When Serena Williams' name is mentioned, controversy is sure to follow. She is arguably the greatest tennis player in the history of the sport, yet she has scores of detractors who will focus on what her body looks like, find fault with her domineering demeanor on the court or attack the grunts she makes as she pounds out unreturnable serves at 120 mph. Even her offseason, off-court moves are scrutinized. This week proved no different when Sports Illustrated named Williams its 2015 Sportsperson of the Year.
The announcement stirred the pot for two reasons, one of them being the majority of Sports Illustrated readers voted Triple Crown winner American Pharoah as their choice for Sportsperson of the Year. Despite Williams' career year -- three Grand Slam titles, winning 26 of 27 Grand Slam matches, and an overall record of 53-3 -- she ranked tenth out of eleven on the readers' poll. By now, the outcry from Pharoah fans has been documented ad nauseam. No need to rehash the absurdity of that debate.
The other reason the announcement had the Twitter streets talking was the creative direction of SI's cover, which features Williams, the first solo woman to appear on the front of the highly coveted issue since track-and-field athlete Mary Decker in 1983.
The cover features Williams dressed in an all-black lace bodysuit and patent leather power pumps, perched on a gold, ornate throne. Those who recognize Williams as Queen of the Court immediately see the image as an appropriate nod to her ruling the tennis world. However, not everyone is bowing down in praise of the cover. While some say it's extremely powerful, others say it's either too sexy. My point of view is a bit more simplistic and sounds a little something like this, "Yes, yes, and yaaassss!" Especially after Sports Illustrated revealed, "The cover was Serena's idea, to express her own ideal of femininity, strength and power."
Looking at the cover and the attention it garnered, I say mission accomplished, Serena. While the cover, absent of any tennis props, not so subtly reminds us she is not defined by the sport, it also sends a more important message: She understands it is possible for women to simultaneously possess sex appeal and power. There is an inherent power in owning and self-defining your sexuality. It is not an either/or thing, but an and/both non-mutually exclusive thing. Serena is a strong, skilled, competent and self-respecting woman, in control of her image and all that it entails. Not only is there nothing wrong with that, but it's in fact highly empowering. It's a boss move.
Serena has never fit the mold tennis, or the sports world, tried to create for her so why would she start now? In her WIRED magazine essay, she publicly identified herself as a black woman "in a sport that wasn't really meant for black people." Her self-awareness, courage to speak out and be as bad as she wants to be is a positive shift toward achieving equal representation on a race and gender front. This isn't just a magazine cover. It's progress.
For centuries, black women have been demeaned and taught to value themselves less than women of any other race. Williams, specifically, has bore the brunt of centuries-old scrutiny regarding her body composition and race. And finally, after 20 years of consistency, and over 250 consecutive weeks ranked No. 1 in the world, Williams has earned the right to call the shots, both literally and figuratively. Far from an unseasoned rookie, Williams has gained the opportunity to control her image and how she'd like to be portrayed on one of the most meaningful magazine covers of her iconic career. Williams going against the grain and portraying herself as a feminine, strong and powerful woman, void of tennis props, is a major victory for all women who work tirelessly, and often thanklessly, to crash through glass ceilings in any industry.
Her success. Her cover. Her body. Her choice. Our win.