Why Gilbert Arenas' Comments Matter
Former NBA All-Star Gilbert Arenas stepped in it not once but twice this week. First, he posted some comments laden with sexism and misogyny along with a NSFW video on his Instagram on Wednesday. (It's here, if you must.)
I've processed this and gone through the expected fits of rage. I believe being angry is a normal response to what Arenas said. But some of it also made me laugh (mostly because "Orange Is the New Black" always makes me chuckle), even though I didn't find the overall sentiment funny. And some of it made me scratch my head (because who says #beanpies?).
The short summary of Arenas' distasteful comments is that he thinks America expected hot women playing basketball when the WNBA was announced in 1996, but instead the league is full of ugly ladies running up and down the court. The objectification of women in sports is nothing new, but stopping with that overview misses the underlying issues.
There's a lot in Arenas' post, including problematic insults toward different identity groups, so let's break it down:
It goes without saying that the continuing focus on women's looks as a measurement of the WNBA's worth is a hallmark of sexism. Beneath that surface, however, lurks the ugly truth of society's expectations for women.
For those who have missed the wonder that is "Orange Is the New Black," the show chronicles the poignant and hilarious stories of various women in fictional Litchfield Prison. These actresses are cast in all shapes, sizes and shades, and the show has been heralded as a victory for diversity on television. The female characters are not all small and perfectly proportioned.
Arenas invokes the imagery of the show to exemplify what is not ideal in a woman, while directly comparing them to his ideal, subtly berating all women who do not fit societal expectations as "#beanpies." And he does this while talking about elite athletes and reducing their athletic achievement merely to his interpretation of what they look like in the mirror.
Arenas juxtaposes his rant with a video of two, presumably white, women playing basketball in thongs. The WNBA is composed of players from many different racial and ethnic backgrounds, but let's be real -- many of them are black. Even if Arenas didn't explicitly think about race when he used that video, the impact is one that is racially uncomfortable. He elevates an image of white women as the ideal while criticizing a league with predominantly black women. For him to do that, as a black man, exacerbates tensions within a community already deeply torn by notions that European features equate with beauty and desirability.
WNBA players are strong, talented and determined individuals who give it their all on the court and serve as inspiring role models to millions around the world. They should be celebrated for their accomplishments, not disparaged with ignorant insults.Mike Bass, WNBA spokesperson
Additionally, he uses racist imagery to dismiss critique of sexism by employing #donkeykong. Donkey Kong is an ape, an animal that has historically been used to dehumanize all black people. Arenas used an animal that has already been weaponized against black people as a cudgel against black women.
Some of the reaction to Arenas' comments focused on homophobia, saying that he called players in the WNBA "ugly lesbian." In fact, he did not do this in his original post. His follow-up post, though, brought the implicit homophobia in his first post directly to the surface. (Again, click if you must.)
And here is where I just want to close my eyes and pretend this didn't happen, because it's 2015. This is gross, wrong and, yes, petty. It is possible for women to not want to be in a relationship or sexually involved with men. Two women together is not an equation with a missing variable, it is acceptable and healthy, but Arenas implies that two women together is an invitation for him to have a secret party.
His comments are an assault on all women, but they particularly target black and lesbian women. The WNBA happens to be composed of women -- many of whom are black and some of whom identify as queer. In response to Arenas' statements, Mike Bass, spokesperson for the WNBA, said:
"Gilbert Arenas' comments are repugnant, utterly disrespectful and flat-out wrong. WNBA players are strong, talented and determined individuals who give it their all on the court and serve as inspiring role models to millions around the world. They should be celebrated for their accomplishments, not disparaged with ignorant insults."
Bass is right, but Arenas is a former NBA star who has 314,000 Instagram followers, so his comments carry weight.
What his assertions did, however, was expose the continuing underlying contempt toward the WNBA. The league continues to be placed in a position of parrying prejudicial critiques while the product of the organization has only strengthened.
There is no debate over whether Arenas' comments were sexist and harmful, but the point is to understand why. Without that, we're merely shouting into the crowd.
Katie Barnes is a digital media associate at ESPN. Follow her on Twitter at Katie_Barnes3.