Serena Williams and the Politics of Imaging
By: Hina Ahmed
It goes without saying that Serena Williams is certainly a force to be reckoned with. As a woman, more specifically as a black woman Serena has earned many accolades with over 23 grand slam titles, several Olympic gold medal wins, and rankings as the number one female tennis player in the world, Serena is more than deserving of shrines in her name. Although she has been predominantly presented as an athlete, Serena now unravels a complex narrative associated with a new kind of image where she poses as a nude, pregnant, black woman, strikingly presiding over the front cover of Vanity Fair magazine’s most recent addition. Like most contemporary images, this image of Serena encapsulates and invites a variety of interpretations of representation and explores the often overlapping, yet under seen spaces between empowerment and exploitation, rendering the need for a reconfiguration of our understanding of a woman’s agency, or capacity to act as an agent over one’s own life.
When looking at the image, Serena is standing sideways sporting her baby bump, covering her breasts with one hand, her long, black hair flowing behind her, and her face peacefully gazing forward. For some viewers, this image embodies notions of both transcendence and resistance to the nefarious ruptures of racism and patriarchy and may even be seen as a vociferous victory against them. However, a closer examination of the narrative behind Serena’s image will seek to present a context that challenges contemporary reductionist feminist celebrations of her image as untarnished manifestations of a post-racial, post-patriarchal, postcolonial world order, suggesting instead a narrative that both implicitly and explicitly exposes the ongoing relevancy and pernicious proliferation of structures of violence within the context of image representation in our mass media.
New wave feminists may view Serena’s image as a symbol of victory for black feminism because it seems to signify freedom of expression, self-ownership and a sense of control over not only a woman’s body, but a black woman’s body, as well as that of a pregnant body, seemingly celebrating a nexus of intersections of womanhood, blackness, and motherhood, as it parades in occupancy at the front-and-center of a major global magazine. On the one hand, the image seems to succeed in offering a contrast to the predominant white, waif-like images of women in magazines and presents to the viewer that a black woman’s body can and should have equal access to space and influence, thereby enacting what some may see as a form of racial equity and an explicit exercising of Serena’s agentic power.
However, I would like to challenge these conceptions through the ideological framework of traditional black feminism, as presented by the author Maria Davidson, in her work titled, Black Women, Agency and the New Black Feminism and urge an evaluation of a more contoured and jagged terrain that Serena William’s image is unavoidably enmeshed in; one that situates her as a subject within the multifaceted intersectionalities of the colonial body, as they meet the porous periphery of racial and patriarchal structures of violence that render both our attention and accountability. According to Davidson, traditional black feminism is a kind of discourse that views black women as having a unique standpoint “because black women’s political and economic status provides us with a distinctive set of experiences that offers a different view of material reality than that to other groups.” I would like to support Davidson’s claims that successful black women, (that I am more specifically suggesting) like Serena Williams, exercise an agency of sorts, but that it is never simply a given.
As a naked black woman, Serena’s body carries a different kind of politics than that of a naked white woman. Although the pillars of the patriarchy influence both of these bodies, the black body is transfixed within the inescapable parameters of the racist ideological legacy of slavery. According to Shawan M. Worsely’s work in Audience, Agency and Identity in Popular Black Culture, “the appropriation of the black body and its labor during slavery has created an ongoing crisis of legitimacy and further renders the question of who is authorized to create it?” Furthermore, he states, “the stakes are higher for images of black bodies because of the legacy of slavery.” Although Serena may have consented to having this image taken, it posits a central question of the role that the historical context of her choice has on her access and ability to exercise a certain kind of agency, as well as impacts the nature of the gaze in which her image is being consumed; introducing the plausibility of proliferating exploitation.
New wave feminists would argue that Serena’s image as a pregnant woman offers a contrast to images and stereotypes of black women in the media that are often presented as oversexed, licentious, and bestial, framing her instead as maternal and angelic, standing before an institution of marriage, to a white man, and therefore far less parasitic to society. However, Serena’s pregnancy situates her within another complex narrative as it pertains to the context of black women and their reproductive bodies, thereby introducing a new set of stereotypes and historical contexts. The image also renders the question of how Serena’s upper class, celebrity status as a baby carrier to fiancé, Alexis Ohanian, serves to interact with the historical appropriation of the pregnant black woman and questions the impact of these forces on the enactment of her personal agency.
Davidson continues to explore this in her work, Black Women, Agency, and the New Black Feminism and evaluates the role that the reproduction of the black woman has had in the United States. She states that after emancipation, black women’s wombs were no longer a productive resource to be exploited, but instead came to be seen as a threat to white society. Davidson explores the work of Patricia Hills Collins In Black Feminist Thought, who looks at the categories in which black women’s images have been controlled post emancipation. She states that black women’s bodies are seen as the mammy, the jezebel, the matriarch, and the welfare mother, with each one being appropriated in the white imagination differently. The mammy is represented as “faithful, obedient servant,” the jezebel as the “sexually aggressive female body,” the matriarch as the “bad, black, mother,” and the “welfare mother” whose fertility is seen as unnecessary and dangerous to the rest of society.
It is the image of the “welfare mother” that most represents the “breeder” image from slavery and it is as a result of this parasitic ideological framework that an alarming billboard emerged in 2010 in Austin, Texas that read, “The Most Dangerous Place for Black People is in the Womb.” According to Davidson, this billboard implicitly compared the black female body to a death chamber and marks all black women as potential murderers of their children. Davidson continues to critique the organization of Planned Parenthood, which she states is notorious amongst the black community for creating an agenda of eugenics and genocide specifically targeting black women. This historical tapestry presents a relevancy that begs the question of how Serena Williams image is embedded within it, outside of it, and perhaps somewhere in between it. The perception of Serena’s reproduction also brings into the forefront both her upper-class status, as well as the relevance of the white racial make-up of her partner, which renders the question of: Is Serena’s fertility more valuable, less detestable, less diseased as a result of her class status and her allied partnership to a white man? How would Serena’s fertility be read by the likes of Vanity Fair, and other mainstream media magazines had her partner been a black man? Would she be presented and received with equal honor, grace, and visibility?
Serena’s image further raises questions of the authorization over one’s body and the way in which it interacts with agentic power. It is no surprise that Vanity Fair grew out of the founding figurehead of a white man named Conde Montrose Nast, the racial context of which is relevant to situating the magazine within the larger framework of a patriarchal regime and the ways in which it appropriates images of women for economic gains. The patriarchy is intermittently linked to the devouring fangs of capitalism, which further entrench economic forces and capital motivation behind image production, thereby diluting agentic potency through the toxic infiltration of social coercion.
As viewers, we are presented with a myriad of historical contexts toward our image consumption, questions that would shift our gaze from one of passivity, to one of active engagement, rendering questions such as: How do we acknowledge and interact with what Professor Joe Parker describes as the immanent complicities (in his essay titled, Questioning Appropriation: Agency and Complicity in a Transnational Feminist Location Politics) toward racism, post colonialism, sexism, and capitalism within images that are produced in our mass media? Parker argues that the nature of consumption inevitability both embodies and disembodies facets of agency, which raises the question of: How do we as consumers of image both engage and interrogate images simultaneously? As well as, how do we situate this complexity of a woman’s agency within our narrative today?
It is precisely through the opening of space with this kind of critical confrontation that we can begin to dismantle the forces of historical structural domination and move toward an age that further fuels the activation of agency and leads to alternative transformation.
Davidson, Maria. Black Women, Agency, and the New Black Feminism. New York and London: Taylor and Francis Groups, 2017. Web.
Parker, Joe. “Questioning Appropriation: Agency and Complicity in a Transnational Feminist Politics.” Journal of Feminist Scholarship 3. (Fall 2012): 1–18. Web.
Worsley. Shawan. Audience, Agency and Identity in Black Popular Culture. 1. Routledge, 2013. Web.
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