Black-letter day


Black-letter day

If Shamil Tarpischev, the International Olympic Committee member from Russia who has been fined and suspended for a year, insists that his uncouth labelling of tennis champions Serena and Venus Williams as the “Williams Brothers” was a “joke taken out of context”, we should call the man a sissy. Synonyms of sissy include daisy, jellyfish, pantywaist and crybaby. They are generally offensive but when used for men, they provoke an annoying image of female frailty. Not something men may appreciate even as they “embrace their feminine sides” for posturing in this so-called New Age.

A man with a feminine trait is usually looked at with ridicule, even resentment, in some cultures but a woman who possesses masculine grit or ambition isn’t looked upon as unkindly. Women are supposed to evolve from their damsels-in-distress psychologies to become stronger people. Being hard-edged “like men” is supposed to be an aspirational value. Who can forget that when former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was labelled the only man in her cabinet, the only people who took it as an insult were the men?

The argument stands on its head when it comes to the body. For a woman, to be told that she “looks like a man” is the most demeaning of all slurs. In most societies, women are conditioned to emphasize their gender through their looks and body language: We remove all traces of body hair, braid or style it when it sits on the top of our heads, prettify ourselves with flowers and colours, sit cross-legged in sexual modesty, wear stilettos to elongate our spines and padded intimate wear to enhance our curves. When we wear androgynous garments, we make sure that a dash of lipstick or eye shadow or a tiny piece of jewellery strikingly redeems our gender. Even pop artiste Madonna with her rippling muscles, when dressed by a gender-blurring designer like Jean Paul Gaultier, wore a conical bra as a medal on her chest.

Besides this ongoing social dialectic between the body and fashion, Venus and Serena Williams have added reason to find Tarpischev’s slur “racist, sexist and bullying”. The world (in this case a veteran tennis expert from Russia) can’t get away by making the sisters the butt of jokes for their neon underwear, figure-hugging sports garments on the field, fluorescent nail polishes and hair beads—all female embellishments—and label them “Brothers”.

On the one hand they are victimized for being trendsetting women (ask Nike, sports fashion for women starts with the Williams sisters) and on the other, ridiculed for having strong, tall, big-built, athletic bodies. It’s bad if they try to enhance their femininity and bad if they can’t disguise their genetically acquired body type. Serena and Venus are perpetually between a rock and a hard place, though they have won 25 Grand Slam championships between them, and both have been ranked No.1.

No such discriminating dilemmas have ever surrounded tall, white, blonde tennis players like Maria Sharapova and Steffi Graf, though tennis as a sport has often been the hotbed of gender-based scrutiny, more so than any other in the world. The “Sharapova grunt”—a loud shriek on the field—is quite talked about, as were Martina Navratilova’s “manly” muscles—the stereotype got reinforced once she was known to be gay. The (short) length of Indian tennis champion Sania Mirza’s skirts has evoked many non-demure comments in India.

Justice may still be served like a stroke of fine tennis if a top fashion house like Saint Laurent brings the Williams sorority on the global ramp in the next fashion season. Imagine Serena and Venus in sharply tailored and textured pantsuits cocking a snook at Mr Tarpischev and making The Williams Pantsuits the new, top trend in womenswear.

What do you think, Hedi Slimane?