Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Another Look at Serena Williams' SI Cover

In December, the Sport Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year graced one of the most coveted covers of the year.  Instead of a he, or a horse, she was a she.  The iconic Serena Williams, one of the most successful female tennis players, was the well-deserved choice.

I remember Serena and her older sister, Venus, coming up in the world of tennis a decade plus ago.  I loved their strength, their attitude on the court, their take no prisoners’ style of tennis complete with 100mph+ serves and I loved Venus’s name.  I loved that they were not from the elite, mostly white, country clubs instead learning the game on public courts in a very un-country club part of Compton, CA in the early days.  Her younger sister, Serena, emerged even more powerful on the court after following in her big sister’s footsteps.

Kudos to all your accomplishments Serena, you deserve all the accolades.

The only challenge I have with her selection is not about her resume of greatness or the selection itself, it is the cover she chose.   

I understand Serena loves fashion and likes to be involved with the creative aspects of her photo shoots.  This is the perfect cover for Vogue or Vanity Fair, not Sports Illustrated.

Here’s why….

Women, especially women in the cycling world, have enough issues with how we are portrayed in the media.  When Serena’s cover came out, I was messaging with a friend on Facebook who owns a cycling related website.  He had just shared an ad from a client on his page with a girl wearing cycling bibs and no jersey, not even a sport bra.  Something similar to this…

I can assure you, as a woman buying cycling gear, that will definitely NOT make me purchase them from your company.  Who are you marketing to?  Definitely not the women wanting your product.

I appreciate Serena’s artistic vision for her cover, but I wonder if she ever considered how women who have a more traditional view towards sexism in the media would accept it.

Apparently, according to ESPNW, it was a show of strength, a victory for women.

For centuries, black women have been demeaned and taught to value themselves less than women of any other race. Williams, specifically, has bore the brunt of centuries-old scrutiny regarding her body composition and race. And finally, after 20 years of consistency, and over 250 consecutive weeks ranked No. 1 in the world, Williams has earned the right to call the shots, both literally and figuratively. Far from an unseasoned rookie, Williams has gained the opportunity to control her image and how she'd like to be portrayed on one of the most meaningful magazine covers of her iconic career. Williams going against the grain and portraying herself as a feminine, strong and powerful woman, void of tennis props, is a major victory for all women who work tirelessly, and often thanklessly, to crash through glass ceilings in any industry.

Sorry Shana Renee, author of this piece, it is not a victory, it’s an epic defeat to all of us women who want to be taken seriously in the sport, in this case cycling.  Perhaps tennis is more evolved; women get paid the same as men.  Not in cycling.

One of the larger bike manufacturers in the market, Colnago, takes this view of women in cycling:

I have never stood next to my bike like this.  First, the bike is way too big for her and she's in socks.  Secondly, what exactly was meant by "Ready for the weekend ride?"  (eye roll)

Last night at dinner I showed Jeanne d’Arc, our sole female cyclist, and asked her what she thought.  She was embarrassed.  She had an awkward laugh and blushed and shook her head.  I asked if she knew Serena, she did.  I asked if she had ever seen Sports Illustrated, she hadn’t.  I asked if she would pose like this for a magazine.  She just kept shaking her head saying, No No No.

Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) is beautiful.  She is a stunning young woman with a megawatt smile and a sweet soul.  She is also fierce on the bike.  She may become the first Rwandan woman to medal at the Continental Championships in a few weeks in Morocco.  She is the real deal.

She has so many obstacles in front of her.  Culturally she is far outside the mores for women in Rwanda.  There is a belief in Rwanda among some women if you ride a bike when you are a teenager or older, you will not be a virgin and you will not find a husband.  Jeanne d’Arc supports her family of seven (five siblings and her parents) with the money she earns riding for Team Rwanda.

I recently heard young women (teenage years) in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda and the most progressive place in the country, were telling their school masters they did not want to do any physical activity because having muscular legs, especially calves was something they wanted to avoid.  It was not “attractive”.  These women would have loved the SI cover of Serena because it didn’t show her strength.  These women are increasingly joining the ranks of the fast growing overweight and obese population in this developing country.

Ironically, when I was searching for information about women in cycling and how we are portrayed I came across a panel discussion on “How is Women’s Cycling Portrayed in the Cycling Media?”  This is the same website which today posted a story about Jeanne d’Arc written by a recent guest at our center, Emily Conrad-Pickles.  The title says it all…. “Team Rwanda’s Only Female Rider:  I find freedom on the bike and prejudice off it.

I am one of the few women team managers on the continent.  I struggle every day with being taken seriously. I work in Africa, the land of patriarchy.  I am the only female working in cycling in Rwanda.  I fight every week to get more races for women only to be told there’s not enough women and Jeanne d’Arc wins everything anyway.  How can you build it if you don’t give the wanna be Jeanne d’Arc’s an opportunity to step out onto the road and race?  I tried to run a women’s camp and could not get any funding from the UCI.  They wouldn’t even return emails. 

Kathryn Bertine’s documentary, Half the Road: The Passion, Pitfalls & Power of Women’s Professional Cycling, still rings true almost two years later.   We are making progress, but it is slow.

So Serena, your SI cover might be fine for the US market, but for markets where women face real obstacles in sport on a daily basis, it is not. With your power and credibility in the sport save those photos for Vogue and show women who emulate you that it is perfectly fine to have muscles, show real strength and dominate a sport. 

And here's the real litmus of our riders, when shown the photo and asked if he would pose half naked across his bike just laughed and said, if they paid me a lot of money I would do it.

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