femalestrength · fitness · sexism · tennis

Naomi Osaka vs The Patriarchy (OR: That time a talented female athlete asked reporters to shut up and it didn’t go her way. Quel Surprise.)

So, Naomi Osaka. World #2, unbelievable tennis player, YOUNG PERSON (she’s 23 years old). She heads to the French Open, aka “Roland Garros” (we’re posh, peeps – we call the thing by the name bestowed upon the hallowed grounds, and there are tiny sandwiches somewhere, and patisserie, and LOTS OF BOOZE). She says: you know what? I would rather not do the press conferences this time, thanks. I am a tennis player at the elite level and barely an adult and my clay court game is a tricky work in progress. I need to focus, and also cope with all the feelings while focusing, which means I really don’t need to have to field a bunch of questions about my sexuality, or the depth of my human flaws, or other outright irrelevant crap after every match, thanks. For my mental health, you know, I just would rather not. It’s about the game, right?

Friends, she broke the internet. Of course she did.

Osaka in a blue-green Nike tank and black boxers, at rest, holding a tennis ball and smiling. THIS WOMAN KICKS TENNIS ASS. (This image is from her Wikipedia page, where you can also learn her native name in Japanese script.)

WTF cares if tennis stars do the damn press circuit at the Grand Slam tournaments? Their sponsors, sure. (Although the sponsors make their money back hand over fist regardless, and I’d bet my new racket that Osaka’s sponsors are finding this massive controversy, splashed all over the place online, is breaking their way.) The Grand Slam organizers too, yes: they have a vested interest in stuff always going to the plan they have so carefully wrought. So the money folks, they really care.

Beyond the economics, there are, from my perspective, two main reasons the world seems in a huge way to care about Osaka’s decision to refuse to do press at the FO. There’s the fairly basic answer, and then there’s the answer behind that answer – the nuances.

The first part – the basics – smarter people than me have already weighed in on. Writing in the Guardian sports blog, Jonathan Liew has pointed out that when stars like Osaka say ‘no thanks’ to the press, it’s another reminder – a billboard-sized, viral Twitter-shaped reminder – that the mostly-white-often-older dudes who still rule the sports pages in many conventional media outlets matter less and less and less. If Naomi has something she needs to tell me, she’s gonna tell me directly, on social. And that scares the bejeezus out of those dudes.

Here’s a screen grab of Naomi’s twitter. Go follow her. (Notice that she has 1M followers and is following 18 people. THAT IS BADASS.)

Meanwhile, also in the Guardian (NB: wholly subscriber-funded, not owned by billionaires! As a researcher it’s the paper I trust most in the world), Marina Hyde points out that Osaka’s “mistake” was to experience her mental health and address its needs while still actively competing and winning Slams – as opposed to, you know, burying that shit, blowing up in a spectacular and headline-inducing way, crawling off for a while, then coming back with a memoire. The media (hi Rupert Murdoch! Thanks for setting such an incredibly ethical example!) LOVE a case of celebrity mental breakdown and a subsection of this media will defend to their graves their exclusive right to report on these breakdowns in the most shaming and salacious ways, damn the consequences. (I urge you to read the whole Hyde piece; Marina is a comic genius and as far as I am concerned she is the reincarnation of Jonathan Swift.)

OK, now for the nuance-y bit. I’m a beginner tennis player and I only half-glance at the Grand Slams over my partner’s shoulder most of the time, but the Osaka story caught my eye because I’ve just finished going through the proofs of a new book chapter I’ve written about girlhood, gender identity, and sport. Its focus is the amazing 2016 play The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe, which follows a team of high school-aged soccer players, all young women, as they navigate a season. They are alone on stage until the very end of the play. Their pitch is their space to own and control and be messy and flawed and incredible and talented and mean little shits because they are TEENAGE GIRLS. They use that space to actualize who they are, to be better selves every practice, to dream up and then enact, in their shared embodiment, who they want to become. There are no media folks (nor anybody else) present.

A group of 9 young women in red soccer jerseys and black shorts mug for the camera on an artificial grass pitch against a black background: they are fake-posing sexy-model style with orange slices in their mouths. This is the cast of The Wolves from the 2018 Toronto production.

This is revolutionary. Why? Because, as my chapter argues, the history of women in competitive sport is a history of the male gaze freaking out like crazy. Add in girls doing their own thing, for their own benefit, and things get really sweaty in a hurry.

(I want to be clear here that “the male gaze” is a patriarchal construct, not a feature of biology attached only to actual men: it refers to how all of us humans who live under patriarchy – a social structure in which men are valued, culturally, above others – learn to look at bodies, including our own. Think about it: when you look in the mirror, as a strong and fit woman, what do you see? I see my perimenopausal hips and thighs and think, rats. What did I eat yesterday? BAM! That’s me looking through my female eyes with a male gaze.)

A graphic shows Christina Hendricks all in red, dressed as from Mad Men, with Don Draper-era guys in suits and hats looking at her. Arrows help us understand the trajectory of their collective gaze, in case we need help parsing the symbolism. THAT THING.

Sporty women are a huge problem for the male gaze. Why? They are STRONG. They are bulky – muscle-toned. They are working their bodies for a purpose other than attracting male attention – this is weird and taboo to patriarchy. (Check out stuff we’ve written here and elsewhere on the blog about Serena Williams, and also Sam’s great posts about women on bikes, to learn more.) Sporty women are also, of course, incredibly beautiful, graceful, powerful – damn fun to watch. So the upshot is: we want to watch them, with our patriarchally-trained gazes, but in the process we (even sometimes feminist humans like me!) experience serious cognitive dissonance. How can they be so incredible to watch while not conforming to patriarchal expectations about what incredible-to-watch women are supposed to look like? Are you even allowed out in public with thighs that strong?

From here – DIRECTLY – comes the now-infamous corollary dispensed by La Mostly Male Presse (again, see Serena, women on bikes, Megan Rapinhoe, you name the bad-ass girl athlete): if you’re going to compete at this high level, laydeez, we are going to reserve the right to judge you constantly, shame you continuously, and call all of your tactical choices into question. Otherwise, you make us look a bit too hard at the structures of our social systems and our heads start to hurt and we have to consider perhaps, um, making some serious structural changes. So we’re going to push you back down, down, down. Don’t be so uppity, miss tennis star. Who exactly do you think you are?

And here – HERE – is where the rubber hits the clay, so to speak, for Naomi Osaka.

Osaka at the French open in 2016, in a multi-coloured tank and black leggings, preparing to serve. She looks exhausted because she is playing intense tennis, people. Remember: this woman hits balls. Hard.

She’s young, and like all young people thrust into the limelight, she’s having to figure out some basic ontology (aka, who am I? What will I become?) while also competing at the most elite level, in the public eye. She is vulnerable and fragile like all young women who grew up under patriarchy, but to the Nth degree because tennis star (AND woman of colour, hello structural racism!!).

Add to that Roland Garros, which is a clay court surface and thus clashes with some of the strongest aspects of Osaka’s game, and both Naomi and La Presse know what’s most likely to come of any tete-a-tete post-game. Who the hell wouldn’t blame her for saying, you know, I think I’d rather play tennis than live out my existential fears on camera, so that maybe I can improve my clay court game. Ok with you?

Was her “hard no” to all press a bit OTT, maybe even a bit childish? Dunno – depends on your lived experience. When I was 23 I was only just recently not a child, so maybe a bit? #mostlynormal

Is Osaka a flawed human who let some probably nice people down in the process of making this call (for ex: occasional amazing female sports journalists who might have asked awesome questions)? Sure. She’s flawed as hell – have you seen her clay court game? Again, really not the point though, unless you feel safe tossing those stones.

What Osaka is asking, really asking, is that we hear her when she says: I’m supposed to play top-game tennis here and also face the press, all while keeping my shit together, and this combination of things is not, for me, actually possible. It’s not possible for some of my peers, too, and I wonder if perhaps we could take a look at the system and shift things so that maybe one day it could be possible, things could be kinder, and more fair for us all?

Funny how, when we ask questions just like that, the press corps and the Slam chiefs find it really, really hard to offer a good answer.

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