The Empress's New Clothes

It is both monumentally frustrating and oddly comforting to be reminded that, a year after the terrorist attacks, Americans haven't lost any of the cluelessness or cultural myopia that shape our national character and make us grate -- on nerves -- the globe over. In bad times people understandably cling to the familiar, but it's almost as if we believe that an obsession with the outcome of "American Idol," coupled with a determined ignorance about our unraveling environmental policies, is not a problem, but just what we need to improve things, to bring down the price of gas, bring up the price of stock and, in general, clear the close air. Race has always provided much of this strange comfort; through peacetime and war, Jim Crow or no, it has never failed to reassure people of their respective places in a shaken society. Nor, of course, does it ever fail to reaffirm just how fucked up we still are.

The recent flap over Serena Williams' new tennis duds at the U.S. Open picks up that double-edged sword where we last left it (let's see: reparations, Donovan Jackson, Allen Iverson . . . well, maybe "left" isn't the right word). When Serena stepped out onto the court last month to play a round in a short, poured-on black cat suit courtesy of Puma, all hell broke loose. Pundits carped that this was wrong for the sport, wrong for feminism, wrong for youth role modeling. Far richer was all that wasn't said, though it was communicated clearly enough in photos that put Serena's mahogany skin, considerable sinew, blond braids and sculpted butt in everybody's face, right where our deepest fetishisms of race and sex are never supposed to be. The whole package was like a bomb threat that forced everybody to leave the building, though people stood outside at a distance and theorized plenty about what happened -- Serena didn't show good sense, she was acting out, she might suffer from low self-esteem (Dr. Joyce Brothers' birdbrained offering). No one spoke even in passing to the possibility of some time-honored ethnic notions being responsible for much of the buzz, except Serena Williams herself, indirectly; when questioned about the outfit, she said with trademark candor: "It really sticks to what type of shape you have. If you don't have a decent shape, this isn't the best outfit to have." Translation: If you can't deal with a typically robust black woman's figure in full relief, you'd better learn how.

Certainly there have been body-baring tennis outfits before, from Suzanne Lenglen's right on up to Anna Kournikova's, but we've had a template (Marilyn Monroe, Playboy) for talking about those. We've never had Serena.

So what in the world are we to do with a girl who gets out in front of our fears so often, and who actually has the right to do so because she's number one? Serena, as the top female tennis player in the world, changes everything. Both she and her sister Venus belong to an unquestionably new breed. Neither woman is the symbol of black resistance that their predecessor Arthur Ashe automatically was; as champions in the Tiger Woods era, they do not protest so much as prescribe. They expect -- perhaps naively, though rightfully -- to be taken merely as themselves, and to set the trend rather than counter it simply by occupying positions never before occupied by blacks. But they know full well that black girls from Compton don't exactly conjure up images of success in the pro-tennis monde, which is still a bastion of the American elite; they know that beads and blond braids and frank self-approval only increase the paradox -- this might be Li'l Kim or Foxy Brown, but not the reigning tennis queens whom we imagine, at the very least, as having sprung from college tours and suburban sensibilities. In the last generation we have all firmly separated good blacks from bad with a sort of hip-hop color line, and Serena and Venus routinely defy it: They're hood rats who speak like Valley girls, haute couture enthusiasts who refuse to straighten their hair, but see nothing overtly political about it. They have plenty of attitude on the court, but none of the sullenness or dreaded chips on the shoulder we associate with black Americans in general and with black athletes in particular; to the contrary, Serena and Venus are among the most emotionally open players on the circuit -- giggly when they win, gloomy when they lose, entirely willing to answer questions from the press, even those with clear racial overtones that have me wishing they'd scare up some of that Compton trash talk, if only for a minute. But no; when a reporter asked Serena earlier this year if she felt she was worth all the "bank" she was making, Serena said yes, of course I do, and moved on.

I would have stopped and lectured the guy, but maybe Serena's unruffledness -- spiritual and sartorial -- works better. Looking good on her own terms is clearly her best revenge, or the best answer to those who may be terminally uneasy about her high profile. The good news is that Serena appears not to give a damn. She's no crusader, but neither is she looking to calm nerves, or to prove that she's really just like Martina Hingis or Monica Seles -- she prefers to prove emphatically that she's not. But like a lot of young women still shifting from adolescent to adult, Serena has a lot of little girl left. Her cat suit is in your face, yes, but it also speaks to an eagerness to don that new red Sunday dress and parade it around for public affirmation of what she already knows -- it looks cute! When Serena explained to the press that her cat suit "makes me run faster and jump higher and it's really sexy," the superwoman analogy sounded less aggressive than adorable, a refreshing bit of youthful hyperbole in an age when everybody grows up way too fast, and black kids from inner cities are assumed to have no childhoods at all. That Serena was sporting Harry Winston jewels, a tiara and pink tennis shoes along with the cat suit further evidenced a giddiness that was lost in all the stern musings about the black spandex, that always seems to get lost whenever she's written about in any detail. At least the Williams sisters force the issue in their unstudied way, often tagging their comments about their own appearance with truth-or-dare questions like, "Wasn't that fabulous? Don't I look good?" Ladies and gentlemen, say no at your own risk.

What I will say at the risk of undoing my own undeveloped sense of fabulousness is, I wish I looked that good. Ironically, the flip side of the criticism is that some black people fear Serena looks too good; after generations of being cast as the other side's sex fantasy, the thinking goes, black women hardly need to aspire to be pinup girls. The cat suit is not so damaging for the gender as it is for the race, something Karen Grigsby Bates and Marcy Deveaux say without saying -- it was like reading invisible ink -- in a predictably polite Los Angeles Times story on the subject. Serena has a great body; Rudolph has a red nose, and it glows. So what else is new? Better to tone it down for the sake of history than to let it shine for that of vanity. Except that, well, Rudolph's nose turned out to have a divine purpose, and while I wouldn't take Serena's cat suit quite that far, I would wager that her steadfast insistence that people accept her dazzle, or examine the reasons why they won't will liberate more than a few of us from one of our deadliest comfort zones.

But it will take time. I remember all the grumbling on the golf courses that first attended Tiger Woods' habit of wearing bright red (shirts, not dresses) on Sundays, the subtextual fear that the next thing you know, these folks will turn up in their lime-green suits and alligator shoes and ruin another perfectly good American tradition of understatement. Now, of course, everybody wants to be like Tiger; whether anybody will want to be like Serena, who has more edges and appears far less willing to soften them, remains to be seen. Watching a recent CNN story about supermodel Tyra Banks' summer camp for teenagers, I was struck by how truly hypocritical all the Serena controversy was. Tyra was describing how, as lead camp counselor, she consciously stripped off all her surface glamour and put on jeans and sneakers in order to connect with her charges, most of them black, city-raised and wholly unacquainted with their own attractiveness and personal strengths. Undeniably a bit sappy, but also undeniably the sort of effort we applaud for so-called at-risk kids (i.e., kids of color). How, then, could Serena's unequivocal self-invention be anything but progress, especially from a woman who not only is the stuff of stifling fetishes but also is a long way from being the stuff of American beauty standards? The times may be slow to change, but not Serena. Her outfit in the next round of play was, naturally, a serene pink and white. Shocking.


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