Sharapova as metaphor: female ambition, bitches, and demons

12 September 2010

First let me begin with a scene at the US Open last weekend:  Maria Sharapova is battling Caroline Wozniacki, the top-ranked woman at this year’s tournament, and she should be winning.  Sharapova combines her nearly 6’3″ frame with a lupine fierceness and a seeming pleasure in tasting her opponents’ blood.  She hits her shots with such power that she screeches.  It baffles me that for so long she’s capitalized in advertisements on her blonde pinup girl good looks, as I find her terrifying:  on the court, Sharapova is all mean girl.  Especially when she bows her head and prepares to serve, then looks up from underneath her visor to glare at her opponent with an icy look of death.

So why isn’t she beating Wozniacki?  A major theme used to discuss this year’s wide-open women’s draw is nerves.  With that in mind it seems obvious that Sharapova’s beating herself.  She takes way too long to serve — then hits it wild.  For her second serve she pauses even longer, bouncing the ball endlessly, and then proceeds to whack it into the net (she committed 9 double-faults, the equivalent of more than two full games’ loss).  This prompts the commentators to remind us of her miserable performance at last year’s US Open, when she double-faulted 21 times in a match against Melanie Oudin.  When she gets them in to start a rally, she commits an unacceptable number of errors (36).  Her moments of true brilliance drive Wozniacki between sidelines and far back beyond the baseline; but in the end Sharapova loses 6-3, 6-4.  I am uncharacteristically crushed by the collapse of a player whose talents I’ve only grudgingly admired in the past, and I’m disturbed as I watch her struggle with her demons. 

I don’t know if the commentators are right that a remarkable number of female players suffer from these paralyzing nerves (unsurprisingly, male players’ problems have different gendered connotations:  men lose concentration, or perhaps they tighten up), but I’m interested in how women’s self-doubts, in combination with institutional sexism, can conflict with their ambitions.  In fact, I’m not just interested in these subjects, I’m affected by them.  It was prompted when Hattie responded to a post of mine in which I lamented the lack of recognition for a great film by a female director.  She complimented the post and said something like, “You could use some recognition too.”  How did I respond?  I deflected, as I always do when I receive compliments.  Why can’t I take a fucking compliment?

I see Sharapova as a metaphor for this issue because she’s at once intensely competitive, highly talented, and so burdened by self-doubt as to sabotage her own success.  In the past she’s always been willing to do what it takes to win — even be a bitch on the court to get under her opponents’ skin — but now there’s something else going on.  She can’t “just get over it.”  It’s only made worse by the fact that she knows she could — should — beat Wozniacki.  When she struggles, agonizingly, trying to get a serve in, I see some of my own struggles to write effectively and persuasively as an academic, to thrive in a world that benefits scholars who are both prolific and self-promoting.  Watching Sharapova fight herself makes me remember how I painstakingly eked out the final revisions on my book, and how terrible I am at self-promotion.   

So many women strivers have that extra opponent in the room with them.  Even if they’re perfectly comfortable with being ambitious, it’s the execution that causes such emotional gymnastics.  In my case, getting my book done was excruciating, and there’s still a chapter I can’t look at.  All along the way I worried about a thousand other things — being a good enough teacher so I wouldn’t leave class feeling ashamed; being a good colleague and mentor; getting back to see my parents often enough that I wouldn’t feel like a terrible daughter.  (And then there’s the other crap:  Does this bra make my back fat bulge out?  Why do I insist on wearing shoes of torture even when I have blisters everywhere?  Why can’t my partner ever make dinner without getting food detritus on everything within a 12-foot radius?)  In other words, I spent a lot of time worrying about how not to fail at juggling a number of balls, rather than compartmentalizing and playing like, say, Rafael Nadal, whose mind is only on one thing.  I watch him play and I see so clearly the difference between playing to win and playing not to lose.

But it’s more than just inner demons, isn’t it?  It’s also the external ones, like the students who pronounce their female professors to be bitches – which, as far as I can tell, means a woman who has power and uses it without apology.  It can affect one’s personal relationships:  one friend had her (male) partner accuse her of being “careerist” as a factor during their breakup.  Then there are the elite white conservative men who oversee promotions and selectively dole out raises.  In my department, the male professors gossip openly about young faculty — which of the younger men are not just brilliant but good guys, which of the younger women are in trouble for tenure because they’re not yet done with their books.  (Kudos to Servetus for terming them her Dementors, à la Harry Potter, sucking out all hope and life from us.)  But you see, not being a bitch almost inevitably eliminates the possibility of their calling you brilliant, because they don’t possess a stereotype that combines “nice” and “brilliant.”  When my book won a major book prize in my field, for example, one could sense the profound cognitive dissonance among a portion of my colleagues.

I’m not saying that all women face such inner and outer demons (we can all think of an exception) but I know far too many ambitious, talented women who do.  And most critics seem to recognize only one part of this phenomenon when they advance their critiques.  Take, for example, Clay Shirky’s “Rant About Women,” in which he tried to understand the broader phenomenon of why women so seldom engaged in professional self-promotion.  Taking a supportive but tough-love position, he declared that “not enough women have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks” to put themselves forward to their own advantage.  Not only that, he continued, women will avoid being “self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so.”  Mea culpa.  Shirky is most certainly right when he diagnoses women as generally shying away from such behavior — but what about the fact that many women fear being punished for it, having readily witnessed such punishments of other women?

Then there’s the hullabaloo over Jody Picoult and Jennifer Weiner’s criticism of the Jonathan Franzen love-fest.  When Time magazine put Franzen on its cover with the headline, “GREAT AMERICAN NOVELIST,” and the New York Times Book Review‘s editor-in-chief put his own glowing review of the book on the cover, declaring in the first sentence that the book is “a masterpiece of American fiction,” Picoult and Weiner expressed exasperation.  They’re not complaining that they should have received the same attention; nor are they saying Franzen doesn’t deserve acclaim.  To summarize, in Weiner’s words:

“The only mention my books have ever gotten from the Times have been the occasional single sentence and, if I’m lucky, a dependent clause in a Janet Maslin flyover piece:  ‘Look! Here’s a bunch of books that have nothing in common but spring release dates and lady authors!’  I don’t write literary fiction — I write books that are entertaining, but are also, I hope, well-constructed and thoughtful and funny and have things to say about men and women and families and children and life in America today.  Do I think I should be getting all of the attention that Jonathan ‘Genius’ Franzen gets?  Nope.  Would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby?  Absolutely.

…I think it’s irrefutable that when it comes to picking favorites – those lucky few writers who get the double reviews AND the fawning magazine profile AND the back-page essay space AND the op-ed, or the Q and A edited and condensed by Deborah Solomon — the Times tends to pick white guys. Usually white guys living in Brooklyn or Manhattan, white guys who either have MFAs or teach at MFA programs … white guys who, I suspect, remind the Times’ powers-that-be of themselves, minus twenty years and plus some hair.”

Picoult and Weiner’s complaints are welcome indeed, especially coming from two eminently successful authors who have no complaints when they get their royalty checks.  But this leads me to two institutions that seek to deal with women’s demons as well as their Dementors.  One is the Op-Ed Project, designed to offer advice and assistance for women who want to publish op-ed pieces.  Only about 10% of such pieces are written by women, making these opinion-setting pages of the newspapers shockingly male-dominated.  This institution recognizes that women writers require not just assistance with placement — convincing (unconsciously?) sexist editors to publish something — but with the demons that stop them from sending out the damn piece to begin with.  Likewise, there’s Mslexia magazine for women writers, which contained in its first issue a beautifully astute assessment of the bizarre position of women writers in the marketplace

These are some of the reasons why I get so frustrated when Slate wonders if Cathleen Schine’s The Three Weissmanns of Wesport is simply “chick lit,” when films about black women get categorized as some kind of sub-genre of “chick flicks,” why female politicians get criticized for their looks and their clothes (remember when Elena Kagan was criticized for sitting with her legs slightly too far apart?).  All of these things exaggerate the demons women are already wrestling with in their professions.  And then we get told that we’re not succeeding because we don’t want it enough — because of our own “choices.”

And finally:  not long after learning I’d won a book prize, I found myself in conversation with a man whose excellent (and prize-winning) book had been one of the contenders.  “You won that prize?!  That was the one I really wanted to win!” he said.  After all this time, I’m still twisted up about that conversation:  still wondering whether he was both complimenting me and expressing confusion about why his book hadn’t topped mine; still convinced that book prizes are just as arbitrary as job offers; still uncertain about how to talk about the prize with people I consider my peers.  (It’s worth noting I had no problem announcing this news to my university’s senior colleagues, Dementors, and administrators, however.)  In short, like Sharapova, I’m still bouncing that ball before a serve, wrestling with these demons, trying too hard not to lose.

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5 Responses to “Sharapova as metaphor: female ambition, bitches, and demons”

  1. didion Says:

    As soon as I posted this, I found that the blog Sociological Images had published a great post on race, gender, and book reviews.

    In addition, I hear the brilliant film director Sofia Coppola has won the Golden Lion for her film “Somewhere” at the Venice Film Festival.

  2. Marian Says:

    Got to this through Women & Hollywood, and am so glad I did! I think this is terrific. Thank you. Adding you to my blogroll right now.

  3. Hattie Says:

    Wow. Just wow. I’m linking this to my blog.


  4. [...] of these unnamed “feminists,” Dr. Karen quotes at length the media scholar Clay Shirky, whose “Rant Against Women” blog post earned a lot of media attention, including from me. Shirky later acknowledged that his prescriptions didn’t take into account the fact that many [...]


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