Consider her body: Kinetic. Muscular. Powerful. Consider her reception: “Manly.” “Aggressive.” “Intimidating.”
There is perhaps no body in history who has aroused more commentary, more scrutiny, more disapprobation, than that of Serena Williams—inarguably the greatest living tennis player of any gender, and one the best living athletes, period.
Serena Williams is a physically dominant, but more importantly, she is a physically unapologetic black woman in sports. She does not seek to make herself smaller or unobtrusive, and she refuses to concede her space on the clay or in the cultural imagination.
This is no small thing. Because Serena is no small thing. Her body—her black, feminine body—emphatically denies the stultifying myth that women should be lithe, or restrained. When we do recognize female greatness in sports, it is often in those fields in which their bodies are prized for adhering to certain rigid templates: Think of gymnastics, track, or figure skating (whose very name winks at the premium that sport places on tight control of the body on ice and the shape of those very bodies).
In our recent book, History vs Women: The Defiant Lives that They Don’t Want You to Know, we talk about commanding women in history who competed or excelled in unexpected physical arenas, and who should make us all sit up and take notice. It is past time that we recognize women like Kati Sandwina, an imposing strongwoman who could wrestle and best men in the ring or on the stage; or Jackie Mitchell, the teenager who struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
“White, western culture is uncomfortable with the specter of a powerful, undeniable female body.”
The increasing popularity of women’s sports that have traditionally been dominated by men has opened up some space for women who don’t fit the soft, non-muscular mold. But, by and large, the female stars who grace the covers of our magazines or who achieve some level of name recognition outside of their sport are still usually white, slender, long-haired, and read as attractive by mainstream (read: white) standards. We’ve come a long way, baby—but we’ve still got a long way to go.
White, western culture is uncomfortable with the specter of a powerful, undeniable female body. Even when we celebrate physical prowess in women—as is the case with recent spate of superhero movies and television—the bodies that are elevated and celebrated tend to conform to certain predetermined morphologies. Jessica Jones, Captain Marvel, even Wonder Woman herself, are all shown handily vanquishing male opponents—but rarely do they match those opponents in muscle or shape.
It’s almost unthinkable that they would, because if they did, they would cease to be available as objects of sexual desirability to the straight male audience whose wants to guide our creative and political decisions.
In the most recent Avengers film, one of burliest, manliest characters in the pantheon—Chris Pratt’s Starlord—suffers terribly once he realizes that he might not be as muscular or “manly” as Thor. The scene is played for laughs, because it’s clearly ridiculous. Taken side-by-side, Starlord and Thor are pretty evenly matched in size; the insecurity Starlord feels is largely self-generated. He may not be a fighting match for the Viking God, but let’s not forget that he is the son of a God-like being himself.
“It is a thrilling moment in the Black Panther film when General Okoye, in the heat of a fight, tears off the straight wig she has been wearing as part of her disguise and flings it from her. It is impeding her in the battle—but more than that, it is false. She does not need it.”
But that’s beside the point. The issue here is whether we can imagine a similar conversation happening between any of the female characters in the movie. Would Gamora, Scarlet Witch, or Black Widow compete to determine who was biggest? Most muscular? More powerful? Of course not. There’s a reason we haven’t seen another one of Marvel’s most popular comic book characters on the big screen; She-Hulk is simply too big to exist on celluloid and still be an object of desire or comfort for the male viewer. Never mind the would-be aspirations of the women watching.
Tellingly, the women in Marvel’s superhero films who are most able to deftly negotiate the precarious terrain of femininity’s battleground are the black women. The Dora Milaje of Wakanda, and most notably General Okoye, possess bodies that have already been marked by difference—by their remove from whiteness and white femininity in particular.
These fictional women are allowed some measure of autonomy in their self-composition only because they are presumed to exist outside of Western norms of ideal beauty already. It’s hard to conceive of a white female analogue to a character with the martial presence that Okoye demonstrates on screen—and not least because Okoye, like the members of her team, proudly bears a shaved head. What white woman could carry this off in film so beautifully, with such assurance? With her access to sexually-idealized femininity intact?
Long, straight hair has long been a marker of womanhood in some cultures. Without it, all sorts of assumptions spring forth—sexual orientation, community allegiance, or illness. It is a thrilling, proud moment in the Black Panther film when General Okoye, in the heat of a fight, tears off the straight wig she has been wearing as part of her disguise and flings it from her. It is impeding her in the battle—but more than that, it is false. She does not need it.
One of the most vital projects of feminist media criticism is the exploration of how the female body is portrayed and contested—by whom, and to what ends. This is of crucial importance because it can also help us understand more deeply the particular challenges facing WoC, trans bodies, and bodies that are gender non-conforming or MoC (masculine of center). All of those bodies expose the lie within established myths about identity.
It is the job of feminist historians, scholars, and critics, to engage with the notions surrounding the female body so that we can move forward into a space in which we’re all competing on a playing field that is truly level.
Anita Sarkeesian, founder of Feminist Frequency, and Ebony Adams PhD, are the authors ofHistory Vs Women: The Defiant Lives They Don’t Want You To Know, out now via MacMillan.