoughtful quotes.
Mr. Rothenberg and his editors said they took special pains to make the story balanced and sensitive.
But by Friday afternoon, many readers were aghast. They were calling the article (and even The Times itself) racist and sexist. They were deploring the article’s timing, which focused on body image just when Ms. Williams was triumphing at Wimbledon. The article, they said, harmed progress in bringing equality and recognition to women’s sports — something happening that very day with New York City’s first ticker-tape parade for a team of female athletes, the World Cup champion United States soccer team.
One longtime subscriber, Lisa Leshne, wrote to me: “Why is this even a story? Why does the newspaper feel the need to talk about Serena’s body type? What’s with the obsession over ‘perceived ideal feminine body type?’” From her point of view, “She’s a champion, she’s strong and successful, that’s the story.”
Others were tougher still. Claire Potter, in a post on outhistory.org, wrote: “I don’t know why I am surprised that The New York Times would publish a piece that supports female body hatred, that a male reporter would support such a narrow beauty standard for women, or that women’s tennis players would be proud of their endless willingness to be gender police for each other. But I am.” …
Mr. Stallman, like Mr. Rothenberg, acknowledged that some aspects of the article might have been handled differently. The timing, coming just before Ms. Williams’s Wimbledon win on Saturday, created a “buzzkill” when fans were becoming “more and more buoyant” about the likelihood of the American player’s triumph, he said. …
Most of all, it’s unfortunate that this piece didn’t find a way to challenge the views expressed, instead of simply mirroring them.
Including the perspectives of those who could have unpacked the underlying issues, while also considering the article’s timing and staying away from reductive social-media techniques – all of this could have made for a more productive conversation. And that conversation is still worth having.