Serena Williams can’t even land a magazine cover without it sparking a debate about race and gender, as GQ’s latest issue proves. The magazine has named the tennis champ Woman of the Year in its annual Men of the Year roundup — and while the issue has included women as well as men since 2003, the cover featuring Williams is sparking controversy because the word “men” is crossed out and the handwritten word “woman” is in quotation marks.
To some, the quotation marks around “woman” represented yet another instance of racialized sexism directed at Williams, who has repeatedly been body-shamed and described as masculine throughout her career. But a GQ representative offered a different explanation.
Announcing GQ's Men (and Woman) of the Year 2018: @michaelb4jordan, @henrygolding, @jonahhill, and @serenawilliams (featuring handwriting by @virgilabloh) https://t.co/EpG3lKCJ3r #GQMOTY pic.twitter.com/6MgczSxSpq— GQ Magazine (@GQMagazine) November 12, 2018
The magazine’s research manager Mick Rouse explained that the cover features the writing of Off-White designer Virgil Abloh, who is known for designs featuring words in quotation marks. In fact, his trademark quotations are featured on Williams’s 2018 US Open outfits, with the words “Serena” and “logo” both appearing in quotes. He has also used quotes in his designs of puffer jackets, sneakers, and champagne bottles. Abloh’s role in the cover explains why last year’s Woman of the Year cover, which featured Gal Gadot, didn’t include the word “woman” in quotes.
But even this explanation didn’t quell the outcry about the magazine cover. Concerned fans of the superstar athlete argued that given how much discrimination she’s faced in tennis related to her race and gender, GQ should’ve known better than to do anything that could be construed as calling Williams’s gender identity into question.
Williams and her sister, Venus, for example, have been derisively referred to by tennis officials as the “Williams brothers” rather than the Williams sisters. And when a Twitter troll three years ago declared that Williams looked like a man, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling called him an “idiot” in a viral tweet.
Though Williams hasn’t commented publicly on the cover controversy, she has in the past addressed the misogynoir (or sexism aimed at black women) she’s faced. A year ago, she penned a letter to her mother on Reddit, the site started by her husband Alexis Ohanian, in which she discussed how she’s faced accusations of steroid use because she has a muscular physique. She also wrote:
“I’ve been called [a] man because I appeared outwardly strong. It has been said I don’t belong in women’s sports — that I belong in men’s — because I look stronger than many other women do. (No, I just work hard and I was born with this badass body and proud of it).”
She called her detractors, which have included journalists, commentators, and sports fans, “too ignorant to understand the power of a black woman.”
Even if quotation marks are Abloh's "thing", any decent editor should have said that this ain't it. https://t.co/vYZOGHTiMx— Lara Witt (@Femmefeministe) November 12, 2018
Given how public and frequent the gendered and racialized attacks on Williams have been, it’s understandable that the cover upset her fans, even those familiar with Abloh’s signature typography. But the backlash doesn’t take away from the many accomplishments that led GQ to name Williams its 2018 Woman of the Year — particularly that she bounced back from childbirth complications in 2017 to rise, once again, to the top of her sport. A perennial champion, Williams has faced challenges far more serious than this questionable magazine cover.
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