Speech Melba | Columns

From Tamil soaps to Serena

Serena Williams in conversation with referee Brian Earley during the women's final of the U.S. Open tennis tournament against Naomi Osaka, of Japan, in New York.   | Photo Credit: AP

If you’ve watched Tamil TV soaps, you’ll know of course that they are unbearable in general, but there’s also something specifically vicious in how they portray women. While pretending to script ‘strong’ women roles, the serials deliberately choose to interpret ‘strength’ as manipulation or violence. It’s a slyly misogynistic exercise that feeds conveniently into existing prejudices against women.

But I believe the need to equate power or wrongdoing with strength also comes from a lack of imagination and an inability to understand what really makes up the sinews and muscles of character.

I got to thinking about this at the US Open this year, which saw the wonderful rise of a young woman from Japan but also the meltdown of the reigning champion from the US.

One understands everything Serena Williams did – the burst of temper, the argument with the chair umpire, the angry smashing of racket. What’s harder to understand is her equating the response to it and the penalising of it to her being a woman. By doing this, Serena deliberately turned the focus away from her actions and towards her person. She was saying: ‘Look at me; I am a woman, a Black woman, a new mother. The cards are stacked against me already. Why are you penalising me more.’

This was basically a rather powerful woman implying that she is somehow entitled to misbehave because of her sex or race or other struggles. But Serena has been as disrespectful of female line referees or umpires in other matches; how would one read feminism into those instances then?

As much as her success and the struggles she has overcome are awe-inspiring, we still expect Serena to respect the game, the rules, and the referees. One suspects that Serena, like the Tamil TV serials, is equating strength with bad behaviour. As are her legions of fans. I can’t think of anything more shameful than the spectators booing Naomi Osaka.

None of this negates the very real struggle women face in terms of match fees, male prejudice, sexualisation, or the trivialisation of their game. Nor does one underestimate the enormous and ever-present onus on women to always be “well-behaved”. Raise your voice during an argument and you’ll be accused of ‘raving’. Make a point with passion and you’ll be asked not to get emotional. Take an uncompromising stand and you’ll be told you’re arrogant.

To break all of these stereotypes, to retain the right to shout and shed tears and get mad and fight furiously, but to still stay true to a core integrity – that, I believe, defines strength. Serena can stomp on her racket if she gets mad, but she has to shrug and swallow the penalty as well.

Integrity, though, is so easily traded in. Naipaul wrote terrific prose but he was an atrocious human being. Activists spend a lifetime saving otters but ill-treat the house help. One does not cancel out the other, but people often imagine it does. It’s almost as if being rich or popular or winning trophies or saving rivers gives you a free pass to be a bit of a stinker otherwise.

I suspect this attitude stems from mistaken notions of what constitutes human success and strength. We’ve made ‘accomplishment’ such a solely external attribute. You could be a drivelling idiot but wear Jimmy Choo stilettos and you will be deemed to have arrived.

Our understanding of human strength or success has become a bit too facile, dictated overwhelmingly by measurability – so many tournament trophies, so many treatises published, lectures delivered, businesses built, Bookers won. Power and popularity equated with strength.

But what about all the indefinable stuff – the small acts of reaching out, of wrongs righted or shoulders lent or mistakes admitted. What about staying true to one’s convictions, or being principled or honest or brave or showing grace under pressure.

Doesn’t simply being human require as much strength as the externality of being a mega tennis player or filmstar or author or millionaire?

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 9:45:32 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/from-tamil-soaps-to-serena/article24984045.ece

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