Venus Williams’ Tennis Outfit: Rebellion or Raunch?

Stanley Crouch on the lacy French Open outfit that rocked the tennis world—and the culture of raunch it came out of.

AP Photo; Getty Images; AP Photo

When Venus Williams literally showed her bottom to the world while playing tennis in France recently a few days ago, the inevitable set of responses resulted. Some Negroes, who see every action in terms of moving the ethnic group forward or pushing it backward, were highly irritated. They perceived it as symbolic sexual service in the minstrel lane. Others defended her French Open bottom-flashing as a rebellion against white standards. It was seen as a bottom-line assertion of diversity by a black woman who was not blond, boyish, and did not have the look of ambivalent sexual identity, which they were sure was the way white men thought attractive women should look.

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Then there were those exasperated by the supposedly overriding fact that certain black women are still on a psychological plantation of strict rules and obligations. The biding of the white folks takes priority over all ( Boody über alles, anyone?). The tradition remains in place no matter how powerful, successful, accomplished, and wealthy to the extreme of millions in hard, cold cash these black women might be. Such Negro women always follow orders.

I think orders were being followed but not solely ethnic ones. In a time when teenage white girls still in grade school can casually and individually refer to themselves as “the slut on the bus,” we are at a far different place on the field but one that we can easily trace. It comes down to something fairly simple, however complex its dehumanizing implications might be. The whorishness that Madonna largely made acceptable seems to have swept up Venus Williams in the same way that her younger sister has been buffeted about by bad taste and the sensationalism mistaken for what is “hot” or sexy. There can hardly be any other way of explaining her sister's posing nude for ESPN. She wanted to drop her clothes like that would make her what the white people and everyone else says is hot.

“Hot” is now another way of saying ho by adding a "t". It has its own weight, and the celebrity school of whoredom that we see on display at every red-carpet procession devoted to entertainment seems very close to a highly influential meat rack gathering. This unmasked whoredom has stepped up with all the glistening sleaze expected from any woman of the night ready to drop her drawers for call-girl bucks.

In our culture, “hot” is now another way of saying ho by adding a "t".

It is actually a form of co-signing a pimp’s basic vision. Any ice-cold pimp will assure you that the difference between a high-class ho and a low down “stanking” skank is the price demanded for the acts, none of which any real whore has ever considered removing from her repertoire. Special abilities call for extra pay, an essential rule of business. In short, pimps tend to believe that all women are potentially whores who have either been or have not been “turned out” and made ready for the game.

So the big question regarding Venus Williams is quite simple. Does symbolically showing her ass mean that she has swallowed the radioactive but solid gold fish wet from the bowl of constant attention? Were her lace and underwear choices merely for attention and commercial success or did they express some “new” vision of freedom? Has she so misunderstood freedom of choice and personal expression “outside of the box” that the only choices left to her are the same ones chosen by Paris Hilton and that gaggle of moronic heifers who have conclusively proven that the separation between high and low is no thicker than a gold credit card? Will she or will she not become a white ho?

In our charmless and shameless time, irresponsible or demeaning behavior is usually packaged as an expression of freedom from the dictates of a backward era when we neither recognized nor accepted the sexuality of women—and when we did not realize how much dignity there was to being a stripper or how much fun a woman free of feminist repression could have at a strip bar, where chastity belts are not allowed.

In the brilliant popular history Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy investigates how the terms of our time have been set by the master plantation of sexual minstrelsy, Playboy, itself more a vision than just a magazine, more even than a franchise bent on getting every young woman to feel as if she has achieved something by getting bare bottom and false naked breasts photographed for its famous centerfold. Over the last half century, Playboy has been most successful at equating the whiff or pretense of whoredom with freedom from the old-fashioned.

The idea of freedom is essential in a puritanical culture that gauges attraction or excitement by the shattering of taboos. That is why women in pornography are celebrated for being “nasty,” which means that they commit all of those acts that are thought unconventional, but have, of course, become conventional through endless repetition. These conventionalized unconventional boudoir adventures range from interracial couplings to “wild” deeds hidden from all the world other than the camera.

Americans have long been suckers for almost anything claiming to express a new generation by rejecting a previous one. That is common to an innovative and scientific culture such as this one, the capital of the modern age. Nearly perpetual innovation on various levels has gotten us beyond superstitions and prejudices but has also brought a dark side. It has resulted in nothing more than another mass con job: rejection of the past, far or immediate, is proof of being up to date and rebellious in a rock 'n' roll way, which usually means adolescent. Insubstantial novelty has more to do with decadence than any form of innovation.

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Christie Hefner can break it down. She is the CEO of Playboy and the daughter of Hugh. Her dad is the Moses who led American culture out of an asexual Egypt to a Promised Land of peroxide blondes, breast implants, cosmetic surgery, and pornography that grew from “naughty” to soft to hard-core, where ultimate liberation was achieved. Playboy also featured the pubic hair of nappy-headed dancer Paula Kelly in 1969 and put a black woman with a Brillo pad hairdo on the cover in 1971. These were perhaps steps forward in a another derby of demolition in which conventions were snatched down and the supposedly lowly elevated to soft-core pornography on smooth pages. These were also truly innovative ways to bring “firsts” to an oppressed minority group, perhaps also suffering from having to wear clothes.

Ariel Levy took down Christie Hefner’s conception of how things in general have advanced for the young women not stuck in the joyless feminist past: the “post-sexual revolution, post-women’s movement generation that is now out there in their late 20s and early 30s—and then it continues with the generation behind them, too—has just a more comfortable, natural attitude about sex and sexiness that is more in line with where guys were a couple generations before…It’s an obvious I’m taking control of how I look and the statement I am making as opposed to I’m embarrassed by it or I’m uncomfortable with it. A little bit of in-your-face…but in a fun way…‘frisky’ is a good word.”

Thus is the lesson and the game. The even deeper point is what Levy observes here: “For a trend to penetrate political life, the music industry, art, fashion, and taste the way raunch culture has, it must be thoroughly mainstream, and half that mainstream is female. Both men and women alike seem to have developed a taste for kitshy, slutty stereotypes of female sexuality resurrected from an era not quite gone by. We don’t even think about it anymore, we just expect to see women flashing and stripping and groaning everywhere we look.”

So this culture of sexual minstrelsy has become an expanding tongue of quicksand offering flashbulbs, money, and seemingly ongoing attention to those willing to flash the lack of panties for the paparazzi or seem to be bare-butted under an exceptionally tasteless tennis outfit that no woman athlete has stepped up to say is perfectly comfortable or makes it easier to play.

But perhaps it comes down to something no amount of fame or money can dissolve away, the powerful wish to be desired and, perhaps, to be loved. All self-pity and sentimentality aside, as well as the condescending “sympathy” that provides grand seats from which to look down upon people with superior gifts, it is not always very easy for Negro women who have distinguished themselves in the wing of show business we know as professional sports. This is particularly true if they do not remind everyone of white women in the way Halle Berry and Beyonce do, however unpretentious either of those possessors of the gold standard might be.

Venus and Serena have been dismissed as unattractive, as ugly, as unfair competitors against innocent white girls. They were seen as American updates of the "Hottentot Venus" taken from Southern Africa and presented as an unusual animal there to shock and be alughed at in early nineteenth century England and France.

Some millions come at personal prices greater than others. Those animal references are not easy insults to swallow even if warned about their eventual arrival. Great athletic prowess is usually the result of the mystery of the gene pool and the honing force of first-class coaching aided and abetted by very strong individual will. If one is seen as an animal, then that genetic luck and all of that work is dismissed. All bets are off.

Both Williams women have come with the best they had, or the best that they understood—even though their lapses in taste in clothes and behavior have been cheered on by soft-shelled lames like Jimmy Kimmel who resoundingly praised Serena for threatening to push a tennis ball down the throat of a referee, a threat that resulted in her being fined $92,000. Kimmel loved the fact that she had not been courteous and “boring.” Serena looked quite beautiful in a completely Negroid way when she came on stage but her dress was short enough for an Atlantic City street walker. She found the cloth postage stamp difficult to sit down in and avoid a Paris Hilton version of self-pimping. Kimmel at least did not play the part of the white man physically threatened by the muscular black goddess of tennis the way fellow lame Jon Stewart did while flirting with her during an interview.

Venus has always seemed more sedate, even prim in a soulful way, but she may now have sunk into the light pornography of our red-carpet meat rack. She will have to decide now if she will become a Hottentot Venus or an ethnic version of a white ho. Neither is a good choice, the exotic half-human monster or the neon slut. She could, of course, go the way of Katherine Hepburn and Lena Horne. Their unbending class was a sophisticated way of telling all customers looking for a dehumanizing form of sexual minstrelsy a little something that they needed to know. That was always quite obvious: the only ass they were going to see was right there ready to be kissed if they could ever get close enough. And that was not going to happen.

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Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006 his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. Next year the first volume of his long-awaited biography of Charlie Parker will appear.