The New York Times Magazine recently posted a stunning visual piece on women’s tennis that features a video gallery of the world’s top players hitting a ball in slow motion. In some ways, the piece takes us a step forward in depictions of female athletes. Rather than simply showing them smiling while holding a racket, we see these women hitting the ball with incredible force --muscles rippling and all, an image only enhanced by the extreme slow motion video.
However, with the exception of seeing these athletes in actual “action,” the piece is more a re-tread on the old theme of emphasizing beauty over athleticism when depicting female athletes. Taken in its full context, the piece unfortunately minimizes the displays of exertion and maximizes sexuality and beauty.
For instance, Serena Williams, arguably the most powerful woman in tennis today, is seen smacking an unseen ball with ferocious intensity. However, that ball explodes in an avalanche of glitter in front of Williams, who is wearing a sequined dress, body glitter and flowing hair. Like Williams, many of the players are wearing body glitter or bronzer while wearing nightclub-style dresses, several not-so-subtle markers of femininity.
Perhaps most troubling is the way several of the athletes’ bodies are literally chopped up, with the camera focusing only on their legs, abs or breasts. For example, viewers see Samantha Stosur’s face for only a split second as the camera zooms into her breasts as she hits the ball, her head literally cut out of the frame. The video of Victoria Azarenka starts at her shoes and slowly pans up her legs, bare stomach and breasts, mimicking the way a film director might shoot a scene to indicate a man “checking out” a woman. The image of her hitting the ball happens only at the very end, and even then her long, loose and untied hair flows around her face in an image closer to what we might see in Sports Illustrated swimsuit than at Wimbledon. In fact, nearly all the women have loose, untied and flowing hair, another common feminine marker.
Even the title of the piece – “The Beauty of Power” – hints at the discomfort we have at a cultural level of associating women with raw physical power. By labeling these images as not just “power” images, but “beautiful images of power,” viewers are reminded that the players are beautiful [read: feminine] and thus “normal women” despite the displays of muscles and exertion.
In these ways, the players are offered as objects of sexual desire, and presented to the viewer from the perspective of the heterosexual male gaze. By doing so, the focus is put on the women’s sexuality rather than on the displays of strength that the camera also captures. Ultimately, despite the video of female athletes in action, the piece is an overall disappointment, especially given the potential it had to present the physical power and athleticism of the women’s tennis elite.