The Kournikova Effect: Why Are We So Obsessed with the Female Tennis Body?

By Kristen Cochrane. Kristen is a writer and academic in Ontario, Canada, who’s researching some very interesting things, like queer Latin American cinema, and the fetishization of the female tennis body in the post-Kournikova era. This is her first essay for Slutever. /

The final day of the 2013 Wimbledon tournament was supposed to be the best day in Marion Bartoli’s life. She had just defeated the German tennis professional Sabine Lisicki to earn her first Grand Slam title. During this jovial occasion, BBC presenter John Inverdale apparently thought it was necessary to make comments about Bartoli’s looks. Not her athletic skills, her tennis acumen, or her tough mental game. But her body.

“I just wonder if her dad, because he has obviously been the most influential person in her life, did say to her when she was 12, 13, 14 maybe, ‘listen, you are never going to be, you know, a looker. You are never going to be somebody like Sharapova, you’re never going to be five feet eleven, you’re never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that.”

It’s almost inarguable that men and women alike were figuratively slapping their foreheads while listening to these remarks. Adding insult, to, well, insult, was the fact that Inverdale did not fully acknowledge the severity of his comments. His excuse? Hay fever. Inverdale did not bring up the excessive judgment female tennis players are subjected to. He did not apologize to Marion Bartoli in light of of the patronizing, gendered nicknames female tennis players receive (“Gorgeous Gussie” for the late, American Gussie Moran, “Darling Carling” for retired Canadian player Carling Bassett-Seguso.). He apologized because of hay fever.

When Anna Kournikova became a phenomenon, it was based on her looks. The press was not shy to admit this, and her inability to win a Women’s Tennis Association title furthers the Kournikovian mythology. Although most gendered nicknames for female tennis players are generally creepy, Kournikova’s “Lolita of Tennis” takes the cake. As she got older, (i.e. no longer a teenager), she posed for many different men’s magazines, from Sports Illustrated to FHM. This is not to blame Kournikova for posing and making a dollar off herself as a brand. The modern understanding of feminism is freedom of choice. The concern here is: what happens in the Post-Kournikova era? Or, what happens when you are a professional tennis athlete who does not look like Anna Kournikova? And what happens when we have this added dimension of instant social media commentary where users are not held accountable for hate speech and threats?

This brings us back to Bartoli. While Inverdale was making all of his insulting comments on the BBC, he was probably also not aware that during the final between Bartoli and Lisicki, Twitter was blowing up with something a lot darker than Inverdale’s awkward, old-man sexism. While an index of all the twitter comments pertaining to Bartoli could probably fill a notebook, I won’t do that. In the interest of not becoming depressed, I’ll only quote a few lines, verbatim. Twitter user “Dane Simpkins” (@two45dolla) tweeted “I’ll be supporting the more than fuckable #lisicki, #Bartoli looks like your stereotypical dyke”. This tweet reflected only a small portion of the homophobia plaguing female athletes. Other tweets, and by other I mean many, asked whether Bartoli had a penis. The rest of the tweets fundamentally show why parents across Middle America don’t want their kids on the internet, like this charming utterance from “London’s Stifler” (@Kwikz): “Bartoli you fat shit. I don’t want an ugly bitch to win”. Even a professional footballer from Australia had something to say about Bartoli, tweeting that he hated her and would “love to smash the wee fat cow.”

After various response articles about the derogatory comments in the international press, you would think that people would maybe stop saying these kinds of things, at least publicly. Sadly, it continues. This past March, when Bartoli tweeted that she was considering a return to tennis and wanted to know what her followers’ thought, the infamously difficult and former world no. 1 Jimmy Connors replied to Bartoli’s tweet. Of course, it’s about her body again, telling her that she should only re-enter the professional tennis scene if she gets fit, healthy, and in shape. What we have to remember is that Connors’ reply was not out of concern. It’s part of a dominant narrative in society that attempts to police the bodies it sees as abnormal, deviant, and out of place. I focus on weight in this article, but we see it with individuals whose gender presentation is not normative, and with people of color. Gender theorist Judith Butler calls these “social sanctions”.

The weird obsession with female tennis athletes’ weight, even when they are performing well, is not exclusive to Bartoli. In 2012, American tennis junior Taylor Townsend displayed skills beyond her 16 years. Her precocity was compared to retired American tennis player Lindsay Davenport, a former world no. 1 who, like Townsend, won both the Australian Open junior singles and doubles titles in 1992. This was also the last time a junior tennis player had done this. Impressive, right? That’s why it came as a surprise to Townsend and her family when her coaches not only cut her funding, but insisted she stay home and not participate in the US Open junior tournament—unless she lost weight. Luckily for Townsend, her mom paid her way, and she got to play.

Depending on your beliefs, these examples may seem trivial. But I’m not here to argue whether athletes should be “fat” or not. The bigger concern is what we are asking female tennis players to look like, and there isn’t a lot of variety. Basically, it feels like female tennis is culturally accepted as a sport because there is an exception of female beauty. This doesn’t sound like democracy, liberty, or whatever values we currently privilege in our cultural consciousness. It’s worth noting that there has been general agreement amongst sociologists that female athletes are not only underrepresented, but when they are represented, they are seen as a joke:

“Visual production techniques, language, terminology and commentary applied to women’s sport are selectively imposed by the media to provide a highly stereotypical feminized view—one that tends to sexualize, commodify, trivialize and devalue, (through marginalization) women’s sporting accomplishments.” – Pamela Creedon, Women, Media, and Sport: Challenging Gender Values

While talking about these findings with others, beach volleyball has been brought up to me as another sport that seemingly shares the same social phenomenon of women’s tennis; an occasion to check out attractive female bodies. By attractive female bodies, we see a trend: thin, white, perfect teeth, heterosexual gender presentation. The heterosexual gender presentation deserves a whole other article, but the small amount of research that exists on it is grim. Prolific sport sociologist Jennifer Hargreaves wrote this about the imposed heterosexuality in female sport:

“The public image of female athletes is defined to a large degree by the media. It appears that in order to gain coverage a woman must fit the accepted female persona. Female athletes have come to realize that they must emphasise their femininity, especially if they wish to gain sponsorship. Women who do not conform to these unwritten rules are often ridiculed and both their gender and their sexual orientation may be questioned.”  – Jennifer Hargreaves, Heroines of Sport: The Politics of Difference and Identity

In the vast catalogue of unsettling tweets discussing Marion Bartoli, a good quarter of them are homophobic and transphobic. Bartoli is presumably straight, but it raises the alarm on how much society still hates queer people. Hargreaves has also written about how female athletes who aren’t heterosexual must often hide their sexuality or face alienation from their peers.

In response to this issue, some argue the “it’s biology” fallacy, meaning that we have evolved to react to particular body types in unsavoury ways. But isn’t reducing human beings to cognitive-evolutionary theories  dangerously reductionist and oversimplifying a complex social issue? Maybe we should stop calling out “feminists” for being annoyed that people are grading female tennis pros for their boobs rather than their brawn (or, at least, how they use their brawn, because we know that viewers hate seeing muscles on women). It seems especially important to think about how female tennis players are essentially being punished for not meeting the current requirements for what a female tennis player should look like. The status quo is exclusionary, and literally making people too depressed to continue playing tennis. So when do we decide that enough is enough?



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