Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams: the representation of white and black female athletes under the discourse of femininity

Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams: the representation of white and black female athletes under the discourse of femininity

Jiaqi Lu; z5037864

Over the past decade, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams are two of the biggest names in the field of women tennis. Besides their remarkable achievements, their “rival” relationship both on and off the tennis court is frequently reported by media, showing a “double-standard” representation of them. Thus, a further examination of how female athletes are represented in media is triggered by the disparity between the stereotypical depiction of Sharapova and Williams, with regard to the underlying social traditions of femininity. The findings demonstrates an underlying notion of femininity based on a rigid set of beauty standards that skewed to the side of white females rather than that of black ones, which further implies the superiority of whites over blacks to some degree.

The first part of this article will explore the stereotypical representation of Sharapova and Williams respectively and make a comparison. By analysing images on the covers of ESPN The Magazine and typical labels attached by mainstream media, it can be argued that Sharapova is depicted in a relatively active and positive way while Williams are more associated with passivity and negativity. The difference between the way media treat the figure of Sharapova and Williams’s reflects the prevalent perception of the ideal woman who is typically blonde with prominent feminine characteristics, further pointing to the assumed inferiority of black females under the conventional ideology of femininity.

The second part further moves to the unequal position of Sharapova and Williams presented by media including them in one item. An image featuring both of them and an article “Maria Sharapova Blasts Serena Williams, Criticises Her Love Life” written by Agence France Presse and published on Business Insider in 2013, are dissected. Again, the evaluation of Sharapova is more positive than that of Williams. This finding further proves the stereotypical view of white females and black females that the former have inherent predominance in the construction of an ideal figure not only physically but also morally.

It is not a fangle that female athletes, as a particular group, are stereotyped by media based on attributes, behaviours and roles that are socially assigned to them. Because media is the primary news source to serve the public, the way they portray female athletes is fully consistent with the way society perceives these women (Shaller 2006, p. 50). For women, being an athlete violates the conventional female role that is associated with passivity, nurturing and subordination, and thus media coverage tends to highlight aspects of “femaleness” rather than athleticism (Knight & Giuliano 2001, p. 219). According to sports researcher Dorothy Harris, “today’s woman athlete has become so trendy, she has now become sexy” (Shaller 2006, p. 51). Under the social constructions of Western society, female appearance matters to male audiences. A man prefers to view a woman with emphasized feminine qualities who is better looking and not portrayed as powerful (Media Report to Women 2002, p. 7). Since target audience of most sports publications consists of male audience, practitioners have to meet their tastes.

Therefore, female athletes participating in non-contact and “sex-appropriate” sports of tennis are preferred to be covered by media (Kane, MJ 1989, p. 107). More importantly, these portrayals presented in different ways exactly mirrors the socially acceptable conception of women’s figures. This point can be well examined in the comparison between covers of Sharapova and that of Williams presented by ESPN The Magazine, an American biweekly sports magazine published by ESPN network.

Maria Sharapova (ESPN The Magazine, June 29, 2009)
Maria Sharapova (ESPN The Magazine, June 29, 2009)

In this cover, Sharapova is wearing a revealing black dress and standing upright at the certer of the frame. Her blonde hair and exposed skin all suggest her femaleness. Meanwhile, she is wearing a business watch without jewels and keeping a porker face. Besides, her head is askew to her right side and turned a bit down. This shot with a slightly lower angle forces audience to look up at her, thus symbolising a sense of dominance and superiority. Meanwhile, the act of tearing the paper reflects Sharapova is portrayed as active in this image and demonstrates the strength and power which are not matched with her dress up. From this point, this image actually presents more masculinity than femininity, in terms of Sharapova’s pose and action combined with her stun facial expression and simple accessories.

Venus Williams (left) and Serena Williams (right) (ESPN The Magazine, 1998-2008 10th Anniversary)
Venus Williams (left) and Serena Williams (right) (ESPN The Magazine, 1998-2008 10th Anniversary)

However, the cover of Serena Williams makes the difference. In this cover, she is wearing a strapless white skirt and luxurious jewels. The half-exposed breasts and body curve highlight her sexiness and feminie characteristic. Notably, she is standing by her sister Venus Williams who is also a famous tennis player. Here, the representation of sisterhood emphasises the personal role as a sister which is socially assigned to a female. What’s more, it can be found that Williams is poised passively without any dynamic behaviour. Her bright smile and bended body suggest her approachability and tenderness instead of strength and power. In brief, the characteristics of femininity are greatly amplified and there is nearly no additional element representing masculinity in this image.

Then, what is at stake here is the factor contributing to the difference of the way media position these two female athletes respectively. For Sharapova’s cover, the editor assumes this Russian blonde is already recognized by audience as an ideal beauty, who bears Western dominant aesthetic consciousness and conventional notion of female characters. Because the editor believes the appearance of Sharapova has completely met public’s inherent anticipation of women’s images, there is no need to exaggerate her feminine qualities. Rather, it is reasonable to attach a bit strength and power to her because the purely sweet appearance and slender figure don’t accord with the orientation of a sports magazine. In another layer, the sense of dominance delivered by Sharapova’s facial expression and pose demonstrates the assumption of audience that they will be comfortable with the superiority from a blonde.

For Williams’ cover, the editor assumes that this American black woman with well-developed muscles and robust body completely violates the stereotypical notion of an ideal woman. Because audience are supposed to think that Williams lacks femininity socially assigned to a female, the editor tries to strengthen her feminine aspects as a woman rather than masculine ones as an athlete. Thus, the sexiness, gentleness and relative passivity delivered by Williams’s smile and pose on the one hand make her more consistent with public’s expectation of a female figure, and on the other hand weakens the stress and fear brought by her significant masculinity.

Serena Williams (ESPN The Magazine, August 19, 2002)
Serena Williams (ESPN The Magazine, August 19, 2002)
Maria Sharapova (ESPN The Magazine, June 20, 2005)
Maria Sharapova (ESPN The Magazine, June 20, 2005)

From this perspective, these two covers further prove the underlying assumption of audience concerning their regular view of an ideal woman. Sharapova and Williams are both wearing a white vest. Apparently, Williams dyes her hair blonde and perms it straight. Since Williams’ cover was published ahead of Sharapova’s, it is unconvincing to assert Williams are purposely imitating Sharapova; but the change of Williams’s appearance does reflect that audience’s preference of the blonde or the “white-like” figure. What’s more, Williams is still portrayed as passive in terms of her undynamic pose. The shot with slightly higher angle makes audience look down at her, which renders a sense of inferiority. With the comparison of the cover of Sharapova that depicting her playing tennis with an overtly aggressiveness, the similarity and difference between two images well prove the underlying assumption that the white have absolute predominance and superiority in the social orientation of a woman, and conversely black women are positioned as passive and have no say in this matter.

Apart from magazine covers, different labels attached to Sharapova and Williams by media also demonstrate the conventional expectation of a woman. Looking at Sharapova first, the following headlines, exacts and image captions selected from mainstream media reflect the fixed view of her figure:

Russian beauty Maria Sharapova lures fans to tennis centre” – 2012 (

  “Russian glamour Sharapova had people swarming to the outside courts to watch her train” – 2012 (News. com. au)

  “Russian beauty, Maria Sharapova, celebrated a winning point, but it wasn’t enough    to defeat Dominika Cibulkova.” – 2014 (POPSUGAR)

“‘I’m confident in my skin’: Tennis star Maria Sharapova opens up on beauty as she poses for Self magazine” – 2014 (Daily Mail)

  “And despite being known as one of the more glamorous female tennis players, Maria Sharapova admits she doesn’t spend much time focused on her appearance.” – 2014 (Daily Mail).

  “But the issue I am raising is that believing Sharapova — the beautiful, glamorous, eminently-likable, Russian-born tennis star — has instantly gotten that much harder to do.” - 2016 (American Council on Science and Health)

Notably, Sharapova is frequently portrayed as “beautiful”, “glamorous” and closely associated with the label “beauty”. The authoritative organization American Council on Science and Health particularly emphasizes Sharapova’s beauty and glamour when mentioning her name, showing that the most significant characteristic of Sharapova is exactly her personal charm and this belief is backed by the authority. Meanwhile, the word “lure” and “had” reflect that people are attracted to Sharapova subconsciously or even unconsciously since she is the active agent performing the action. By portraying her as positive and active, the media make the assumption that the appearance of Sharapova completely fits into the stereotypical conception of beauty in public’s mind and she has the ability to have an influence on them by the virtue of her socially acceptable appearance.

However, the labels attached to Williams are greatly different. She is quite often attached with powerful words or phrases that often imply negativity. For example:

Williams slays Sharapova to reach ninth Miami Masters final” – 2014 (CNN)

This headline involves both Williams and Sharapova. Williams as active agent performs the act of “slaying”. Generally, the term “slay” means “to kill by violence”, “to destroy” or “to extinguish” ( It is often used to describe a murder or atrocity, containing negative connotations. Here, the word “slay” not only alludes Williams’s big lead in the game but also implicitly evaluates her play style as “violent” and “cruel”. Meanwhile, Sharapova is portrayed as a vulnerable “victim”, which gives rise to sympathy. This headline operates under the common narrative of femininity that ties feminine quality to vulnerability. A woman like Williams has muscular body and strong physical power is easily associated with negative terms because her appearance and behavior doesn’t meet the conventional understanding of femininity.

This navigate evaluation of Williams especially evident in the description of her as a “gorilla” or as “manly” made by online commentators. The frequent analogy between Williams and an animal or a man precisely reflects a taken-for-granted perception of black women as inherently unfeminine. As Mary Hannigan said in an article “Serena Williams tramples down Twitter trolls and opponents” published on The Irish Times:

  “There has been an anti-Serena element because she didn’t fit the stereotype of the old-fashioned, elegant white female tennis player. She was big and muscular and black. Let’s be candid about it, there’s been plenty of that sort of unspoken prejudice against Serena.”

This extract well explains why media represent Sharapova and Williams in such different ways. The particular version of blackness as “inherently different from other bodies” makes Williams a typical negative example, especially in the field of tennis that are widely recognized as a white sport. What’s more, her achievements are overly attributed to brute-force attacks rather than other internal factors such as intelligence, professional techniques and mentality. For example:

‘Serena out-muscles Sharapova to reach Open semis’ – 2016 (Pasion Sports)

As shown in the term “out-muscles”, there is a characterisation of Williams’ play style dependent on an old and unreconstructed thought of black physicality, consequently making Williams as a stereotype of “All brawn no brains”.

The inequality of media’s treatment of Sharapova and Williams not only exists in the aspects of appearance but also that of internal qualities, which can be well examined in the following section.

Maria Sharapova of Russia, left,  looks at Serena Williams of the U.S. during the awarding ceremony after her women's singles final loss to Williams at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015. )
Maria Sharapova of Russia, left, looks at Serena Williams of the U.S. during the awarding ceremony after her women’s singles final loss to Williams at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015. )

This is an illustration of the article “Prediction: Maria Sharapova will stun Serena Williams, snap 16-match losing streak at Wimbledon” written by For The Win’s Chris Chase. Two athletes are positioned away from the centre of the frame. From the camera angle, Williams is located in the foreground and blurred, while Sharapova is placed in the background with a clear profile. This axial configuration of elements not only shift audience’s focus on a single element in the image frame, but also establish dynamic, unequal relationships between a dominant element and other less significant elements in the frame (Bednarek & Caple (2012, p. 167). In this image, Sharapova is singled out in terms of the camera focus although she is in the background. She is gazing upon the championship trophy held by Williams in a depressed mood. The frame of this image reflects that media assume audience are more concerned with Sharapova’s reaction and status rather than Williams’s, even though Williams is the champion. The significance of Sharapova and the ignorance of Williams precisely shows the unequal relationship between two rivals in which Sharapova has inherent superiority as a white tennis player who deserves more attention from audience.

Importantly, the intrinsic predominance of Sharapova in figure construction in the aspect of morality is especially prominent in the hard-news style article “Maria Sharapova Blasts Serena Williams, Criticises Her Love Life”,  published on Business Insider. In this article, Sharapova is portrayed as morally superior to Williams:

Williams, the 16-time Grand Slam title-winner, was forced to apologise for her comments regarding the rape of a 16-year-old girl by two high school American football players in the Ohio town of Steubenville.

  “I was definitely sad to hear what she had to say about the whole case,” said Sharapova, who was defeated by Williams in the French Open final earlier this month.

  “I just think she should be talking about her accomplishments, her achievements, rather than everything else that’s just getting attention and controversy.”

From these three paragraphs, it can be noticed that Sharapova makes a moral judgement on Williams’s inappropriate deeds. The phrase “was forced to apologise for” and “should be” indicate Williams’s passive status and Sharapova’s active position. In this scenario, Williams is assumed to be morally inferior to Sharapova and it is reasonable for Sharapova to judge her. This assumption is evident in the following paragraphs that depicting their debates:

“There are people who live, breathe and dress tennis. I mean, seriously, give it a rest,” Williams told Rolling Stone magazine without naming the Russian.

  “She begins every interview with ‘I’m so happy. I’m so lucky’ — it’s so boring. She’s still not going to be invited to the cool parties. And, hey, if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it.”

The arguments of Williams presented here obviously renders unrespect and impoliteness that violate ethical normality, further deepening the old-fashion perception of blacks frequently associated with misbehaviours. Then, the author presents Sharapova’s refutation:

Sharapova, clearly upset at the insinuation, hit back on Saturday at Williams’s romance with her French coach Patrick Mouratoglou.

  “If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids,” said Sharapova.

Sharapova also discusses Williams personal life in an unfriendly manner. However, by the term “insinuation” and “hit back”, the author portrays Sharapova as a “victim” of Williams’s verbal aggression. Thus, her counterattack is legitimate and acceptable. In this situation, Sharapova’s argument can influence the way audience perceive Williams while Williams is always in the dock. The inequality of two athlete’s position precisely depends on the underlying conception of spiritual superiority of whites over blacks that makes media represent them in different ways.

In conclusion, today’s media represent female athlete based on the socially acceptable traditions of femininity that is skewed to whites – i.e. that the white athlete has absolute superiority over the black athlete both physically and morally. The stereotypical views of an ideal woman pushes media to represent athlete with distinctive appearance and ethnic backgrounds in very different ways. Demonstrated in the example of Sharapova and Williams, the disparity of treatment of a blonde with feminie characteristics and that of a black female with masculine features exactly reflects the assumption of inherent predominance of whites empowered by the public. Although many socialists and scholars criticise media practitioners of this inequality and call for actions to eliminate the significant difference in media coverage, this phenomenon is still prevalent because the cultural standard of femininity and beauty has never been essentially changed.


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