athletes · competition

Women and Wimbledon

BartoliOn Saturday Marion Bartoli of France became the 2013 Wimbledon women’s champion. Winning Wimbledon, one of the four Grand Slam tournaments on the professional tennis circuit, is a big deal. The road to the final is long and demanding. Over the course of two weeks, Bartoli had to play and win matches in the first three rounds, then the round of sixteen, then the quarter finals, the semis, and finally she outplayed Sabine Lisciki for the championship.

That’s pretty awesome. It takes a tough, talented competitor to become the Wimbledon champion.

And so it’s infuriating and depressingly typical that the BBC commentator, John Inverdale, chose to focus on her looks. Commenting on Bartoli’s technique, the experienced commentator said:

“I just wonder if her dad, because he has obviously been the most influential person in her life, did say to her when she was 12, 13, 14 maybe, ‘listen, you are never going to be, you know, a looker.

“‘You are never going to be somebody like a Sharapova, you’re never going to be 5ft 11, you’re never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that.

“‘You are going to have to be the most dogged, determined fighter that anyone has ever seen on the tennis court if you are going to make it’, and she kind of is.”

Say what?  According to this report, the BBC received over 674 complaints over Inverdale’s comments.  And he has sent Bartoli a written apology for his remarks.

But that he felt comfortable making such inane remarks in the first place is disturbing further evidence that women in sport, even the champions, are under constant scrutiny to see if they “look the part.” Looking the part is frequently associated with being sexy and beautiful.

Last week, Caitlin at Fit and Feminist posted an insightful commentary on a popular ad about an upcoming women’s surfing competition. The ad focuses on a single faceless surfer woman getting out of bed in the morning, showering, pulling on her clothes, walking into the surf with her board, and floating away. Lots of ass shots, lots of long blond hair, no actual surfing. Please!  Can we focus on the women’s athleticism for a change?

The comparison of Bartoli with Sharapova, who Inverdale clearly considers ‘a looker,’ is insulting to both women.

Sharapova is an outstanding tennis player who deserves recognition for her talents.  It’s frustrating when commentators focus on her looks instead, as if being a “looker” helps her beat her opponents on the court.

Bartoli appears to have taken the comments in stride, responding:

“It doesn’t matter, honestly. I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact,” she said after the match. “Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No. I’m sorry. But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes.”

This article notes that no one made any comments about Murray’s looks. No, Murray is a true champion!

And that brings me to the other insult of this year’s Wimbledon tournament.  If you watched the coverage, they really played up Murray being the first Brit (note that he’s actually a Scot, only important to the Brits when he loses) to win Wimbledon since 1936.

Except he’s not.  Unless you don’t think women are people, as Chloe Angyal tweeted.  The claim that Murray is the first Brit to win the tournament since the thirties summarily erases Virginia Wade, Wimbledon women’s champion in 1977, from history. And by the way, three other British women have won the championship since 1936, when Fred Perry became the last British man to claim victory on the grass courts of Wimbledon.

Dorothy Round Little won the women’s singles – for the second time in her career – one year later, in 1937. Angela Mortimer won the championship in 1961, and underdog Ann Haydon-Jones beat legend of the sport Billie Jean King to win again in 1969.

Back to Bartoli, who has a lot to offer women’s sport and stands strongly as her own person. According to this article, she makes people uncomfortable because she is “odd.” She’s odd because she’s unself-conscious:

The general takeaway from Bartoli’s win is that this tournament got what it deserved, a winner who’s odd. The tone of the stories was charmed, but on Twitter the jokes were edgier. Bartoli makes a lot of people nervous. Her attitude on the court is awesomely unembarrassed. She faces the backstop, scrawls of sweaty hair across her face, eyes crazy, feet thudding, arms swinging wildly, before turning to charge the service line. One game away from winning Wimbledon, she sat during the changeover with a dead stare and a piece of banana stuck to her face. Fondly or not, she is called nerdy, quirky, eccentric. The strangest thing about her is that, unlike most of us, she doesn’t seem to care what other people think. She is who she is.

Her self-confidence allowed her to show a more human side of herself than most champions do post-victory.  Commenting on how she felt when her opponent, Sabine Lacsciki, started crying in the second set, Bartoli said:

“I felt I wanted to take her in my arms at some point,” Bartoli said. “I felt so sorry for her – it was hard to see her like that. To cry on court during a Wimbledon final, you must feel so lonely. I just wanted to help her, tell her: ‘It’s OK, it’s just a tennis match.’ The hug we had after the match was extremely sweet. It was just perfect, showing our human values.”

And she realizes that her Wimbledon championship makes her a very good role model for girls who aspire to play professional tennis:

“For children who want to be a tennis champion one day, it gives them the will to be a professional player,” she argued. “It can be boring to see the same players winning every time. If it was just Serena taking all the slams, then people might start to think: ‘Why should I try?’ Then they see me who is not very tall, not very fast, just a normal girl winning a grand slam. That is a good inspiration for some girls.”

I’m glad to have found post-match articles that focus on her in a positive way, both in terms of her athleticism and her other qualities.

But I think the headline of this Guardian editorial gets it right: “After his comments about Marion Bartoli at Wimbledon, John Inverdale should be kept off the air: Isn’t it time the BBC woke up to the sexism at the heart of its broadcasting?”

But I wouldn’t limit it to the BBC. Sexism at the heart of sports broadcasting is so rampant as to be regarded as normal.  The focus on female athletes appearance is a big part of the problem.  Inverdale’s remarks just highlight what anyone who might look at sports and sports media with a critical feminist eye already knows.


13 thoughts on “Women and Wimbledon

  1. It’s all incredibly depressing if not surprising. And it’s sad too that Inverdale said that he apologised to Bartoli ‘if’ he caused any offence which suggests that he still doesn’t recognise that his remarks were wrong. I think the trouble is that many men just don’t realise that these comments ‘are’ actually offensive. I was involved in an incident the other day where we were playing mixed touch rugby on the beach and the guy organising it suddenly said, ‘Right, from now on only girls can score’. I remarked that it was a patronising comment and that I was quite happy playing as we were. He got pretty upset about this and said he was only trying to get the ‘weaker’ girls more involved in the game and had forgot I was playing. He then changed the rule to ‘only girls except Emily can score’. Maybe I was a bit over-sensitive about it but I just hated the fact that I was being singled out as a ‘weaker’ player simply because I was female. I know he meant well but there were also guys who were weak players too. Personally I’d rather that sport were completely gender-blind but then I know that most women wouldn’t accept this for many reasons (notably that they’d probably be even less visible in sport). I don’t know what the answer is but as you say, a start is that there has to be a much greater determination to ensure women are valued on their ability rather than their looks or gender. Bartoli is a wonderful example of an athlete that seems to just get on with playing rather than worry about what people say about what she looks like. All credit to her.

    1. You’re so right to point out the weakness of those conditional apologies “sorry IF I offended you” [but of course, I didn’t mean to offend so I’m all good]. Grrr.

  2. In addition to Inverdale’s comment are the horrific Tweets about Bartoli. The fat-shaming, look-shaming tone of them was enough to turn my stomach. Kudos to Bartoli for her classy response, but she should not even have to make such a statement. She won based on her talents, and that should be enough.

    I also loved your bit about the women champions. My mother-in-law (in Wales) is a staunch feminist, and even she fell into the trap of lauding Andy Murray without mentioning that he was the first British man to win since 1936. So my husband sent her a reply about not mentioning the women who had won since 1936.

    1. I love that your husband sent the correction along to his mom.
      About the tweets: they were so horrible that I didn’t even want to quote them in the blog post.

      1. I was pleased that he sent the response, too. (Even if it earns her ire.) I read some of the tweets in another blog post, and I was stunned by how vicious and cruel they were. Some of them even tweeted directly to her. People feel so safe behind the anonymity of the web, thinking nothing of being complete and utter asshats for any reason.

  3. I agree completely. The change has to start at the media level, unfortunately. Men (and women) will “buy” into the notion that female athletes should be valued for their athleticism, but only if the media coverage of female athletes promotes this view and their sponsors “sell” such values in their advertisements. Otherwise men (and alot of women too, unfortunately) simply will not value Bartoli’s win as much as a win by a “looker” like Sharapova or a “superwoman” like Serena. The problem is not wholly confined to female athletes. Truly unattractive male atheletes or worse, completely non-descript, uninteresting and even a little pudgy male athletes with no “star value” or “screen charisma”, are not “good for the sport” when they win, say, a golf tournament. But the problem is very much exaggerated in the area of women’s sports, many of which are highly sexualized in the first instance, e.g. figure skating.

  4. I actually think a lot of people value Bartoli’s win (based on anecdotes) for exactly the reasons she herself points out. And though this may infiltrate men’s sports to some degree, there is much more latitude there, and the effects are far less pernicious IMHO.

    1. I agree completely. We seem to live in a world of mass advertising, however, and so I’m simply referring to what’s necessary in my opinion for mass change.

  5. It is so sad that women champions of sports, or women who win any sort of prize that is news worthy are so often reduced to their looks. And that news reporters/commentators feel so comfortable, and see no problem, with focusing on their looks. I feel like it’s just getting worse too; that it seems more and more common and okay to comment out loud on how a woman looks (in a way that rates/compares/etc.)

  6. Women have to imbibe culture into men and make men’s brain to move from between the legs to it’s actual location, behind and between the eyes!

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