Imagining an Embodied Ethos: Serena Williams’ “Defiant” Black Ēthe
Author(s): Lorin Shellenberger
Lorin Shellenberger earned her Ph.D in Rhetoric and Writing from Virginia Tech, where she taught first year composition and served as the editorial assistant for the minnesota review. Her research interests include embodied rhetorics, sports studies, feminist theory, classical rhetoric, and Kenneth Burke, and her work is featured in Keywords in Writing Studies, Textual Overtures, Peitho (forthcoming), and Women’s Ways of Making (forthcoming). She currently teaches sports media communication, communication studies, and first year writing.
Abstract: Feminist scholars have critiqued Aristotelian ethos for not accounting for the material conditions that might influence how one’s ethos is perceived and assuming a certain agency for the rhetor, assumptions that do not always accurately depict a woman’s or other marginalized group’s lived reality. I argue that the physical body, ethos, and subjectivity are necessarily intertwined, and I offer the term embodied ēthe to complement Ryan, Meyers, and Jones’ work on expanding feminist understandings of ethos. Using tennis player Serena Williams as an exemplar, embodied ēthe is capable of inhabiting—not just resisting—social norms, which further expands the various modalities of action that might lead to one’s agency and the various actions that women might use to develop ethos.Tags: 22-2, agency, ethos, Race, subjectivity, the physical body
Feminist rhetoric scholars have long argued for a revitalization of many traditional rhetorical concepts, most recently, our understanding of ethos. For example, Susan Jarratt and Nedra Reynolds discuss ethos as communal and specifically emphasize the positionality and situational nature of ethos, and Jacqueline Jones Royster and Coretta Pittman argue that certain individuals already face a disadvantage when it comes to their ability to develop ethos because their bodies do not reflect the cultural values of the community to which they speak. Recently, Kathleen J. Ryan, Nancy Meyers, and Rebecca Jones have forwarded an important reconsideration of ethos as ecological ēthe in their Rethinking Ethos: A Feminist Ecological Approach to Rhetoric. They argue, with due reason, that Aristotelian interpretations of ethos are in need of revision and suggest that an ecological perspective provides an understanding of ethos more conducive to feminist aims and more accurate for describing the variety of ways in which women build ethos. As they explain, drawing from the plural ēthe can “open up new ways of envisioning ethos to acknowledge the multiple, nonlinear relations operating among rhetors, audiences, things, and contexts. This theorizing recognizes all elements of any rhetorical situation as shifting and morphing in response to others (persons, places, things), generating a variety and plurality of ethos, or ēthe” (3). Ryan, Meyers, and Jones provide three possible manifestations of ecological ēthe, though they carefully explain that these categories are not exclusive and often overlap: interruption, advocacy, and relation. These categories expand current understandings of rhetorical ethos to allow a “shift away from an Aristotelian framework toward a conceptualization of women’s ethos that accounts in new ways for interrelationality, materiality, and agency” (viii). While this work is sorely needed for new understandings of women’s ethos, it also points out how much is still left to be done in regards to understanding the complex nexus of women’s subjectivity, ethos, and the physical body. For example, in the Afterwords to Rethinking Ethos, Paige A. Conley points out the need for feminist research to “continue to trouble and challenge traditional notions of naming, the subject, and subjectivity as fixed and singular concepts, particularly for marginalized or doubly marginalized rhetors” (285). Therefore, I argue that in order to interrogate a fixed understanding of subjectivity and further the important work started by Ryan, Meyers, and Jones (and their contributors), we must first attend to the relationship between ethos and subjectivity and to how one’s physical, material body affects and is affected by one’s subjectivity and ethos.
One such “doubly marginalized1” rhetor who helps challenge fixed understandings of subjectivity is tennis superstar Serena Williams. Despite being one of the best tennis players in the history of the sport, Williams often receives just as much attention for the size, shape, and color of her body. As a Black woman from a working-class background in a typically white, country club sport, Williams frequently must speak to and perform2 for a community whose values do not always reflect her own. Further, although sport has provided women with opportunities to build and transform their physical bodies, thus providing women with a way to challenge gendered expectations about women’s appearance, body shape, and size, the very structure of sport simultaneously reinforces gendered expectations for women’s behavior and their adherence to a normative aesthetic ideal. One of the problems that several feminist scholars have noted (Ryan, Meyers, and Jones included) with previous conceptions of ethos is that it does not account for the material conditions that might influence how one’s ethos is perceived, and that it assumes a certain agency for the rhetor, assumptions that do not always accurately depict a woman’s or other marginalized group’s lived reality. As I will demonstrate below, a careful consideration of the relationship between subjectivity and ethos brings us necessarily to the physical body and the need for an embodied understanding of ethos that accounts for how material conditions such as one’s physical body might influence one’s efforts at establishing ethos. Thus, I argue Ryan, Meyers, and Jones’ ecological ēthe points to the need for a specifically embodied understanding of ethos in order to better convey how and why one might utilize (or be compelled to utilize) these other means of gaining ethos.
However, instead of focusing on how Williams and other marginalized women attempt to gain agency by resisting or subverting social norms, as much important feminist scholarship has already demonstrated, I seek instead to analyze the varieties of ways in which women use their bodies in order to build and construct ethos, the various bodily movements, behaviors, and practices that might constitute women’s agency, and the ways in which these bodily movements and behaviors allow one to inhabit or embody certain social norms. I argue that the physical body, ethos, and subjectivity are necessarily intertwined, and I offer the term embodied ēthe to complement Ryan, Meyers, and Jones’ work on expanding feminist understandings of ethos. An embodied ēthe is capable of inhabiting—not just resisting—social norms, which further expands the various modalities of action that might lead to one’s agency and the various actions that women might use to develop ethos. I specifically emphasize embodied because it helps describe how material conditions influence one’s ethos, while utilizing Ryan, Meyers, and Jones’ plural ēthe to convey the multiple, varied ways that individuals attempt to build ethos.
Associating ethos with embodiment also better accounts for the layers of oppression that certain individuals might face. Race, class, gender, and the body intersect and influence interpretations of each other. That is, it is impossible to delineate each of these constructs from each other, because they often operate in connection with each other. As Patricia Hill Collins explains, intersectionality3 treats race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age, and other identity characteristics as intersecting, rather than competing frameworks, and as aspects of “mutually constructing systems of power” (10-11). An intersectional approach to ethos allows me to discuss various factors that may influence one’s performance of ethos, and to consider these factors as interconnected and fluid. Intersectionality is an especially important aspect of my research methodology because much previous scholarship on ethos from rhetorical studies ignores some of these identity categories, or tends to focus on a particular aspect of identity (most commonly gender or race), rather than considering how these facets of identity interact with and influence each other and one’s ethos as a whole. For example, Hill Collins argues that for African Americans, “the relationship between gender and race is intensified, producing a Black gender ideology that shapes ideas about Black masculinity and Black femininity” (6). Using Hill Collins’ interpretation, it is impossible to separate a Black feminine experience into a simply Black experience, because cultural constructions of Blackness are also inextricably tied to one’s performance of gender. Like Hill Collins, I suggest that these frameworks interact with and influence each other, and therefore, when I discuss these concepts, though I may focus my analysis on one specific aspect for a given situation, I see these constructions as operating together.
I offer the term inhabit to draw attention to the ways in which individuals might occupy and lay claim to certain social positions and behaviors, even those that appear marginalizing, and to emphasize the connection between one’s habits and one’s ethos. In using this term, I aim to tie these practices to the history of feminist efforts to claim space and to dwell in places where women and other marginalized groups were not necessarily “supposed to be.” In doing so, however, I want to clarify that ethos is not merely habit, but rather a negotiated standing within a particular community. As Ryan, Meyers, and Jones helpfully explain, our modern word ethos actually has two etymologies, with ethos meaning custom or habit, while ēthos describes “social, ethical, and located dimensions” (6). According to Ryan, Meyers, and Jones, these two etymologies are “consubstantial with each other, creating a rationale for combining discussions of character, habit, and abode, thus highlighting the social, constructed, ethical, and agentive aspects of premodern ethos” (6). Thus, to inhabit a social norm draws upon both etymologies, while also providing the possibility of harnessing certain disciplinary practices for one’s own purposes.4
Examining the variety of ways that rhetors like Williams build and perform ethos therefore suggests that the physical body is even more strongly tied to one’s ethos and one’s subjectivity than even the most recent scholarship acknowledges. More importantly, and in keeping with Ryan, Meyers, and Jones’ vision of expanding feminist understandings of ethos, considering an embodied ēthe allows rhetoric scholars to see and understand different capacities for action and to consider how actions and behaviors that may only seem to reinforce societal norms can actually be used to build ethos. For example, when Williams was recently singled out by French Open officials for a “disrespectful” outfit worn in the tournament, rather than criticizing the new rules about player apparel, as many of her fans and her sponsor Nike did (discussed in more detail below), Williams was conciliatory when discussing the outfit in question. Instead of taking issue with tennis officials, Williams quietly acquiesced to their ruling, letting her fans and media commentators take on the cause. In this example, Williams’ submission to French Open authorities allowed others to question the decision on her behalf, ultimately demonstrating her ethos.
What I am calling “modalities of action,” which is a term I borrow from feminist anthropologist Saba Mahmood, refers to the potential for one to re-purpose or re-deploy disciplinary practices and bodily movements for one’s own purposes and agenda. In this way, the very practices that might render one docile also have the potential to lead to agency. What is important about considering these behaviors and practices as modalities of action, and what is different about my understanding of these practices than those of, for example, a more traditional feminist objectification critique, is that individuals might employ a variety of behaviors and practices—even those that seem to only reinforce gendered or racial norms and stereotypes—for their own purposes and agendas. In some cases, it is the very inhabiting of social norms that allows individuals to take action. This understanding of power and subject formation means that agency is not just the same as resistance to social norms, but is a capacity for action that is made possible specifically through one’s subordination. What this means for feminist rhetoric scholars is that even actions and behaviors by rhetors who appear subordinate or marginalized can in fact be utilized to build ethos. Focusing on how individuals work within seemingly limiting frameworks—such as how Williams responds to the normative tennis community—to establish ethos broadens the scope of what feminist rhetoric scholars consider indications of ethos, and better accounts for how certain rhetors adapt to the rhetorical situations they face.
Williams’ performances of ethos suggest that the process of athletic training and the care of the self may also function as processes of invention that offer the possibility of agency. By shifting the focus from how certain practices reinscribe traditional gender roles or expectations to how those practices might produce different capacities in the subject, I argue that it is precisely Williams’ subordination to the disciplinary practices of her athletic training that enables her capacity for action. As a Black woman in a predominantly white sport, Williams’ Blackness means her behaviors and actions are always-already read as defiant, even when such behaviors do not differ from those of other (white) players. In this way, Williams’ rhetorical actions are viewed similarly to those of other Black women rhetors, linking Williams with legacies of Black women rhetors and their rhetorical practices. For example, in her historiographic work on nineteenth century African American women, Jacqueline Jones Royster argues that for these women, “any acts by which they claim agency and authority are necessarily defined as going against the grain, that is, against the dominant values and expectations of the general culture” (64). In an effort to claim agency, Royster suggests that African American women must construct multiple identities and incorporate bodily experience in order to construct an ethos that “does not operate in the absence of rhetorical actions but in tandem with them and also with the way that these writers envision the context” (66-68). Similarly, I argue that Williams utilizes these gendered and racialized narratives for her own purposes, using them as a modality of action that allows her to build intimidation in the eyes of her opponents. In addition, her resistance to the social norms of tennis—seen in her unconventional tennis attire and her unorthodox behavior during matches—demonstrates the variety of ways in which women may develop agency. Williams’ ability to either inhabit or subvert social norms depends on her ability to develop and shape the body, revealing the ways in which repeated bodily habits and behaviors provides the individual with a malleability that allows one to develop and shape one’s subjectivity.
Nonetheless, as I will demonstrate below, Williams’ identity as a Black tennis player in the predominantly white tennis community has material consequences in the movements and bodily behaviors that Williams employs and in the way these behaviors are read by her audience. In the sections that follow, I first provide evidence for understanding ethos as specifically embodied, and theorize ethos, the physical body, and subjectivity as an intersecting nexus. I then discuss the racialized narratives circulating in popular discourses about Williams, demonstrating how both previous cultural narratives and the materiality of the body affects one’s ethos, and how Williams’ specifically Black body is read in the context of the predominantly white tennis community. I argue that the disciplined Black body presents instability and malleability in understandings of subjectivity, suggesting the need for a more fluid theory of ethos that recognizes the importance of the physical body. Finally, I illustrate how Williams inhabits certain social norms while resisting others, capitalizing on racialized and gendered expectations about acceptable behavior in order to gain a competitive advantage. In doing so, Williams presents a compelling figure for feminist analysis because she reflects shifts in traditional Black feminist understandings about subjectivity and agency. Together, these analyses suggest the need for reimagined theories of ethos that better describe how differently located rhetors negotiate social norms and other marginalizing discourses in their efforts to establish ethos.
Ethos, the Body, and Subjectivity as a Nexus
My analysis incorporates rhetorical scholarship on ethos and the body, feminist scholarship on ethos and subjectivity, and sports studies scholarship on the body and subjectivity in order to illustrate ethos as a specifically embodied concept that is inextricably connected to one’s subjectivity. This conception of ethos and subjectivity provides rhetoric scholars with a better understanding of the variety of ways in which rhetors may work within limiting frameworks, including efforts to inhabit and embody social norms, not just efforts to resist or subvert those norms. In this way, even actions and behaviors that might seem contrary to feminist aims might be re-established as actions that have agency. In my interpretation, these performances of ethos might consist of bodily movements, actions and behaviors, and outward adornment, in addition to more traditional understandings that attend to ethos as part of public, linguistically-based discourse. Considering bodily movements and behaviors as part of one’s efforts to construct ethos broadens the scope of practices that feminist scholars might include in theories of ethos, and broadens theories of ethos more generally.
Sports studies scholars such as Pirkko Markula and Eileen Kennedy (2012), Gwen Chapman (1997), David Johns and Jennifer Johns (2000), and Markula and Richard Pringle (2006) all discuss women’s use of athletics as a way of shaping the self, using Michel Foucault’s understanding of the care of the self, which they relate to athletic training. However, much feminist sports studies research that incorporates the care of the self tends to focus on questions of femininity, situating women’s exercise practices as either conforming to a dominant aesthetic ideal or efforts to subvert those ideals, failing to see how ethos might be constructed apart from those established aesthetic expectations. In addition, many of these researchers do not address the history of the care of self or its importance for ancient Greeks in creating ethical subjects, missing the importance of women’s ability to physically shape and construct the body for their ability to shape and construct their ethos, and consequently, their social and political standing.
In order to address the complexity of embodied ēthe, it is necessary to consider that subjectivity and one’s ability to shape the self (both shaping the physical body and the shaping of a particular public persona) is also tied to the body. According to Foucault, power affects the body via disciplinary mechanisms such as ranking and individualization, which functions to normalize individuals. At the same time, one’s pursuit of these disciplinary practices further promotes the circulation of power. However, the materiality of the body affects the relationship between athletic training and the body. For example, elite athletic training relies on the idea that one can change the body, that the tissues and physiological structures of the body can be developed and trained, leading the elite athlete to believe that she can shape her body, and thus shape her subjectivity. But the same understanding of the malleability and trainability of the body presents a problem because there are certain aspects of the material body that one simply cannot change, such as one’s race or height, or the types of tissue that can be built or grafted onto the body. This offers the elite athlete the illusion that she is the self-author of her body and the way her body is perceived in society, but really her understanding of herself and the way that others perceive her are culturally constructed and situated in discourses that are shaped by previous cultural narratives, which may limit how she performs ethos and how that ethos is perceived. For example, sports studies scholars Leslie Heywood and Shari L. Dworkin claim that athletes like soccer player Brandi Chastain and volleyball player Gabrielle Reese have a different understanding of how women’s bodies are represented in the public sphere, and “tend to see physical appearance as a marketing asset that is not necessarily gender-specific, pointing to the ways the male body has itself become sexualized and commodified in recent media culture” (39). As they explain, when the body is specifically coded as athletic, it can “redeem female sexuality and make it visible as an assertion of female presence, and make that presence amenable to a range of sexualities” (82-83). But though these athletes have a certain amount of agency in capitalizing on their physical appearance, these efforts are still culturally constructed and at least in some ways, shaped by discourses that the athlete has little control over. Elite athletic training makes the illusion of controlling one’s self-image intoxicating: because the athlete has been able to mold and shape her body, she assumes she has control of it, but how her body is read by others is always shaped by cultural constructions and previous cultural narratives.
One of the reasons why elite athletes present such a challenge for feminist scholarship is because they occupy a contradictory position. That is, elite athletes pursue disciplinary practices such as regimented athletic training programs and specific diets, but these disciplinary practices are also the key component for their success as athletes and for their agency as individuals. More specifically, elite athletes occupy a contradictory position because the very practices that render them docile also enable their ability to use such practices and behaviors as modalities of action that might produce their own chosen results. Therefore, while feminist scholarship has traditionally been critical of body work (like athletic training) for its disciplinary practices, my argument is that in the context of athletics, it is this very willingness to submit to disciplinary practices that provides the means and mechanism for athletes to produce their own desired outcomes. In the case of Serena Williams, her willingness to enter a dialogue with tennis officials about returning to play at Indian Wells (discussed in more detail below), and therefore to inhabit social norms about reconciliatory behavior, allowed her to use that platform to speak about social justice.
Within rhetorical scholarship, Debra Hawhee traces the relationship between rhetoric and athletics in ancient Greece, demonstrating the long history of ethos as a bodily concept. Using the idea of melete, or repeated practice5, Hawhee argues there is a connection between one’s bodily habits and one’s ethos in that “melete becomes the means through which permanent dispositions develop” (146). Therefore, ethos’s connection to the body and to habit suggests that repeated bodily movements, such as those performed by an elite athlete in the course of athletic training, influence both one’s own conception of the self and also how others perceive the self. The bodily actions performed in athletic training thus are seen as indications of one’s ethos, which suggests that ethos can be developed and trained over time, and that these repeated bodily movements influence how others perceive one’s ethos. Utilizing Hawhee’s discussion of bodily ethos, I argue that the repeated bodily movements often performed through athletic training also play a significant role in how the subject is developed, to the extent that these particular movements and behaviors not only reflect one’s ethos to others, but come to constitute necessary attributes of the self. For the ancient Greeks, the trained, cared-for body was seen as a sign of one’s readiness to participate in civic life. That is, the physical body was symbolic of one’s subjectivity; it signaled one’s ability to act or take action in a particular context (Foucault, Hawhee). In this way, the self and subjectivity are also closely tied to ethos, because ethos amounts to one’s personal credibility and character, and thus represents one’s conception of the self or status as a subject to others.
However, while Hawhee’s work is important for understanding the relationship between specific bodily movements and habits with the way one may develop ethos, it assumes that all bodies have the same opportunities for cultivating these movements and habits that then influence one’s ethos. Likewise, Aristotelian understandings of ethos assume that one acts from deliberate choice and that one has the means to engage in chosen practices and behaviors that might lead to habit formation. This perspective ignores factors that influence ethos and habit formation about which an individual has limited choice, such as the rhetor’s race, gender, or class, and the marginalized social and cultural positions that some rhetors consequently face. As Ryan, Meyers, and Jones point out, Aristotelian theories of ethos that assume a static subject and a homogenous male community “ignore postmodern and feminist critiques of selfhood and discussions about ethics” and “do not presume difference, the shared yet diverse oppression of women, or contemporary theorizing about the subject as starting points for constructing ethos” (5). This is especially troubling for Black women, whose choices may be limited by intersecting systems of power. For example, Hill Collins notes that because of similar work and social experiences, “U.S. Black women as a group live in a different world from that of people who are not Black and female,” and that these distinct experiences can “stimulate a distinctive consciousness concerning our own experiences and society overall. Many African American women grasp this connection between what one does and how one thinks” (23-24). In other words, the behaviors and actions available to Black women have a direct effect on their conceptions of themselves and their subjectivity. In this way, discussions of bodily ethos that rely on Aristotelian understandings of ethos do not address the social and political ramifications of ethos as a bodily concept and cannot account for the ways an individual’s ethos might be influenced by factors outside of his or her realm of control. Therefore, while existing scholarship suggests that ethos is related to the physical body, it is not enough to simply think of ethos as bodily; rather, we must work to understand how embodied ēthe works in connection with subjectivity and how this nexus of ethos, the body, and subjectivity might influence how certain rhetors work to establish ethos. This more intersectional approach would better account for the efforts of rhetors who face multiple layers of discrimination at the same time.
In an effort to address some of these questions about Aristotelian ethos, other scholarship (Hyde, Royster, Pittman, among others) considers the relationship between bodily and material aspects of ethos and discourse, emphasizing the material effects that language has on the individual, as well as the interplay between the audience and the speaker, demonstrating a more social understanding of ethos. In particular, Michael Hyde combines an Aristotelian understanding of ethos with Heidegger’s emphasis on the communal nature of ethos. For Heidegger, one’s ethos is contingent on one’s ability to move an audience, with move meaning both one’s ability to influence the audience to consider something (moving the passions, or taking something to heart), but also to place or “move” the audience into a relationship with the speaker, and into a “dwelling place” where audience and rhetor may deliberate together (xiii). According to Hyde, ethos “is a matter, at the very least, of character, ethics, Being, space and time, emotion, truth, rhetorical competence, and everyday situations that are contextualized within the dwelling place of human being—a place known to encourage metaphysical wonder” (xxi, emphasis mine). That is, instead of Aristotelian understandings of ethos that emphasize the speaker and tend to “fix” ethos as predetermined, Hyde considers the ways that human being—the way in which one exists in the world—influences ethos.
Royster’s important work on nineteenth century African American women rhetors suggests that though these women often faced negative stereotypes and expectations, ethos is developed through repeated decision-making opportunities. Like Hyde, Royster explains that we see “traditions of ethos formation shaped by the materiality of their relationships to work and by the material conditions of the world around them” (236). According to Royster, one way that nineteenth century African American women developed ethos was through the patterns of behavior these women developed as they acquired professional identities. As she argues, “a critical view of women’s participation in this organizational work offers an opportunity to look beyond the work itself to what this pattern of behavior suggests about the formation of ethos in rhetorical decision-making” (210). Royster explains that the “merging” of these women’s identities (personal, historical, social, professional, or even political) “gave rise to a particular type of process for the formation of ethos among these women as writers and speakers in public domains” (210). Further, Royster points out that for these women, rhetoric was an embodied practice, with arguments centered “not just rationally and ethically, but in the body—in the head, the heart, the stomach, the backbone—in the interests, apparently, of inducing not just an intellectual response but a holistic one, that is, a whole-body involvement. The goal seems often to be quite literally to ‘move’ the audience,” a rhetorical practice Royster suggests leaves “no rhetorical holds barred” (68). Therefore, in order to account for more diverse manifestations of ethos, scholars must consider embodied understandings of ethos and the process of ethos formation and its relationship to patterns of behavior.
This understanding suggests that ethos, like the human body, is not fixed in advance, but is capable of being shaped and trained, and also that it reveals some sort of fundamental aspect of the self. By utilizing Hawhee and Royster’s respective emphases on ethos as embodied and trained over time through habits and deliberate practice, along with Hyde’s understanding of ethos as fluid and constantly in flux, I want to suggest that ethos is not only embodied and trained, but that it creates possibilities of being in the world, or of existing as an ethical subject capable of action. Likewise, Hyde’s emphasis on being and dwelling resonate with feminist efforts to claim spaces and to acknowledge multiple subjectivities. The act of inhabiting social norms and dwelling in these norms (and not just resisting or subverting them) can therefore be read as actions that might lead to further possibilities for agency. Royster’s discussion of ethos formation as part of a pattern of behaviors or “an engagement with rhetorical decision-making” opens up considerations of ethos to include actions and processes of identity formations, not just the “end result,” and emphasizes ethos as something that is developed over time (211). Further, this understanding of ethos acknowledges the importance of routine, everyday actions as aspects of ethos building, which values the rhetorical practices of differently located individuals. For example, Hill Collins suggests “many contemporary Black women intellectuals continue to draw on this tradition of using everyday actions and experiences in our theoretical work” (33). While Aristotelian understandings of ethos often focus on more formal, static displays of ethos, embodied ēthe better accounts for everyday displays of ethos, which acknowledges the traditions of ethos formation of other disenfranchised groups, such as Black women.
In addition, scholars have argued that ethos is co-constructed, or negotiated, between the audience and the speaker or performer (Hyde, Jarratt and Reynolds, Smith). Because ethos is both external to and internal to the speaker or performer, one cannot just “claim” or “earn” ethos; rather, ethos must be granted by an audience. Therefore, one may deliberately style ethos for a particular audience and situation, but previous conceptions of one’s ethos may also influence how the audience perceives of subsequent performances of ethos. Because of this negotiation, women may face challenges in constructing ethos in certain contexts. As Ryan, Meyers, and Jones suggest, it is often “culturally and socially restrictive for women to develop an authoritative ēthe” (2). Therefore, although the rhetor has a certain amount of agency in each performance of ethos, these performances are always read in the context of the cultural values of the community to which one speaks. In the context of athletics, while one certainly has agency in pursuing particular exercise practices, these efforts often require willing subjection to an authority figure such as a coach or trainer. Yet as I will argue, it is this very subjection to disciplinary practice that provides the means for rhetors to inhabit social norms and utilize them for their own purposes. Therefore, reimagining ethos as embodied ēthe offers feminist scholars a means to locate agency within subjection, which expands opportunities for ethos to situations where rhetors appear to lack agency or are in marginalized positions.
The Body and Ethos: Defiant (Black) Sexuality
As mentioned above, certain individuals face issues of racism, classism, or sexism that mark them as undesirable or outside of an established norm, which has consequences for how their ethos is perceived by an audience. As I will demonstrate below, the fascination with Black athletes’ bodies, as reflected in media discourses that focus on Williams’ height and muscularity, has specific material consequences manifest in Williams’ bodily behaviors and movements, which subsequently influence how she performs ethos. Williams’ Black body is thus read through the context of these discourses, meaning that in comparison to the normalized discourses of white tennis athletes, the sensationalized discourses about Williams’ body therefore represent an unstable subjectivity, although her disciplinary practices—which would serve to normalize the white body—are similar to those of other players. Williams’ performances of ethos suggest that she occupies a blurred subject-object position, and that her disciplined Black body represents instability, while the disciplined white body presents a more normalized self. Williams’ efforts at establishing ethos therefore indicate the need for an understanding of embodied ēthe, which allows scholars to examine how Williams disrupts a fixed understanding of subjectivity and the way that her physical body and the cultural narratives about certain bodies factor into her rhetorical choices.
Media commentary about Williams has often sensationalized or obsessed over her physical body or her difference from other players. For example, tennis analysts focus on Williams’ “imposing height” and physicality, even when she plays opponents who are the same height or taller than she is. Likewise, despite Williams mentioning her strategy many times in interviews, commentary about her playing often focuses on her power, rather than her skill in placing shots and thinking a few steps ahead of her opponent.6 The commentary about Williams perpetuated through tennis media can be linked to epideictic rhetoric about the Black athlete. As sport sociology scholar Nancy E. Spencer argues, Black athletes are assumed to have an almost innate, “natural” physicality (“Sister Act” 120). Such assumptions of innate athleticism undermine individual athletes’ years of athletic training, their learned skill in a particular sport, and their mental strategy.
In addition, tennis analysts love to bring up Williams’ childhood in Compton, despite the fact that she moved to Florida when she was nine (see for example Caple and Vercammen and MacFarlane). The continued reference to Compton—an area commonly stigmatized as dangerous, poor, and gang-riddled—effectively calls attention to Williams’ Blackness and ghetto-izes her, further reinforcing her as outside of the normative tennis community. Earlier in her career, tennis writers and other players also derided Williams for her unconventional behavior on the tennis court (for movements such as fist pumps, grunts and yelling, or questioning officials’ calls) calling Williams arrogant or unfriendly (Price), “disrespectful,” “ballistic,” and immature, despite the fact that other players have loudly emphasized their playing with shouts or disagreements with officials or have boldly predicted their success (such as Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenko, Martina Hingis, and John McEnroe). The emphasis on Williams’ childhood in Compton continues to perpetuate myths of the violent Black athlete, and relies on an “overcoming the odds” trope that sensationalizes Black achievement, further emphasizing spectacular “natural” talent rather than attributing such success to hard work and dedication. The persistent focus on Williams’ “unladylike” behavior within the genteel norms of tennis consistently paints her as an outsider, even when her actions do not differ from those of other players.
These discourses about Williams’ body and background have material consequences in the movements and bodily behaviors that Williams employs and in the way these behaviors are read by her audience. For much of her career, tennis media have consistently characterized Williams as freakish or defiant, whether by drawing attention to her supposedly supernatural strength and power or by condemning her behaviors and expressions. Yet at the same time, I argue that Williams seems to embrace this framing, performing movements and cultivating an ethos that is deliberately nonconformist.7 For example, in the early 2000s, when Williams’ tennis career was newly successful (marked by her first “Serena Slam” in 2002-2003, when Williams held all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously), Williams appeared to reinforce her difference from other tennis players through her choices of apparel. While other players typically wore conservative colors and minimal jewelry, Williams often sported neon colors, large earrings, and outfits embellished with rhinestones or cutouts, many of them her own design. Williams’ penchant for the unconventional offers an interesting example of inhabiting social norms. While media commentary framed Williams as nonconformist and defiant, Williams worked within that framework to utilize these sometimes marginalizing narratives for her own purposes. By highlighting the very same body that media framed as unconventional, Williams redeploys these narratives to reinforce her identity as a specifically Black tennis player. According to fashion studies scholar Tanisha Ford, one’s dress might be considered a “political ‘strategy of visibility’” (4). Ford examines the role of dress and style as “embodied activism” within the civil rights and Black Power movements (3), ultimately arguing, “in the everyday choices that Black women made as they dressed themselves and styled their hair lay a revolutionary politics of style” (1). Using Ford’s compelling discussion of how fashion might be incorporated into activism, I argue that Williams utilizes a similar approach, using her on-court clothing choices to challenge stereotypes about Black women.
Williams is especially well known for her “catsuits,” the first of which she wore at the 2002 U.S. Open. The sleeveless, one-piece black Lycra bodysuit she wore received a tremendous amount of attention from tennis media, who described it as “super-tight, ultra-risqué” and “requir[ing] more bravery than fabric” (Everson, Harris, Preston). According to Jaime Schultz, media response to Williams’ catsuit focused not only on the way that the garment highlighted her muscular physique, but also suggested “a deviant sexuality, thereby contrasting her with a compliant sexuality emphasized in journalistic and promotional representations” (338-339). However, as Schultz argues, though Williams’ catsuit was unconventional, it was not an entirely novel fashion choice, even in the traditional confines of women’s tennis: in 1985, Anne White wore a long-sleeved, one-piece white Lycra bodysuit at Wimbledon. Schultz claims that although White’s bodysuit and Williams’ catsuit were similar in design, “there is a striking discrepancy in the ways in which she [Williams] and Anne White were framed and discussed by the popular media… White was scolded for accentuating her feminine assets; Williams was admonished for exhibiting her masculine muscularity” (344). As Schultz convincingly points out, even the term catsuit has different connotations than White’s bodysuit. On the one hand, Williams’ catsuit was sleeveless and included shorter legs, while White’s bodysuit was long sleeved and had full-length legs, essentially covering her entire body. However, Schultz notes that catsuit often refers to a type of lingerie, which immediately groups Williams with “the legions of other female athletes sexualized by the popular media” (344). The catsuit is also sometimes considered a fetishized form of lingerie, associated with deviant forms of sexual expression. Though it is important to note that the outfit was designed by Williams in connection with her then sponsor, Puma—whose logo is a leaping cat—and that Williams herself refers to the outfit as “a catsuit” (Boeck), responses to Williams’ tennis apparel, and the catsuit in particular, emphasize the ways her physical body is outside of the dominant white, slender, normatively feminine aesthetic typical in tennis. Therefore, any efforts by Williams to establish ethos within the tennis community are read in the context of this outsider identity.
While tennis media roundly criticized Williams’ first catsuit, it is important to view this fashion choice in light of Ford’s scholarship on dress as a means of political visibility. As Ford explains, during the fight for Black liberation in the 70s, Black people used clothing “to not only adorn but also re-aestheticize the Black body,” leading to “a re-aestheticization of Blackness, which created new value and political power for the Black body in the twentieth century” (7). In particular, Ford argues that Black women used their clothing to “write new ‘body narratives,’ new renderings of their personal narratives that reflected their more expansive view of freedom; through their clothing, they projected a sense of sexual freedom, gender non conformity, and upward social mobility” (7). Seen in this framework, Williams’ first catsuit might be read as an effort to challenge tennis media’s criticism and persistent focus on her body, and to defy that criticism openly. In this way, Williams inhabits certain stereotypical social norms about Black women, but redeploys them for her own purposes, celebrating the very same body that the tennis media scorned.
Though Williams works to counter these discourses, media commentary about her body and the first catsuit in particular reflects racist and gendered stereotypes. For example, feminist scholar Janell Hobson explains that the criticism of Williams’ catsuit can be related to a long history of “enslavement, colonial conquest, and ethnographic exhibition” which often framed the Black female body as “grotesque,” “strange,” “unfeminine,” “lascivious,” and “obscene” (87). Sociologists James McKay and Helen Johnson add that “the categorization of Black women’s bodies as hyper-muscular and their targeting for lascivious comment mirrors the public and pseudo-scientific response to nineteenth century exhibits of Saartjie Baartman,” or the Hottentot Venus, and such assumed racial difference only serves to reinforce historical and cultural associations with “grotesque and deviant sexuality” (493). For example, after Williams’ disappointing finish at the 2006 Australian Open, The Telegraph’s Matthew Norman opined, “Generally, I’m all for chunky sports stars…. But tennis requires a mobility Serena cannot hope to achieve while lugging around breasts that are registered to vote in a different U.S. state from the rest of her” (Norman). This commentary not only portrays Williams as hypersexualized, but also suggests a kind of freakish, subhuman body.
While these discourses focus on Williams’ body as hypersexualized, and therefore aberrant, other discourses focus on Williams’ body as atypical in another way: her well-defined muscularity is framed as unnaturally masculine or superhuman, denying Williams’ femininity. For example, Sports Illustrated writer S.L. Price described Williams’ catsuit as “flaunting curves and muscles that could be dreamed up only by the brains at Marvel Comics,” (“Grand Occasion”), and The New York Daily News’ Wayne Coffey described her body type as a “defensive-back physique” (p. C01). The persistent focus on Serena’s muscularity and physical stature, along with the suggestion that she looks more like a male football player than a women’s tennis player, not only masculinizes her body, but also figures her as unnatural or superhuman.
Sport historians Patricia Vertinsky and Gwendolyn Captain explain that discourses equating Williams’ muscularity with masculinity can be traced back to several persistent historical myths about Black womanhood, namely, “the linking of African American women’s work history as slaves, their supposedly ‘natural’ brute strength and endurance inherited from their African origins, and the notion that vigorous or competitive sport masculinized women physically and sexually” (541). According to Vertinsky and Captain, the association between “stereotyped depictions of Black womanhood and ‘manly’ athletic and physically gifted females” is related to “slave womanhood stereotypes involving the colonization of the Black female body by the white master” (541). Likewise, as bell hooks argues, though historians tend to focus on how slavery emasculated Black men, “it would be much more accurate for scholars to examine the dynamics of slavery in light of the masculinization of the Black female” (22). According to hooks, while enslaved, Black men were not expected to perform what might typically be considered “feminine” work—such as cooking, cleaning, and child care—while Black women were required to perform “masculine” labor such as working in the fields, in addition to their domestic tasks (Ain’t 50-51). Therefore, when tennis commentators focus on Williams’ “masculine” qualities, or when she is depicted as manly, these depictions effectively place her in the relationship of master and slave, positioning her as one that does not matter (to use hooks’ phrasing). The obsessive focus on Williams’ body by the predominantly white tennis world can be read as an attempt toward colonization, or at the very least, suggests an attempt at surveillance over Williams’ Black, muscular body (Douglas).
In addition, these discourses illustrate the ways in which social constructions of Black women’s bodies have material consequences for how certain individuals may perform ethos. Because Black women historically performed both physical labor and sex work, their labor resulted in a simultaneous blurring of masculinity and femininity (Peterson, x-xi), leading to a grotesqueness associated with the disciplined Black body, as opposed to a sense of normalization in the disciplined white body. And according to Schultz, in the context of tennis, “where traditional femininity is publicly valued above strength,” there is “little natural about female athleticism and muscularity” (348). Consequently, like many other Black women, Williams must negotiate overlapping racialized and gendered stereotypes, which suggests the need for a more intersectional theory of ethos that accounts for the ways in which certain rhetors may face several layers of discrimination in their efforts to gain ethos. In this way, while the disciplined white body might lead to a more stable understanding of the individual, the disciplined Black body actually creates more instability, such that while certain individuals may attempt to work on the body, that work may already be undermined by previous discourses and histories that construct their bodies in different ways. Therefore, while Williams might utilize the very same disciplinary practices that other (white) female athletes employ, rather than normalizing her body these practices only serve to reinforce her difference. That is to say, Williams and other marginalized rhetors disrupt typical, fixed understandings of subjectivity, pointing to the need for a more varied, fluid understanding of ethos that accounts both for multiple subjectivities and for how the physical body affects one’s subjectivities.
However, I argue her tennis apparel is specifically designed to draw additional attention to her difference from other, more traditional (white) players, and suggests an effort to construct her ethos as specifically feminine, perhaps as an attempt to counteract discourses that consistently paint her athletic performance and body type as masculine. Williams designs many of her tennis outfits, including the infamous catsuits. Her proclivity to wearing jewelry, rhinestone-embellished tennis dresses and body jewels, and manicured fingernails while playing all function as a type of hyper-feminization, emphasizing Williams’ femininity in the face of her bullet of a serve. In addition, Williams’ habit of spinning in place to address the crowd following a win—which usually causes her tennis skirt to flutter around her as she twirls—can also be read as an effort to evoke femininity and innocence, recalling a behavior more typical of young girls. In this way, Williams seems to employ the rhetorical concept of metis, or cunning intelligence, which refers to one’s ability to shift or blur identities to gain an advantage in a specific situation (Hawhee), such as the way that Williams may embrace the media’s masculine framing with her grunts and shouting while also emphasizing her femininity with her manicured nails and delicate twirling. Importantly, metis is developed in part through repeated practice, and though one cannot train for every possible situation, repeated practice allows one to develop a ready, perceptive body that is capable of particular maneuvers at key moments. Using this interpretation, scholars can also consider the concept of metis as a malleability or a rhetorical flexibility that allows the rhetor to adapt to particular situations, shifting shape in order to better respond to the specific moment. In addition, the apparel Williams chooses for tennis matches suggest a political activism in the everyday choices of how she dresses or styles her hair. According to Ford, “in a world where Black women’s bodies were often objectified and used as placeholders in a variety of competing ideologies—whether as symbols of ‘primitive’ Black sexuality or as keepers of Black respectability—women’s choices to adorn themselves differently became political” (14). In her unconventional tennis attire, Williams pushes back against these ideologies and discourses about her body. Understanding the body’s influence on metis and ethos more broadly adds to scholars’ knowledge of how ethos might function for a variety of rhetors, especially those whose subject positions are marginalized or changing. Like ecological ēthe, embodied ēthe suggests an important plurality to ethos, one that better accounts for certain women’s rhetorical practices within their lived realities.
Williams’ more recent “catsuit,” which I’m referring to as the “SuperMomSuit,” also reveals the way that Williams uses adornment as a rhetorical tool. In the 2018 French Open, Williams’ first Grand Slam after delivering her daughter via emergency C-section, Williams wore a fitted, compression style garment designed to help prevent blood clots, a known problem for Williams before her pregnancy and even more so in her post-partum period, which included multiple complications and surgeries. The “SuperMomSuit,” with its full legs and cap sleeves, was less revealing than Williams’ earlier catsuit, and had the additional function of improving blood circulation. Like her earlier catsuit, the “SuperMomSuit” also drew attention to muscular thighs and arms, and was black. Though the outfit was mostly praised by fans and tennis media at the time (Williams framed it as a “tribute” to other moms on her personal Twitter), several months following the event, officials of the French Open announced a new dress code for athletes, with French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli reasoning, “‘I believe we have sometimes gone too far. Serena’s outfit this year, for example, would no longer be accepted. You have to respect the game and the place’” (qtd. in Gaines). In critiquing Williams’ outfit, Giudicelli made no allowances for medical needs, nor did he explain what was “disrespectful” about Williams’ apparel. When Giudicelli questions the respectfulness of Williams’ outfit, he is really relying on and recirculating racist and sexist discourses that have framed Black women’s bodies as obscene. Further, by calling Williams’ medically warranted outfit somehow disrespectful, Giudicelli is not only deeming Black women’s bodies as insolent. He and the tennis community that he represents are also effectively disregarding Black women’s medical concerns.
Despite Giudicelli’s troubling announcement, Williams received mostly support and praise about her “SuperMomSuit.” For example, other players, such as Andy Roddick and Billie Jean King, criticized the French Open’s decision (Fleming), Williams’ longtime sponsor Nike put out a print ad in response, and media and fans spoke out about the unfair singling out of Williams. As Christen Johnson of the Chicago Tribune puts it, “if her powerful thighs, hamstrings and butt were thinner — and therefore less accentuated by the spandex suit — would Giudicelli still think that ‘we’ve gone too far’? If her biceps were smaller, her torso leaner, her hair in a silky, swinging ponytail instead of a cornrow-braided-bun, would Giudicelli then think she is ‘respecting the game and the place’?” (Johnson). Though tennis officials (as reflected by Giudicelli’s comments) have still ostracized her, other responses to Williams’ “SuperMomSuit” were vastly different than those of her earlier catsuit. Whether the change in attitudes about Williams is due to overwhelming success (Williams has won an astonishing 19 Grand Slam titles since the 2002 U.S. Open), the medical needs that warranted the “SuperMomSuit,” or her status as a mother (in contrast to discourses that hypersexualized her), responses from fans, media, and other players suggests that Williams’ efforts at constructing ethos and subjectivity have changed for good the discourses around her body and other bodies like hers. Acknowledging actions and behaviors such as Williams’ efforts at adornment, her fist pumps and twirls, or her responses to media as rhetorical practices that demonstrate embodied ēthe better accounts for the ways that differently located rhetors might build ethos. Yet at the same time, Giudicelli’s comments and the French Open’s stance on tennis apparel suggest that gendered and racialized discourses still challenge certain rhetor’s efforts at establishing ethos, and feminist scholars need theories of ethos that understand and acknowledge how existing discourses might affect individual efforts to gain ethos.
As another example of Williams’ agency within a limiting framework, Williams readily acknowledges her role as an entertainer, expressing a desire to play “thrilling, high-level tennis [that gives] the fans something to cheer about,” instead of the routine point-trading that sometimes happens at the beginning of matches (On the Line, 6). Williams asserts, “I understand that I’m in the entertainment business. I compete at the highest levels of my sport. I know the only reason there’s all that prize money and endorsement money is because people buy tickets to watch. I get that” (On the Line 76). Indeed, Williams’ acknowledgment of her public image suggests both that Williams actively produces her ethos and that she considers herself a product, an entertainer that audiences pay to see.
The athlete-as-entertainer is a particularly interesting concept in relationship to women’s athletics. Heywood and Dworkin note that in today’s body commodification culture, male and female athletes tend to be seen as “both active subjects who perform their sport and market their image, and commodified objects who are passive” (86). In this understanding, by situating herself as an entertainer and professional athletics as part of the entertainment business, Williams suggests she is the author of her own self-image and ethos—an active subject who specifically performs for an audience—and also an object to be consumed and sold as a product. However, because ethos is always co-constructed, no one is completely self-created, and this often presents a challenge for feminist scholars because of the ways in which the female body has typically been objectified. That is, the traditional feminist objectification critique suggests that Williams’ body and athletic performances are always-already under surveillance through the very structure of sport and the sporting context, and therefore, through her participation in the social institution of athletics and its related commodification culture, Williams’ body is objectified. Yet Williams’ (and other female athletes’) ability to occupy this blurred position of both subject and object, in combination with her strategic use of both inhabiting and resisting social norms (such as by highlighting her Black body through atypical tennis apparel), complicates the objectification critique.
This somewhat paradoxical position reflects a tension in traditional feminist scholarship about the body and what Maria del Guadalupe Davidson suggests is a tension between how young Black women and traditional Black feminists view agency. Davidson presents this tension as a question, asking, “is the present generation of young Black women experiencing the realization of Black feminist efforts from the past or is it deceived about its own agency?” (88). Davidson contends that many traditional Black feminists are troubled by how younger Black women are using their bodies or presenting their agency. For example, Davidson points out that Beyoncé’s version of feminism and “brand of agency” signifies “what traditional Black feminists mean when they say that young Black women today see their agency but they fail to see when their agency is being challenged or jeopardized” (91). According to Davidson, because traditional Black feminists are “impacted by a history that constructed Black women as sexually deviant … they see young Black women today who by tricking or any other means play into this image of Black women’s sexuality as reductive, ahistorical, and dangerous for all Black women” (109). Yet younger Black women, as reflected by Williams’ acknowledgement of herself as a product, are influenced by “the commercialization of sexuality and sex—indeed, it is their cultural heritage willed to them in part by a successful feminist movement” (Davidson 109). Davidson argues for a “fused” understanding of Black women’s agency, which would “posit a discussion around modern Black women’s sexuality that respects Black women’s right to express themselves, yet at the same time acknowledges the way in which some sectors of society view Black women’s bodies as objects” (109). In this way, Williams’ efforts at constructing ethos and demonstrating agency complicate traditional Black feminist understandings of agency, and suggest the need for broadening the scope of what might be considered agency. Williams’ agency in creating certain outfits, highlighting certain aspects of her body, and performing certain movements and behaviors thus situates her as an embodied subject that must be understood through her corporeality, which in turn extends discussions of women’s subjectivity and embodiment within rhetorical theory, and draws attention to the important nexus of ethos, subjectivity, and the physical body.
Training (Black) Habits and Behaviors for Political Action
In the previous section, I suggested Williams at times seems to embrace media discourses that situate her as outside of the norm for women’s tennis. More specifically, I argue below that Williams seems to employ her Blackness as an element of her ethos, often drawing on racialized narratives and using these audience expectations to her own advantage. Rather than reinforcing these narratives, however, I argue that it is Williams’ very efforts to embrace and inhabit these racialized expectations that then allow her to capitalize on them. Williams’ ability to inhabit these expectations suggests the importance of viewing ethos as both specifically embodied and inextricably tied to one’s subjectivity. Embodied ēthe, therefore, better describes women’s efforts to gain ethos even in circumstances where they appear to be subordinate subjects, expanding the scope of feminist understandings of ethos.
Williams’ efforts to embrace her Blackness and the relationship between Williams’ behaviors and tennis media’s tendency to portray Williams as defiant or nonconformist is especially evident in analyzing her performance of ethos in the 2004 U.S. Open quarterfinal match against Jennifer Capriati. Although not a championship match and not one of her more recent, record-breaking wins, this match is an important moment in Williams’ career for several reasons. First, the match vs. Capriati is notable for a number of questionable officiating calls that would later become the catalyst for the player-driven challenge system now used. Second, Williams’ justifiable questioning of these calls would eventually become linked with other, more aggressive disputes that were criticized by tennis media (Abad-Santos). This match would also be grouped with other incidents8 at least partially influenced by race. Finally, Williams chose unusual tennis apparel for her match vs. Capriati: a studded, cropped black tank top, a denim skirt, and black sneakers that combined with removable gaiters to give the appearance of knee-high boots. Williams claims she chose the outfit because of its “in-your-face, hip-hop feel,” a description which draws on associations of Black hip hop culture with violence, intimidation, deviant behavior, and masculinity (Arthur 113), associations that Williams perhaps employs to put additional pressure on her opponents, but also associations that tennis analysts have drawn on in describing Williams as “pummeling” opponents or responding to officials with “cockiness.” Once again, Williams utilizes adornment as a rhetorical practice, using her apparel to make a political statement. Though Williams was not as outspoken about her activism at this stage in her career, her choice of dress and style, as well as her interactions on the court, can be read as what Ford terms “embodied activism.” As Ford suggests about the history of soul style, “in substance and symbolically, soul and style politics writ large are more critical to the Black liberation and women’s liberation struggles than we have previously recognized” (14). In this way, Williams’ rhetorical practices of adornment might be read as early (perhaps more palatable for mostly white tennis media and officials) efforts of political activism that paved the way for her later, more explicit efforts (discussed in more detail below).
Another example of Williams’ emphasis on her racial difference can be seen in her “matchbook,” which includes inspirational quotes or reminders of an opponent’s playing style and weaknesses (7). One of her matchbook entries reads: “Be strong. Be Black…. They want to see you angry. Be angry, but don’t let them see it” (42). Here Williams equates her Blackness with a source of personal strength and confidence, and she seems to suggest that it is a quality she can use to her advantage. Williams also seems to conflate Blackness with anger, or at least implies that her audience may conflate Blackness with anger, and that this composed, concealed anger is a quality that will help her succeed. This is an interesting directive given the social sanctions against Black women for displaying their anger. Black studies scholar Brittney Cooper argues, “Angry Black Women get dismissed all the time. We are told we are irrational, crazy, out of touch, entitled, disruptive, and not team players” (2-3). Though Cooper suggests that the Williams sisters are experts at “how to use rage with precision,” Serena Williams in particular has been criticized for her emotional responses—both passionate and outraged—and often punished for them. Cooper argues for an “eloquent rage,” a righteous anger as a productive force, and while she describes Williams as “eloquent rage personified,” it’s important to note the ways that Williams has been ostracized because of this (typically) justified anger (7). Though her actions and behaviors are similar to those of other (white) players, Williams has been fined and penalized for what tennis officials might call her “anger,” yet Williams herself suggests this quality is part of her success. Williams’ awareness of the power of her anger is similar to hooks’ concept of “talking back,” or “speaking as an equal to an authority figure … daring to disagree … having an opinion,” which hooks claims is “the expression of our movement from object to subject—the liberated voice” (Talking Back 5, 9). In unapologetically questioning calls, in demonstrating anger when tennis officials treat her unfairly, Williams performs her subjectivity, moving from object to active subject.
Importantly, Williams makes the distinction that she doesn’t want others to see her as angry, perhaps because of the social sanctions Cooper notes. The effort to conceal this emotion also suggests a carefully crafted ethos. Royster notes that for nineteenth century African American women, the process of creating a speaking self includes “encoding ways of being,” which “operates from a particular vision of mission and power, thereby exhibiting both agency and authority” (70). In similar fashion, Williams articulates her particular vision and way of being: decidedly Black, in the midst of a white tennis community.
In addition, the directive to “Be Black” suggests that Blackness is an important part of Williams’ embodied ēthe, and is a quality she actively works to construct and embody through her athletic performance. While it is impossible to determine whether or not Williams intentionally invokes this typically negative stereotype of Black athletes, I argue there is a relationship between epideictic rhetoric about Black athletes, media discourses about Williams, and Williams’ own behaviors and bodily movements, suggesting the need for understanding ethos as part of a complex nexus that includes the physical body and subjectivity and can account for multiple, intersecting layers of marginalization. By donning clothing that already represents a certain set of cultural values and behaviors in her match vs. Capriati, Williams embraces cultural narratives about Black athletes and almost conditions herself to behave in ways that are consistent with these circulating discourses. In other words, her very choice of attire, and her efforts to cultivate an “in-your-face, hip-hop feel” reflect the epideictic rhetoric being promoted by popular media, and may have also influenced her bodily movements and behavior as she got “in the face” of the head umpire to question the incorrect call.
In this way, Williams’ actions and behaviors were read through the context of racialized narratives perpetuated through popular media and Williams’ response to these narratives reflects her own embrace and acceptance of these narratives. To be clear, I do not mean to imply that media discourses about Williams necessarily dictate her behaviors and actions, but I do think it is important to consider the ways in which these discourses shape audience expectations about Williams and how Williams subsequently responds to audience expectations. In this way, previous cultural discourses and audience expectations may influence how one constructs ethos. At the very least, I argue that Williams’ Blackness means her behaviors and actions are always-already read as defiant, even when such behaviors did not differ from those of other (white) players. As Royster suggests, African American women have traditionally come to a rhetorical task with “a reputation,” or a situated ethos that is “deeply compromised, especially when they seek as one of their target audiences those outside their immediate home community,” and that in these instances, “African American women are called upon to define themselves against stereotypes and other negative expectations, and thereby to shift the ground of rhetorical engagement by means of their abilities to invent themselves and create their own sense of character, agency, authority, and power” (65). Though Williams seems to embrace and inhabit these stereotypes and negative expectations, she redeploys and redefines them for her own purposes, using them as motivation in her playing strategy.
As another example of how Williams inhabits racialized expectations and repurposes them for her own agenda, when Williams announced she would return to play at Indian Wells (now renamed the BNP Paribas Open) in 2015, her decision was framed by tennis media as a move toward forgiveness and signaling Serena’s new maturity over the incident, especially when discussed in contrast to Venus’ “stubborn” position to continue to skip the event (Jones). The Williams family has boycotted the event following an incident in the 2001 tournament, when Serena faced a hostile audience that reportedly shouted racial slurs. Yet ESPN’s Peter Bodo claims that the Williams family chose to “punish” the tournament with the boycott, and that Serena reacted to the crowd’s response at the 2001 event “as if the sky had fallen in, because to her 19-year-old mind and heart it really had” (Bodo). According to Bodo, during the interim in which she was not competing at Indian Wells, Williams was more interested in her celebrity, but “once she embraced her identity [as a serious tennis athlete rather than a part-time actress], a new, more thoughtful and secure Serena began to emerge. She earned a platform from which she could say whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, with the guarantee that she would not only be heard but also that many would take her words for gospel truth” (Bodo). Presumably in contrast with her previous stance of boycotting the tournament, Bodo says of Williams’ new outlook on the tournament and her decision to return to play there, “Serena is making a statement, but it isn’t aggressive, vindictive or self-regarding” (Bodo).
Bodo’s characterization of Williams reveals several insights relevant to my discussion of ethos and race. First, Bodo’s assertion that it is only in her decision to return to Indian Wells that Williams demonstrates maturity implies that Williams’ earlier stance of boycotting the event was immature and that her stance on the issue was overly spiteful. However, rather than throwing a tantrum, Williams quietly—there has never been a public announcement that the Williams sisters were boycotting the tournament—chose to boycott the event, relying on a type of protest traditionally associated with the African American civil rights movement. The decision to boycott the event was thus actually an incredibly appropriate means through which to communicate her embodied ēthe.
In addition, Bodo’s focus on Williams as now older and wiser effectively focuses the incident on Williams’ response to it, discounting the way that tournament officials handled the incident (the Williams family has still not received a formal apology from the tournament) and exempting tennis media from addressing issues of race. This type of framing puts the onus on Williams for reaching a resolution to the issue, allowing tennis media and officials to escape any sort of accountability for the boycott. Unfortunately, this construction is consistent with racialized narratives that place the responsibility for reconciliation on the one who experiences racism. As journalist Howard Bryant points out, African Americans who have been subjected to racism often only get one choice from the American public: “forgive, be the bigger person, focus not on what occurred and its accompanying trauma but on all of the good, supportive people. The unforgiving suffer even worse labeling for the crime of not recognizing that things are better than they were, and for not getting over it—that is, until they come around and make America feel good about itself” (Bryant). And indeed, Williams framed her return to Indian Wells as an act of forgiveness (“I’m Going Back”), and by several accounts, it was Williams who initiated discussions of returning to Indian Wells rather than tournament officials who reached out to her (Bodo, Bryant, Jones).
However, as in other circumstances, Williams’ willingness to embrace racialized expectations—such as seeking reconciliation—actually allows her to use such moments of subordination for her own purposes. As Bodo suggests, Williams’ athletic success means that she has earned a public platform, and Williams leverages this platform to bring attention to issues of racial injustice. The fact that she was able to make such a vocal stance about racial justice suggests that her status within the tennis community has shifted, and that she has gained some levels of audience support. Though she still seems to face racial and gender discrimination from tennis officials (as evidenced by her experiences in the 2018 French Open and U.S. Open), tennis fans and mainstream media have begun to embrace her. When she announced her return to Indian Wells, Williams also highlighted the social injustice still faced by African Americans by inviting fans to donate to the Equal Justice Initiative, a criminal justice group that addresses the mass incarceration of African Americans and provides legal aid to those who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. One lucky donor would be selected to attend Williams’ first match at the tournament from her players’ box. Indeed, fans seemed excited about her return to the tournament, and her first-round match was sold-out. By using her return to call attention to racial justice, Williams is able to utilize racialized expectations, redeploying the discourses that continue to reinscribe her as subordinate to the dominant white tennis community as modalities of action that then allow her to take political action. Importantly though, I want to emphasize that it is specifically Williams’ complicity in inhabiting these social norms about appropriately reconciliatory Black behavior that then allows her to bring attention to these systemic issues of racism. Attending to the ways in which Williams and other marginalized rhetors are able to develop embodied ēthe by inhabiting (rather than merely resisting) social norms provides a fuller discussion of women’s rhetorical practices and broadens theories of ethos for feminist aims.
Williams’ performances of ethos draw attention to the ways in which previous cultural narratives, along with the materiality of the body, affects one’s ethos. Williams faced gendered and racialized discourses that positioned her as an outsider, even when her behaviors or actions did not differ from that of other (white) players. These considerations are important for rhetoric and sports studies scholars because the bodily practices and behaviors that come to establish one’s sense of self and subjectivity have real material consequences in the bodies of individuals that perform these movements. Williams’ efforts to construct embodied ēthe therefore demonstrate an important nexus of the physical body, ethos, and subjectivity, which suggests a further broadening of feminist theories of ethos and the need for an intersectional approach to understanding ethos. In addition, Williams’ performances of embodied ēthe enrich discussions of modern Black women’s agency and reflect legacies of Black women’s rhetorical practices. Williams’ use of embodied activism and adornment complicates traditional Black feminist understandings of agency and respectability politics, while also bringing added attention to the value of everyday behaviors and actions (such as choosing certain tennis apparel) of claiming subjectivity. As Davidson suggests, paying attention to these everyday, often unrecognized acts of claiming subjectivity is important because these very same actions “have laid the groundwork for Black women making bold proclamations of agency on the most public of stages” (6). Considering embodied ēthe helps scholars account for the specific role of the body and one’s multiple subjectivities, which is more inclusive of marginalized rhetors and which might be particularly important for Black feminist scholars. According to Davidson, Black feminism needs to be open to new forms of agency, especially if it wants to appeal to younger Black women (140). Davidson argues that young Black women are looking for a Black feminism that is “more physical, one that is rooted in a politics of the body: a Black feminism that is nasty, and deviant, and violent, and sexy, and unapologetic” (123). Opening up theories of ethos to include embodied ēthe certainly accounts for the various ways that women such as Williams express their agency, including the role of the body within agency.
Williams’ performances of embodied ēthe also demonstrate the ways in which one might inhabit social norms, in addition to resisting them, expanding the actions and behaviors that might constitute one’s agency. Williams’ efforts to either inhabit or subvert social norms suggest a malleability and variance to one’s subjectivity. In this way, repeated bodily actions do not just signify one’s ethos, but actually work to constitute the individual. Therefore, in contrast to feminist sports studies scholarship that emphasizes the care of the self as either enabling resistance to or reinforcing social norms, Williams’ performances of embodied ēthe suggest that disciplinary practices such as the care of the self and dedicated athletic training are not so much about the social impositions placed on the subject but on the work that these practices do in shaping the individual. Likewise, examining Williams’ embodied ēthe expands feminist understandings of ethos to include various capacities for action, broadening the scope of actions and behaviors that might be seen as efforts to gain ethos. A reimagining of ethos as embodied ēthe therefore highlights the ways in which some marginalized rhetors might work to construct ethos, and values actions and behaviors not traditionally considered as efforts to gain ethos.
- Of course, though Williams has been cast as an outsider for much of her career, her status as a professional athlete grants her certain opportunities not available to many women of color, and certainly not to many women in the Global South. Describing Serena Williams as marginalized is, without doubt, relative. Nevertheless, the ability to speak for oneself as a subject capable of action has life-threatening consequences, as even Williams can attest. After giving birth to her daughter via emergency C-section, Williams (who has a history of blood clots) felt short of breath, and worried she was having a pulmonary embolism. Yet despite warning nurses about her symptoms and requesting appropriate treatment—a CT scan and blood-thinning medication—nurses initially brushed off Williams’ concerns (Haskell). That is, despite being one of the most successful tennis players of all time, despite being one of the most recognizable female athletes, and despite warning medical professionals about her history of blood clots, Williams was simply just one of many black women who disproportionately experience pregnancy-related complications. In fact, black women are more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than any other group (Lockhart).
- I use perform both to describe her athletic performance—her behaviors and actions while on the tennis court in competition—and also to acknowledge that any interactions with tennis media respond to a particular situation and can be considered performative actions. Performative understandings of rhetoric draw from the work of J.L. Austin, who explains that a given communicative event is performative if by saying something, one also does something, the classic example being when one says “I do” during a wedding ceremony. However, performative actions are dependent on context: if one says “I do” in a context other than the wedding ceremony it is not performative. Thus, when using perform or performance of ethos, I do not wish to suggest that Williams’ actions are not genuine, but rather that they respond to a particular context.
- Collins’ argument is based on critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work. Crenshaw developed the term intersectionality as a means of conceptualizing problems within the legal system that occurred when individuals faced both racial and gender discrimination. Because the law had no means of accounting for multiple forms of discrimination at that time, legal counsel did not know how to address multiple forms of exclusion. Collins applies Crenshaw’s term to forward a theoretical framework that accounts for race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and age, among others, as compounding systems of power (11).
- Although the focus of this paper is on how Williams inhabits social norms, other female athletes inhabit, rather than resist, social norms as well. For example, soccer player Brandi Chastain, who scored the winning penalty kick in the 1999 Women’s World Cup and is forever memorialized for her sports-bra revealing goal celebration, is another woman working within what might be considered a marginalized discourse. Chastain’s femininity and sexuality (and that of her teammates) were highlighted in commercials, newspaper articles, and television appearances leading up to the World Cup, yet in inhabiting this “safe” (for white male audiences) social norm, Chastain is able to speak against discourses that denigrate women’s sports and treat women athletes unfairly. Her iconic goal celebration is often used as the symbol of Title IX’s success, yet it is important to consider that the body displayed in this image is a white, feminine, heterosexual one. More recently, gymnast Aly Raisman posed nude for the 2018 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue with words like “Survivor” and “Trust Yourself” painted on her body, alluding to her testimony in the 2017 trial of Larry Nassar, who had sexually abused Raisman and countless other athletes while serving as a team doctor with USA Gymnastics and at Michigan State University. In response to critics who expressed surprise that a sexual abuse survivor would pose nude, Raisman said, “women do not have to be modest to be respected” (Talarico). Therefore, though Raisman inhabits social norms about the objectified female body by posing in SI, she redeploys those discourses, using the very same body to speak out about sexual abuse and to complicate understandings of women’s bodies and subjectivities.
- Jeffrey Walker also links melete (or deliberate practice, training) with cultivating ethos in Rhetorics and Poetics in Antiquity (148).
- For example, The New York Times’ Ben Rothenberg draws attention to Williams’ “mold-breaking muscular frame,” and commentators at the 2015 Wimbledon tournament emphasized Williams’ height and power in her match against Maria Sharapova, even though Sharapova, at 6’2”, is taller than Williams. In fact, Williams’ height, at 5’9”, was merely average for players ranked in the top ten in 2015.
- However, while several scholars rightly criticize the media’s focus on Williams’ Compton roots, the Williams family themselves often employs this narrative and emphasizes their difference from other players. In fact, Richard Williams appears to have deliberately trained Venus and Serena to expect that they will be treated differently than their white tennis-playing peers. For example, he reportedly bribed neighborhood children to yell racial taunts while Venus and Serena practiced to “prepare them for the kind of prejudice they might face in the mostly white tennis world,” and he had the brilliant foresight to prepare the sisters for the media by videotaping them playing and answering questions about their technique and future goals (Todd, 15; R. Williams, 229). In emphasizing their Blackness and the possibility of racist remarks, Richard Williams has helped influence the development of Serena’s ethos as specifically Black and the shaping of her identity as different from her audience of mostly white tennis fans and players.
- For example, at the 1997 U.S. Open, Romanian Irina Spirlea intentionally bumped into Venus Williams during a change of sides in their match (Price, “Venus Envy”). At Indian Wells (now renamed the BNP Paribas Open) in 2001, the Williams family heard racial
slurs during Serena’s championship match. In a 2009 U.S. Open match vs. Kim Clijsters, Serena was again victim to a number of questionable officiating calls, and when she threatened a lines judge in frustration, Clijsters was awarded a penalty point, giving her the set and the match. In addition to losing the match, Williams was also fined and placed on probation. According to Sam Damre, despite being played on American soil, the crowd largely rooted for the Belgian Clijsters, even before Williams’ outburst (Damre). In 2011, Williams was called for an intentional hindrance in a U.S. Open match against Australian Sam Stouser for yelling, “Come on!” after hitting a shot. When Williams asked for a replay, claiming that the shout was involuntary, head official Eve Asderesky refused, leading some to question the difference between Williams’ shout and other players’ grunts, which are usually not ruled as intentional hindrances (Abad-Santos). Finally, at the 2018 U.S. Open, Williams was warned for a coaching violation (a very unusual violation), and when she appealed the warning with umpire Carlos Ramos, Williams thought they reached an understanding and that no violation was awarded. Later in the match, when Williams broke her racquet in frustration, she received a point penalty (the next escalation in penalties after a warning). Thinking it should only have been a warning because the earlier coaching violation had been overturned, Williams questioned the penalty, calling Ramos “a thief.” This comment got her a game penalty, a rather severe punishment given the circumstances.
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