Ways of Seeing Serena

Credit: wikimedia user ‘TwoWings’

So Serena Williams did a photoshoot recently with Harpers Bazaar. You should go check out that link… and then read their article, for context.

Back? Hope you read the article, replete with the pose where Serena shows a glimpse of her naked behind. Because it’s what I’m going to be talking about.

So, Wow. Lots of celebrities have been flaunting their bodies left right and center, but I’ve mostly rolled my eyes and tsk’d with dismay at the ever-tightening correlation between fame, power and nakedness… as it relates to women specifically. Then this.

Microphone thrust: As a Black Woman, how do you feel about Serena’s “Untouched” photo shoot for Harper’s Bazaar?, (asked no-one, to me).

But have blog, will spout, so:

Initial thoughts

Here are my personal sentiments FOR:

  • In the ongoing evolution of the publicity image (come to think of it, I wonder what John Berger would make of this… too bad the author of Ways of Seeing is dead)… in the ongoing evolution of the publicity image, in which the canon of allowable body types morphs and grows, the photo is a reminder that whether you like it or not, whether you find it aesthetically pleasing or not, whether you accept it or not, there are people out there that (once unclothed) look just like Serena. It may as well have had the tagline, “Deal with it!”, and an appropriate gif-meme.

This seems to be the core thrust of most other people’s sentiments FOR:

  • She’s showing that as a strong and powerful woman, she can choose to pose and display her body in any way she desires, and that power means she can do so without any negative socio-economic consequences. Additionally, it takes someone as powerful as Serena to do so in actual lived reality, to drive home the point so that it’s not a mere hypothetical.

This looks good on paper. But a lot of things look good on paper that don’t pan all the way out in reality; I’m gonna come back and look at this point again. More on that later.

Here are my sentiments AGAINST:

  • Serena didn’t need to be the one to carry this particular cross (which for the purposes of this post, we’ll say is ‘women come in all shapes, colors, sizes, and get to have full control of their bodies‘).

However, this is a weak point, because it doesn’t answer the question of who exactly is/was supposed to carry this cross, then. It takes someone with as much social clout as Serena (and, as ever, social clout is a major component of power) and a body that is a couple of standard deviations away from some caucasoid-tinged norm, to lift the heft of this particular cross. In any case, no-one would have paid attention to someone deemed lesser, doing the same work… for even if such a person managed to garner any attention, that outcome would be quickly linked to their lowly social rank… whatever such a person managed to put on display would have been judged as similarly wanting, in all its aspects.

So, a weak against, that I’m in fact retracting. Point: Serena.

Here is the core thrust of other people’s sentiments AGAINST:

  • ewww; gross / I didn’t need to see that.
  • This is not classy / this is tacky / this is beneath her
  • She is rude and needs to take responsibility for her actions (tennis reference) and stop playing victim or turning everything into a feminist fight.

A lot to unpack:

The first category of responses (eww, gross) seem to belong to fundamentalists who really only appreciate photographic evidence of standard-issue, beautiful-by-socially-accepted-norms folks. Noone else is allowed to walk past a camera lens. Presumably these are the sorts of people who also fat-shame people on the beach. I’m sure we can all agree that they can be neatly ignored. They might also be people who just don’t like nakedness, period. Their ire won’t have been stoked by Serena herself, or her race or her morphology. Just a desire for everyone to wear more things. If that were were true, it’d be such a generalist concern that we can also neatly ignore this.

The second category of responses belong to people who seem to be recoiling not at the photograph itself, per se, but at whom they beheld: I mean this is Serena Williams! The GOAT (Greatest of All Time)! Tennis champion of tennis champions! A professional athlete, “reducing” herself to this. You can almost hear the soft clacking of pearls being clutched. The tut-tutting. I mean even I tut-tutted. So are those of us in this category justified? Not nearly as much as we’d like to think. This is similar to my weak argument against.

The last category of responses seemed to belong to people who are just categorically and immutably against her and do not like her, period. We don’t care about judge-y rigidists, who can also be neatly ignored.

Btw: these questionable stats are based on browsing through the boatload of comments under THE photo, on the gram. In the final analysis, The FORs were more vociferous, and greatly outnumbered the AGAINSTs, so I daresay her brand will be just fine.

What I’m left wondering

If this is such a power move, as the FORs are wont to argue, why isn’t Federer’s ass gently peeking out from behind a golden lamé cape, too? Where are the male athletes who want us to understand that they too, have arrived at great power/celebrity… that they too, have complete control of their bodies and can pose these bodies however they want, semi-naked?

I can be accused of having asked a facile question. In any case, I have no choice but to conclude that Federer-ilk athletes and powerful celebs of the masculine persuasion are not (generally) under the impression that they have anything to prove about their bodies. But Serena has been shat on for so long about her body that, she has perhaps genuinely come to believe that she needs to say something about it or at least with it, on her own terms. I can’t imagine how she has coped with the onslaught of policing and commentary aimed at her body: large, meaty, muscular, athletic, toned, brown. That’s a lot of low-hanging fruit for bigoted jerks to play with. And even well-meaning-but-still-jerks, which I suppose is the category I fit in for also commenting on her body-as-photo-shoot without chirruping in un-tempered enthusiasm like the rest of the enlightened sisterhood.

But hang on, I do muster lots of support for her actually. Just not as much as I’d have liked. But first, there’s something else…

On the repeated hijacking of the language of sexual availability, for other things

I put it to you, that there is a language of sexual availability. That’s my hypothesis and I’m going to run with it thusly:

People communicate with this language to intimate partners: It generally involves outright nakedness and hints thereto. It also has its own language of movement and gesture, much like dance. Sex workers know this language. Wives, husbands, partners, lovers of every stripe and every orientation are able to speak this language to each other. We’ve spoken this language for a very, very long time. And there is nothing wrong with this language at all, except that it took a decidedly sinister turn almost from the get-go, when it quickly began to be used to speak mainly about women and girls, and mainly of constraints upon women and girls, but not so much about men and boys.

And it is this, that has made all the difference.
A woman’s nakedness, and her language of sexual availability went THIS way, and a man’s nakedness, and his language of sexual availability, went THAT way.
THIS way lies illicit beauty, guilt, trouble and sin, feminine fault, and shame. Oh, much, MUCH shame.
THAT way lies… well, nothing of much consequence really.

Fast forward to the present day, when we’re busy rewriting the rules that have generally bound women and girls. In our quest to find ways of communicating our un-edited, straight-from-the-horses-mouth-and-no-mansplaining-thank-you-very-much truths, we’ve re-discovered this core thing: this amazing language of sexual availability… and we can’t tear ourselves away from its lopsided potency. We can’t escape its gravity well of seduction. I mean, this is some powerful shit…

My hypothesis is that now, when women want to communicate power, it’s too easy to resort to this same, powerful language of sexual availability… even if only to speak of utterly non-sexual things. It’s too easy to want to communicate the ideas of feminine independence, creativity, strength, courage, skill, intelligence… using the very powerful grammar of female sexual availability and the feminine nakedness that underpins it… but of course, without any of the implied and utterly problematic sexual availability. It’s like women are trying to say “We’re powerful. See? This – look at me! – this means I’m powerful. I’m not necessarily sexually available to you though. Confused? Tough. Figure it out. We were confused too, when we first got the stupid rulebook“.

I suspect a lot of this has come to pass because it’s an unimaginably difficult task, to come up with a brand new language, that allows the twinning of femininity/womanhood with power, in a way that doesn’t also subjugate or deny that same womanhood. In the 80s for example, when women went around with giant shoulder pads and a stern demeanour, it turned out to ultimately deny them their femininity, whatever power was actually achieved in that way. Also, it wasn’t 2019: People lived very much in their binary, gendered roles and so the idea of agendered power and how it might be communicated visually, wouldn’t have been obvious.

However, it is 2019, and the idea of agendered power should be skull-surfing memetically, affecting fashion, photo shoots and look-books everywhere. But that hasn’t really come to pass. Not in power theatre. Not in the realm of celebrity. In these places women are still judged harshly for their looks and their ability to corral said looks into idealized, hyper-feminine forms. They are being asked to put on a performance of, if not outright sexual availability, something like it, that resorts to the same constructs. So you’re a famous, successful woman trying to perform power, but you’re also being asked to perform the feminine, and no well-established, globally-understood language has evolved for the powerful communication of the latter, except the one that communicates the functions of your form (or your form outright).

And so I reckon what happens is, you go – Fuck it: this language is natural to me after all… I speak it fluently if for no other reason than that I identify as female… and what the hey – I also happen to have arrived at some power, so there can be no consequences for me. And isn’t the language of sexual availability also the perfect armor for wading into actual or even pseudo- feminist combat? Because what man can resist it? What man or woman can dare attack it and not easily be written off as a backwards prude? This is raw power that women get to keep for themselves. And in any case the matter of our nakedness, and whether it pleases people or not, and whether we have the morphologies deserving of displays of nakedness or not… all this has been foisted upon us for so long and so hard that we are FUSED with it. At this point, women’s bodies are literally society’s inability to cope with women’s bodies. You can’t blame a lass for saying, at some point, “Hey, we gotta use this. We’d be stupid not to.”

It might explain why I see woman after woman (not all, but a prominent some) get to the summit of their sports/entertainment careers and then it’s like they trip this ‘Go naked, or go home’ switch. A sort of “tits or you didn’t make it” insider double-dare that red-carpeteers of the feminine persuasion know about. I don’t know, I’m guessing! I’m throwing my hands up in the air right now in exasperated un-knowing!

I do know though that I’m repeatedly told to interpret the constant flashing of nakedness… the missing fronts of evening dresses, the thigh-slits with legs poking out, the ample derrieres barely contained in spandex pencil skirts, the flesh-toned see-through meshes, … I’m supposed to interpret it all as “winning”, and power.

I’m not 100% convinced.

For me, nakedness underpins other languages too: art, and the physics of the human body for example: how to draw it; how to sculpt it. All these things require nakedness, in the same way that the language of sexual availability also does. So do some forms of activism (I’d classify Serena’s photo as overlapping a bit with activism): there are places where elder women make protest by going before the (usually male) wielders of abused power and then strip themselves naked before them, unless their demands are met or their pleas are heard. The rationale here is that if men can barely “cope” with nubile females in the nude, they most CERTAINLY CANNOT cope with the sight of grandmas (sometimes their own grandmas) in all their withered, dangling glory (someone tell FEMEN this). Anyhow. All these variants of nakedness, I can get behind.

But celebrity, publicity, and power … all seem somehow a tad shallow, when they also resort to nakedness. Mostly because it seems too easy. Like the way using a black & white photograph to communicate a photographer’s skill is too easy… shit just looks 10 times more evocative by dint of being black & white (a photographer once told me that). Color photographers actually have to do some work. And, I expect people communicating power through celebrity to also do some work. I do accept though, that they don’t have to.

Final thoughts

When people pose completely nude, and that is the point… either as a statement about the human body, or for art, I find it easier to applaud that. When people pose completely nude, for pornographic purposes too, it makes its own kind of sense. I personally don’t appreciate pornography but there’s a rationale there that’s at least consistent with itself. What doesn’t make sense to me, is when an image functions as a publicity image, such as the image in question does… and the person is in a sort of half-dress tease that suggests they could be in the middle of their activities for the day, doing whatever it is that red-carpet-stomping celebrity athletes do, but then all of a sudden whrrrr! A man-made wind-machine and a fake breeze, and ooh la-la! Lift off! The cape fluttering upwards just so, to show us a glimpse of what could have been shown more completely, freely, naturally… without this… this voyeuristic patina.

Ultimately it is the pose that is problematic. It’s not even the glorious butt-cheek or the capable thighs or the strong legs, that I have a problem with (and I’m surprised by myself; I was sure these were going to be the problems for my indefatigable inner prude). But no. It’s the very composition that I find cheap, and… unworthy of Serena herself, somehow. Because something something consumption, power something mumble mumble male gaze something. I don’t know, but something I can’t articulate got muffed up somehow, in how everything is positioned. I think it’s worse that she looks back at us, the viewer. It bothers me. It’s as if she still – this knee deep into power performance – still looks for our approval. It bothers me a little.

If I was the photographer, I honestly would have had her be completely nude, still take the shot from behind, keeping the red-soled stilettos (there isn’t enough time to deconstruct stilettos here). In exposing the whole, you immediately have complete self-referential consistency and there’s nothing left to wonder about. The whiff of voyeurism is gone. And you get to call the whole thing a nude and you have art and you have a clear purpose. It would still make a statement because she has the body that she has. I’d tweak the stance slightly to an equally powerful one that most women would relate to: one that rests slightly more of the weight on one leg. It would show off her legs even better! I would have her look straight ahead, or to the side…

But I still feel that its too bad that there aren’t enough ways to say what a powerful woman like this needs to say, without relying so much on revelations of her actual body. Even if there’s nothing wrong with a revealed body per se (and there isn’t), I do doubt its ability to truly empower when half the population consistently misconstrues the arrangement, while not taking any part whatsoever in such shedding of clothes themselves.

But what do I know. Serena is out here triumphantly kicking all kinds of ass (so is her photographer, I’ll bet), and I, patently, am not. Isn’t that all we need to know? I rather think it is. Carry on, then…

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