Week 12 Materials and Posts

The documentary about Claressa Shields is required viewing – it can be found by searching “t rex” on netflix.

bonus: a 6 minute mini-doc about 10 year old boxer Jesselyn Silva

Supplemental essays of note:

Tavia Nyong’o’s essay “Racial Kitsch and Black Performance”

Theodor Adorno’s essay “Free Time”

Supplemental Materials to view in class:

Marlén’s Coke Commercial

Tyrieshia Douglas, “Boxing is My Mother and My Father”

Shields’s pro debut

Misty Copeland in conversation with Sally Fields

Claudia Rankine reading from Citizen

Please post weekly responses below.


7 thoughts on “Week 12 Materials and Posts

  1. This week we are looking at the New York Times Magazine article, “The Meaning of Serena Williams” by Claudia Rankine, The New York Times article “Where are all the Black Swans?” by Gia Kourlas, and The New Yorker article “A Ring of One’s Own” by Ariel Levy, which seemed to journalistically describe a lot of the material from the film we watched called “T-Rex”.
    In “The Meaning of Serena Williams”, Rankine discusses the ways in which Serena Williams’ genuine emotions, whether they be pride, rage, or humor contribute to her “black excellence”, rather than diminishing it. It is through this very acceptance and public display of a range of emotions that Williams reclaims the human side of being a record-breaking tennis champion that many in the tennis world and beyond hope to strip her of. Rankine quotes James Baldwin to illustrate this point, “In the essay ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel,’’ James Baldwin wrote, ‘our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult — that is, accept it’” (Rankine, 3). Along with quotes about her winning strategy– not thinking too far ahead about the potential to win and set records– Williams also discusses her marketability in comparison with the white player Maria Sharipova (Rankine, 7). She also positions herself within a history of black female tennis players who helped to pave the way into white-only tennis clubs and competitions, and Williams hopes to carry on a legacy not just of incomparable tennis playing but of opening doors. Williams situated this hope in the context of her being named number 20 in LSM’s list of Most Marketable Sports Stars, ‘‘We have to be thankful, and we also have to be positive about it so the next black person can be No. 1 on that list… Maybe it was not meant to be me. Maybe it’s meant to be the next person to be amazing, and I’m just opening the door. Zina Garrison, Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe and Venus opened so many doors for me. I’m just opening the next door for the next person” (Rankine, 8). The idea of marketability being the final marker of success interests me, and I will explore it further in conversation with the other two articles.
    In “Where are all the Black Swans”, Gia Kourlas takes a look at the lack of diversity within the two most established ballet companies in New York City: American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet. This incredible shortcoming on the part of American ballet companies in general is explained by some as starting with limited access to early training for young dancers of color. Kourlas writes, “For Virginia Johnson, a former star of Dance Theater of Harlem and the editor of Pointe magazine, the disparity stems from three issues: artistic vision, economics — ballet is expensive and competitive among women no matter their skin color — and culture” (Kourlas, 4). Once talented nonwhite dancers do enter these big, famous, and predominantly white companies, they can sometimes feel as if they have to work twice as hard to fit in, while struggling to maintain true to themselves. This was one reason that Aesha Ash, a former dancer with the New York City Ballet, cited for leaving the company after years as a member of the corp, “ (Kourlas, 5). Peter Martins, the ballet master of the company at the time, was the first to encourage Ash to leave the company since he thought she wouldn’t likely ever be promoted to soloist or principal. The company’s general manager thought that this was not a judgement on Martins’ part based on race, “Ms. Ash’s career was a typical one for an N.Y.C.B. dancer, the majority of whom spend most of their careers here in the corps de ballet,” but I think it all goes back to the issue of marketability for dancers. That is what Virginia Johnson was really getting at when she spoke about “artistic vision”. Companies worry that their “subscriber base” might not find the addition of nonwhite dancers– particularly black dancers– appealing when what they really hope to see when they come to the ballet is a relic of the (white-only) past recreated for them live on stage.
    Marketability comes into play again in Levy’s “A Ring of One’s Own”. She writes of female boxing Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields’ coach, “Crutchfield may reap a substantial reward for his sacrifices. If Shields becomes the first American woman to win an Olympic medal, endorsement deals could follow, and possibly a career in the pros—for both of them” (Levy, 13). Of course, from the film, we know that this dream never comes true. While young women and men from other sports are showered with endorsements and sponsorships after their wins in the London Olympics, Shields, the first ever gold medalist in women’s boxing– receives none. The intensity of the fight for financial recognition of female boxers’ accomplishments is also highlighted in the story of Tyrieshia Douglas, a boxer who hoped to make the Olympic team but didn’t, “Tyrieshia Douglas was similarly bleak after she lost to Esparza, and said she would not try for the next Olympics. ‘I can’t do this for another four years,’ she told me. She looked as scared as she had backstage before the fight. ‘Now I got to worry about where to live’” (Levy, 65). Levy highlights the fear of creating the proper image for the sport in this article, as she takes readers through the history of female boxing and the legal struggle to get women’s boxing officially recognized. She also discusses the anxiety surrounding the sexuality of some of the boxers who identify as gay. “We have a public image. We don’t want to have, when we’re trying to get girls into the sport, their mothers saying, ‘Gee, I don’t want my girl to be around your gay girls because they might try to make her gay,’” one man is quoted as saying (Levy, 51). It all comes back to marketability. But at the end of the day, as we have discussed in class, one needs to make a living. If the be-all end-all of professional, or even amateur sport is the possibility of paychecks, it is because neoliberal late capitalism insists that athletes’ bodies are only worth something to society if they can sell products. It is difficult to be that body if you are a black woman who feels pride and wants to be honest. It is difficult to be that body if you aren’t straight.


  2. The three articles assigned for this week focused on the black female athlete over three different disciplines: tennis, ballet and boxing. The first article “The Meaning of Serena Williams” by Claudia Rankine, talked about pressure that is placed on black athletes to ignore the racism that they are confronted with and to behave within particular guidelines due to their race. Rankine highlights how Serena Williams has taken on playing by her own rules and throwing out the “script” that is given to many black athletes, instructing them to be well mannered and forgiving in the face of racist remarks and treatment and to hide their anger and upset. Serena, instead, displays her anger and insists that she can do so while also maintaining her reputation as a tennis champion. I found it almost amazing and definitely surprising that Serena’s father would intentionally hire kids to shout racist slurs at Serena and her sister while they were practicing. While I understand why he did this, and it makes sense that he would want to prepare his daughters for the painful but realistic situations they may face while competing, it shocked me that a father would not be more protective of his daughters.

    The second article “Where are all the Black Swans?” by Gia Kourlas, addresses the lack of black female ballerinas that exist in the professional dance world. The article immediately notes that “Because male dancers have always been in short supply, black men have attained some success” in the field “But there has never been a black female principal in the ranks of American Ballet Theater or City Ballet.” It seems that there are a few key issues that stand out in remedying this problem. The first is the administrative aspect behind these companies. It is the directors and choreographers who need to push for more diversity within their companies and bring women of color up to principal roles. However, this leads to the second problem which is that the pool of selection for dancers of color is incredibly shallow. To backtrack to the issue with administration, the audience also is a key factor in this problem, companies have “never challenged their audiences to move forward.” There are also issues regarding the alienation that black dancers feel especially at more advanced and professional levels and problems with stereotyping, and that they way in which black women have been perceived as “being forceful…[or]…more earthy and as dancing solidly” doesn’t fit into the mold that has been carved out for the concept of the ballerina.
    The last article from The New Yorker “A Ring of One’s Own” by Ariel Levy covered much about the history of women’s boxing, as well as Claressa Shield’s career. While the documentary gave more of a personal and intimate view of Shield’s life, the article discussed the process/progress of her career and other topics that are of debate in women’s boxing. Something that caught me off guard was when things such as Claressa’s emotions became focal points of the article (“She’s real emotional— yeah!”). I kept asking myself if these parts would be mentioned or even relevant to the article if the subject was a male instead of a woman. I found this divide to be frustrating, especially when so many other discrepancies between men and women’s boxing were pointed out within the article.


  3. T-REX is a documentary about Claressa Shield’s journey to the 2012 London Olympics, but it is more about the experience of being a black female boxer from Flint, Michigan. Shields was not even a senior in High School when she won the gold medal. The documentary does a good job of showcasing the personal while not getting too emotional. When I was watching the documentary, I kept thinking about the article that we read about the other boxer last week where it focused so much on her personal struggles within her family life. The filmmakers easily could have gone there with this story, because the content was there. Instead that became a subplot of what was really going on. The film is really about ambition and how the black figure is denied the ability to have such ambition without humility. We get a first glimpse of this at a seemingly insignificant time in the narrative. Shields is in school and the teacher asks the class the meaning of the word “humility”. Shields answers with an anecdote about what the word means in her life. She says that she is not humble, but being humble would mean not accepting a compliment that was given to her to its full capacity. At this moment we realize that Shields is aware of what it takes to be an obedient body, but actively chooses not to with her own life. She is resistant, because she is aware of her excellence and does not feel like she should have to apologize for this. If I remember correctly, this comment is met by laughs from her fellow classmates.
    This moment reminded me of the article “The Meaning of Serena Williams” by Claudia Rankine. Rankine writes, “to accept the self, its humanity, is to discard the white racist gaze” (Rankine). Shields is embodying this idea. She does not need anybody else to tell her who she is or what she is, she knows and that gives her power. Serena Williams is an example of another athlete who embodies this idea. Although the two athlete’s approaches are different, they are not defined by the gaze that is placed upon them. They are actively working to stay within their truths and working to dismantle the statements that are said about them. The article goes into more details about Serena and what is behind her desire to win: “[t]he word ‘‘win’’ finds its roots in both joy and grace. Serena’s grace comes because she won’t be forced into stillness; she won’t accept those racist projections onto her body without speaking back; she won’t go gently into the white light of victory. Her excellence doesn’t mask the struggle it takes to achieve each win. For black people, there is an unspoken script that demands the humble absorption of racist assaults, no matter the scale, because whites need to believe that it’s no big deal. But Williams refuses to keep to that script” (Rankine). Through this refusal, Williams is reclaiming the racism that is shown to her. I think that Shields runs into trouble, because she is younger than Serena and does not have the same following that Williams did. The article also states, “only after they give 150 percent will white Americans recognize black excellence for what it is” (Rankie).
    The other moment that really struck me in the film was when Shields was being approached by the people who were trying to get her sponsors and they asked her to not talk so much about liking beating people up. They told her that she was coming off as being a “bully”. Why is the black girl seen as the “bully” where a white girl in that situation would be tough? Williams says, “I play for me, but I also play and represent something much greater than me” (Rankie). I think this quote is relevant here, because these tropes need to be broken, and the only way to do that is through representation. This idea was further examined in Gia Kourlas’s article “Where are all the Black Swans?”. Virginia Johnson, a dancer, stated “[i]t’s hard to be the only black dancer… [y]ou feel separate, and you feel negated in a certain sense, and it’s not that people are trying to make you feel bad, but it’s just obviously around you. Everyone else can bond by similarity, and you have to make an effort, and making an effort makes you wonder, ‘Am I not being true to myself?’ It’s hard to be strong enough to be in that environment and to not feel wrong”.
    The line in the documentary that really got to me though was when they told her to think about everything that she wanted to do and could be doing for flint and how her not following the “script” was denying the good that she could be doing for her hometown. This moment was the perfect example of what the message of the film was. In order for Shields to be accepted by the white sponsors and community she has to become the humble subject that they want her to be. She can’t be arrogant otherwise she won’t get sponsors. She can’t truly be a “celebrity” or receive fame until she denies her blackness.


  4. The three articles we read for today as well as the supplemental docs and readings feel like a nice culmination of a lot of our discussions in the last few weeks. Starting with a recap of Serena Williams, Claudia Rankine’s Times article “The Meaning of Serena Williams” discusses the personal connection an african american female viewer has to the rise of Williams as a star. Williams stands out for her athletic prowess (she is nearly unbeatable), but also for the full range of personhood she exhibits on and off the court. She is excellent, but also herself fully, in all the rage and grace that accompanies being such a figure. It hearkens back to the Fanon reading we discussed, and the concept that a sort of triple-self dictates the activities and actions of a minority body: one’s personhood is dictated and scripted, tense. The article includes Richard Williams explaining that he hired busloads of kids from a local high school to shout slurs at the Williams sisters while they practiced. Nearing the end of the article, Williams stacks herself in a long line of african american athletes, “Zina Garrison, Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe and Venus opened so many doors for me. I’m just opening the next door for the next person” (Rankine). Also hearkening to the Fanon discussion, this triple consciousness requires that Williams, even as a brilliant and unique individual, must historically represent her community, and will be remembered for that reason, for opening doors. Sharapova, a higher-grossing and under-performing white player, will not have the same experience. Is there a way to ‘just want to win’ as an athlete separate from her race, while also maintaining her status as a symbol of glass-ceiling shatterer?
    “Where Are All The Black Swans”, by Gia Kourlas, investigates the same predicament but in the world of dance, which is uniquely gendered, and also highly aesthetic based. The grounded, rooted associations with the african american body directly contradict classical ballet ideals set for women: to be transcendent, lightweight, unattached to the world. I found it especially interesting when they mentioned that in major cities such as detroit and chicago, minority kids aren’t even auditioning for summer ballet programs and schools, as if the problem is institutional associations with what ballet is allowed to be, or that kids do not consider it even an option.
    “A Ring of One’s Own”, by Ariel Levy, paired with the documentary T-Rex, gave me a very in-depth understanding of the career of Clarissa Shields and of women’s boxing in general. The documentary included some bits about her fighting style that I found interesting. The olympic coaches instructed her to linger back, to walk around, to pace her punches, but her fighting style is intense and handsy, she plows and pummels. Why would a coach ever hinder that? It reeks in that same way when an interviewer later tells her to stop talking about how she likes to fight and taunt. ‘Boxing licenses’ being issued are also a form of social control, thereby the non-issue to women is not only a technical hinderance, but dooms female boxers to forever fight as ‘novelty’. Also! Men creating safety precautions, breast protectors, etc, and ensuring that the sport is DIFFERENT for men and women fundamentally as a form of control, (men fight three three minute rounds, women fight four two-minute rounds). Each of these moves essential tries to draw biological lines between athletes, in total denial of the queer nature of the bodies that are being discussed in the first place, which in many ways defy gender norm in their superhuman look and ability.
    “As long as male and female athletes play by different rules, you can’t compare them. If you could, in the vast majority of cases men’s biology would provide an insuperable advantage, but there would be exceptions. Maintaining separate rules makes those exceptions easier to ignore; it makes it easier to think of women’s athletics as secondary, deserving of less attention and less money” (Levy).
    I am also very interested in the interdependence between coach and fighter, especially in the tenuous and underpaid realm of women’s boxing. How does Shields feel about being so attached to her coach, even though he consistently displays sexist behavior?
    Hal Adonis as a figure is also incredibly interesting, and the suppression of the gay culture in women’s boxing is a clear pressure cooker.


  5. Claudia Rankine, in the NY Times article “The Meaning of Serena Williams: On Tennis and Black Excellence,” continues our conversation about how the body of the black celebrity is treated by the public. Like Fleetwood, she uses Serena Williams and cites her unflinching black excellence in the face of the white, elite tennis culture. This essay reminds me of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article “Nina Simone’s Face,” where he discusses how, for dark-skinned black women with features that America hated, Nina Simone represented someone who “willed herself into a goddess”. Much like how Williams’ carefree behavior on the court inspires Claudia Rankine, Simone’s voice conjures similar feelings in her listeners. Coates says,
    “It is not simply the voice. It is the world that made that voice, all the denigration, forged into something otherworldly. That voice, inevitably, calls us to look at Nina Simone’s face, and for a brief moment, understand that the hate we felt, that the mockery we dispensed, was unnatural, was the fruit of conjurations and the shadow of plunder.”

    “Where Are All the Black Swans” highlights the staggering racial gap in ballet companies. The most interesting part of this was how it paints the slightly awkward relationships between the dancers and the people in charge. The ballet director mentioned having “only got a year and a half out of her,” referring to Tai Jimenez. It was most likely supposed to be a humorous figure of speech, but you’ve got to wonder if he accidentally showed a true color or if he simply doesn’t realize the tone-deafness of using slave/animal auction terms when referring to a black dancer, especially in an interview about having too little black dancers. Also, the owner encouraging her to leave instead of taking a leave of absence is brutal. Her insistence that she would have proved him wrong had she not been dealing with her father’s death is reminiscent of the previous article’s opening which cited the need that many black Americans feel to “be better” in the face of racism. If she’s like Rankine, she gets inspiration from seeing other black athletes accel, but here we see how that inspiration can be toxic, leaving you always wishing you had done more to prove yourself, even when you are at your limits.
    The New Yorker article “A Ring of One’s Own” stacks up the clichés by the truckload, even down to the name of the article. Whether it’s the humble beginnings, the drive to defeat the patriarchy as the number one inspiration, the strict boxing coach, or the characterization of Shields’ “open, inquisitive face” that “hardens into terrifying purposefulness” in the ring, it’s hard to decipher the truth from the exaggerated. It seems that the very way this article is written represents the way that black athletes have to navigate the media space. Ariel Levy, the author, constantly whitens everything up to fit the Golden American Stereotype, while Shields, like Williams, is unapologetically black, constantly forcing Levy to flower up the narrative as much as possible to fit. I see this in moments like when she has to explain what “finna” means and when she uses words like “alarmed” to make Shields seem as innocent as possible. That being said, I’m not discounting the truth of Shields’ situation or saying I don’t like the article. In the same way that the last two articles highlighted how the racial disparity causes the motivation to win, this article shows the gender gap in boxing does the same thing for Shields.


  6. This week’s readings synthesize the complexities of race, gender, socioeconomic class, and athletics to show the ways in which women in professional sports must contend with the public perception of their femininity and masculinity. For Claressa Shields, coming from a poor family in Flint, MI she also faces opposition on account of her youth and her race in the boxing world. Serena Williams encounters similar discrimination in the tennis world but both athletes have to contend with the ambivalence of maintaining a standard of traditional femininity and the masculinity associated with being a proficient athlete.

    Ariel Levy’s piece on Claressa frames her success with the caveat of the immense pressure she faces to uphold this ambivalence. Levy supplements her account of Claressa’s rise to fame with the highly gendered, sometimes misogynistic and homophobic comments from the people around her including her coach, her mother, USA Boxing president Hal Adonis, and various commentators. These examples serve to contextualize the gendered and racial anxieties presented by women’s athletics that athletes contend with on a daily basis.

    Claressa and other female boxers feel the conflicting pressures between being subjected to traditional standards of femininity in both appearance and in disposition. The characterization and history of women’s boxing being associated with carnival sideshows speaks to the deep-seated belief that women’s boxing is unnatural, “the obverse of feminine” and contributes to a obsessive surveillance of female boxer’s bodies and trauma. As Adonis bluntly puts it, “half of our girls have been molested; half of our girls are gay”. The association with “toughness, muscularity, dominance” alongside a narrative which champions these attributes as a response to trauma is part of a highly consumable melodramatic narrative which is often presented by another party and not necessarily from the athletes themselves. The pressure to adhere to a certain narrative which frames boxing as a way to deal with intense trauma robs athletes of their ability to provide their own narrative and intensifies the indifference toward sexual abuse.

    The documentary offers a personal look at Claressa Shields that showcases her complex relationships with her family and her coach Jason. The interactions between Claressa’s personal and professional life exhibit the complexities of gender and athletics at play in women’s boxing. As she negotiates her public persona in order to try to better secure endorsement deals, the contention between the violent nature of the sport coming in conflict with ideals of traditional femininity. For her to be palatable by a mainstream athletic audience, she is advised to tone down the aggression in the way she describes her experiences in boxing.

    Rankine’s piece on Serena Williams illustrates more explicitly the backlash that Serena has endured from spectators, commentators, opponents, and officials. Her presence in the overwhelmingly white sport of tennis has created opposition over the course of her entire career. Her fierce attitude to both endure the vitriol launched at her and to excel in spite of this opposition, Rankine argues, is to continue a legacy of Black excellence that fights to secure space in the realm of whiteness.


  7. In Claudia Rankine’s article on Serena Williams, Rankine examines the role of Williams has a black female in the white-washed sport of tennis. Rankine argues that Williams, after garnering a certain amount of success, has been able to celebrate her own black excellence. Williams’ journey towards being able to celebrate her black excellence has been targeted with racism and sexism, and she’s been deemed as ghetto or too hood. Rankine writes about how the media has antagonized Williams beyond belief, not giving her the ability to just be a tired athlete after winning a giant match. In her interview with Williams, Williams made it clear that she was only focused on winning tennis, and not mainly about her blackness in the support. However, she is still aware that she serves (pun intended) as an important role to celebrate and promote black excellence.
    In Gia Kourlas’ article about black ballet dancers, Kourlas examines the obvious lack of blackness in the ballet world. The most interesting part in this piece is Kourlas’ review of Alicia Graf Mack’s inability to break into the whitest of ballet companies like New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater, even though she arguably has one of the best ballet bodies in the dance world (especially better than Sarah Lane’s!!!). It is extremely disheartening to track ABT’s timing in promoting Misty Copeland to principal just 8 years later, even though Alicia Graf Mack’s body is arguably better suited for a company like ABT or New York City Ballet. It is even worse to know that Eric Underwood, one of the most dynamic dancers in the industry had to actually leave ABT so he could get a promotion; after this controversy, Misty was promoted. Copeland’s promotion is arguably a PR scheme, and to know that this has to happen in 2015 shows just how archaic the traditional ballet world is.
    In Ariel Levy’s article on Claressa Shields, she deals mostly with the different roles that masculinity and femininity play within women’s boxing. A most staggering part of this dynamic is the spa day the female boxers get. I do not think that the Olympics should altogether eliminate spa days; actually, I think they should give spa days to all athletes. They deploy spa days as if it is only a feminine luxury, when in actuality spa days should be an EVERYONE luxury. Crutchfield’s case for Claressa to not be too feminine is decently mean, but it makes sense within the strict binaries that women’s boxing operates. Claressa is forced to shed her femininity to accomplish success in this sport, and Crutchfield knows this.
    The Netflix documentary T Rex provides context of Claressa Shield’s background, shining light on the working-class community from which Claressa comes. Claressa proves to be more mature than her mother and other superiors around her, as she has to mediate between arguments and her superiors. She must also financially support her mother which is indeed and overwhelming task for a 17-year-old. The documentary also shows the adolescent side of Claressa and her love interests, even though Crutchfield condemns dating, arguing that dating is distracting. These dynamics all support the difficult dynamics for black women from the working class in women’s boxing, especially illuminated in the difficult of trying to get a sponsorship as sponsors want to create a more precise and marketable image for Claressa, even though this image is far from Claressa’s personality.


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