WRAP for USSO – Serena Williams: Race, Representation and Feminism

 

Each year the University of Winchester invites undergraduate students to apply to participate in the Winchester Research Apprenticeship Programme (WRAP). An extra-curricular scheme, WRAP provides students with the opportunity to work with academic staff on ‘live’ research projects lasting up to four weeks. [i] Since WRAP’s inception, students in the University of Winchester’s Faculty of Arts (home to our American Studies programme) have worked with tutors on projects involving everything from academic publications, textual editing and curriculum research, to field study research, immersive study experiences, performances, and more. WRAP provides a fantastic opportunity for students to broaden their knowledge, research experience, and skills, while working on research that compliments their academic and professional development. 

This reflective piece shares and explores a case study WRAP project from our American Studies programme which aimed to contribute to the enhancement of an existing final year module, entitled: ‘African American History and Culture’. As its title suggests, this is a broad module that examines the historic and contemporary socio-political situation of African America, including the burden and legacy of slavery, various strands of black political and feminist thought, and an exploration of the representation of African Americans in written, visual and archival sources. With the aim of situating issues of gender and women’s history and culture more centrally within the module, this project built on the module leader’s doctoral research, examining the influence of race on women in the contemporary U.S., and responded directly to the historian Kate Dossett’s assertion that African American history is often presumed to be a history of men (2015).

Over the course of four weeks, two final year undergraduate students considered the significance of the figure of Serena Williams as a site through which we, as scholars and students, may examine and explore the many interlinking facets of African American women’s history, culture and activism, as well as better comprehend often complex historical and contemporary issues concerning constructs of race and gender in the U.S. (and beyond). They conducted scholarly, archival and media research relating to existing debates on intersectionality, contemporary feminist discourse, representation, and African American women in sport. At the end of the project, the students completed a short literature review highlighting what they considered were the central themes, research and primary case study sources that would allow for a broader and more detailed exploration of African American women’s history and culture on the existing module through analysis of Williams as a cultural case study. Their findings are summarised below.

Serena Williams: A Case Study

The multi-layered and intersecting nature of African American women’s oppression in the U.S. has long been the defining feature of black women’s and black feminist studies since the 1980s, with the work of Bonnie Thornton Dill, Barbara Smith, and bell hooks often credited with the establishment of such programmes in the U.S. during the period following the Civil Rights and Second Wave Feminist movements.[ii] Kimberlé Crenshaw’s coining of the term ‘intersectionality’ to describe layering of identities and the many axes of oppression experienced by black women (namely race, gender, class, and sexuality, among others) in her 1991 article, “Mapping the Margins”, has since provided a conceptual framework from which race and gender studies scholars, as well as feminist activists and the wider public, can better comprehend the complexity of oppression as experienced by women of colour. [iii] Moreover, and importantly, the concept of intersectionality is central to any examination of the ways in which women of colour have contested dominant and harmful narratives regarding their identities. It is within this critical context that we must consider the significance of the figure of Serena Williams and her mediation of racial and gendered identity within the white mainstream of popular and sports culture in the U.S. 

In reviewing existing literature on Williams, as well as wider literature relating to intersectionality, issues of representation, and women of colour in sport, it is evident that Williams’ career trajectory, experiences of racist and sexist commentary and abuse, and her successes both on and off the tennis court have captured and spoken to the on-going challenges faced by women of colour in the U.S. that have resulted directly from racially exclusive institutional structures, or what Melissa Harris-Perry has termed the “crooked room”. [iv] What is discussed most frequently in the literature on Williams is the surveillance and policing of her body. Critic Delia Douglas argues that “surveillance is significant precisely because it currently functions as a sophisticated form of suppression and control in multiracial and multicultural societies”, suggesting that it is in examining the ways in which black women’s bodies are policed that we may best comprehend pervasive systems of racial and gendered oppression within often superficially more inclusive industries (such as sports), as well as wider society. [v] In the context of the still overwhelmingly white sport of tennis, this has been evident in the ways in which white players, commentators, audiences and the media have responded to Williams, with commentary often focusing on her body shape, the way her body is perceived to perform in comparison to white women and men players, and her attire – as explored by Fleetwood (2015), Hobson (2003), Ifekwunigwe (2009), Litchfield et al (2018) and Schultz (2004), among others. All of these studies have situated such surveillance and commentary within the historical and critical contexts of racial and gendered stereotyping, born out of American slavery and scientific racism, and perpetuated by mainstream (white) culture into the twenty-first century. 

Serena Williams at the Cincinnati Masters

Through examining the ways in which Williams is stereotyped and constructed within the sport, as well as the media and social media coverage of it, we may in turn better comprehend the methods of contestation that she engages with through both the mediation of her own racial and gendered identity and her activism within and beyond the game. Serena Williams is not only following in the footsteps of those who came before her, figures such as Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe – both of whom broke through oppressive barriers within the sport, but she is extending her influence and engagement with social and political issues beyond the game itself. Harry Edwards’ study of the four waves of activism (2017) provides us with a critical framework relating to the ways in which people of colour have engaged with activism, becoming (through choice or expectation) representatives of the African American or African American female community in doing so. Williams has become a figurehead of black feminist resistance and the contestation of harmful images and narratives about black femaleness in recent years, not only through her unparalleled success and visibility within a still predominantly and institutionally white sport, but through her activism, her charitable work and her cultural capital and influence. Williams is now the highest earner of prize money in the game and the highest earning woman athlete in the world, according to Forbes.[vi] She is also a spokesperson for women’s issues both within and outside of the game, notably through her work to achieve equal pay and prize money for female tennis players and her on-going efforts to bring awareness to issues of black maternal and infant mortality (including her maternal mortality start up, 2019). In addition, Williams has championed causes supporting women business founders through the establishment of Serena Ventures (2019) and her collaborative work with business woman Whitney Wolf Herd to provide funding for women of colour entrepreneurs (2019).

The causes that Williams is championing, alongside the significance of her tennis success, can all be read and understood to contest structural racism, sexism and pervasive privileging of whiteness. Williams has established a public platform through which she can – and has chosen to – engage in activism and philanthropy, working to deconstruct the ‘crooked room’ through which women of colour experience the world and raising our race and gender consciousness in the process. Her mediation of race and gender, her cultural influence, and her financial investments are indicative not only of the successes of the African American women pioneers who came before her (not limited to the tennis court), but a demonstration of the ways in which she employs her mainstream public platform to represent and uplift other women, and women of colour specifically. As a scholarly case study, Williams not only forces us to consider the historical contexts and critical understandings of African American women’s oppression, but – importantly – the successful contestation of this oppression within cultural, social and political arenas. Moreover, it is through such case study exploration and analysis that students and scholars studying African American history and culture may consider more centrally the fundamental and intrinsic importance of the study of gender.


Juliet Winter is an Associate Lecturer and PhD candidate at the University of Winchester. Her PhD thesis examines constructs of racial and gendered identity in the contemporary U.S., drawing upon transatlantic feminist scholarship and critical race theory in its analysis of representations of race and gender in American popular culture, politics and sport. Her recent research and publications have considered the cultural significance of Beyoncé and her 2016 visual album, Lemonade, in relation to contemporary debates surrounding intersectionality, feminism and representation. Alongside her PhD research, Juliet teaches on the University of Winchester’s American Studies programme, co-ordinates the Winchester Research Apprenticeship Programme (WRAP) scheme in the university’s Faculty of Arts and is a Senior Researcher in Learning and Teaching Development.

Anna Bor is a graduate (2019) of the English with American Literature programme at the University of Winchester. Her final year dissertation explored the genre of ‘bildungsroman’ through J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) as the American, and Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight (1937) as the Hungarian, archetype of the genre. Her recent publication in the University’s student academic journal, Alfred, examined Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) as a core text in the study of African American feminist literature. Alongside her studies, Anna represented the university as an International Student Ambassador, Course Champion and worked as a researcher for the WRAP scheme.

Ashleigh Hannay is an American Studies graduate (2019) from the University of Winchester. Her research interests and academic writings have focused mainly around African American history and culture, particularly the ways in which black identity is represented in popular media. Her dissertation examined the evolving representations of black masculinity in films of the sixties, seventies and present day. Her recent publication in the university’s Alfred journal discussed the complexities surrounding what may constitute a positive representation of black masculinity in contemporary film, using Moonlight (2016) and Barry (2016) as case studies. In addition to this WRAP project, Ashleigh worked on a 2018 WRAP project in which she collaborated with students from the University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire to examine the contrasts and similarities between the black experience in the US and the UK.


Works cited:

Badenhausen, Kurt. ‘The Highest-Paid Female Athletes 2019: Serena Williams and Osaka Dominate’, Forbes, 6 August 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kurtbadenhausen/2019/08/06/the-highest-paid-female-athletes-2019-serena-and-osaka-dominate/#58c0b1572fcc – accessed 13/11/2019.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43 (1991): 1241-1291.

Douglas, Delia D. ‘Venus and Serena, and the Inconspicuous Consumption of Blackness: A New Racism(s)’, Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 43, No. 2 (March 2012). Pp 127-145. 

Edwards, Harry, The Revolt of the Black Athlete. Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2017.

Fleetwood, Nicole R. ‘The Black Athlete: Racial Precarity and the American Sports Icon’ in On Racial Icons: Blackness and Public Imagination, Rutgers University Press; U.S. 2015. Pp81-110.

Hinchcliffe, Emma. ‘Serena Williams and Mark Cuban Invest in Start Up Fighting Maternal Mortality’, Fortune. 15 July 2019. https://fortune.com/2019/07/15/mahmee-serena-williams-mark-cuban/ – accessed 13/11/2019.

Hobson, Janell, ‘The “Batty” Politic: Toward an Aesthetic of the Black Female Body’, Hypatia 18 (2003): 87-105

Ifekwunigwe, Jayne O. ‘Venus and Serena are ‘doing it’ for themselves: Theorising sporting celebrity, class and Black feminism for the Hip Hop generation’, in Marxism. Cultural Studies and Sport, edited by Ben Connington and Ian McDonald, Routledge; London. 2009. 

Schultz, Jamie. “Reading the Catsuit: Sereana Williams and the Production of Blackness at the 2002 US Open”, Journal of Sport and Social Issues 3 (2005): 338-357. 

Serena Ventures Website, https://www.serenaventures.com/ – accessed 13/11/2019.


[i] In the Faculty of Arts, WRAP is open to undergraduate students who are in their second year of study or who are in their final year of study and can demonstrate how the scheme will be an aid to their intended career or research plans (for example, developing knowledge and/ or skills for postgraduate study).

[ii] Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge, Intersectionality, Polity Press; Cambridge (UK). 2016. Pp34-35.

[iii] Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge, Intersectionality, Polity Press; Cambridge (UK). 2016. Pp81.

[iv] Melissa V. Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, Yale University Press; London. 2011.

[v] Delia D. Douglas, ‘Venus and Serena, and the Inconspicuous Consumption of Blackness: A New Racism(s)’, Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 43, No. 2 (March 2012). Pp128.

[vi] Kurt Badenhausen, ‘The Highest-Paid Female Athletes 2019: Serena Williams and Osaka Dominate’, Forbes, 6 August 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kurtbadenhausen/2019/08/06/the-highest-paid-female-athletes-2019-serena-and-osaka-dominate/#58c0b1572fcc – accessed 13/11/2019.

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