Okay, I can do this.

7 September 2012

Pam Grier, 1974: “I’m a child of the Women’s Movement. I always believed that I could do anything. That women didn’t have to be limited in any way.” (Thanks, ICPWAG,TBAWLODC)

Two weeks of school under my belt; I haven’t unpacked all my boxes yet, so my office looks a bit like an episode of Hoarders, except without the ancient boxes of cereal and rodent carcasses. And there’s manic prep for lectures, and grading, and learning all the new ways universities have discovered to torture us with ineffective/ counter-intuitive technology.

Nevertheless. There’s that moment when you stop fretting about the unpacking and you watch everything going on this week — the US Open tennis, the Democratic National Convention, the serious arrival of political signs and advocates on the streets of my city, the floating up of those amazing students who display their intelligence and hard work so early in the semester. It makes you focus not on the petty, but on the prize.

Equestrian rider from the late 1880s. I found this at Racialicious; they got it from Vintage Black Glamour. Look at that expression, would you. Watch out for her riding crop.

I promise to return to watching and discussing film at any moment now; I’ve had a Beasts of the Southern Wild post brewing for weeks and weeks; just give me a moment to catch my breath. Oh, and also — I’ve got to breathe after those DNC speeches, that Michelle Obama speech, that Bill Clinton speech, that scene of Gabby Giffords leading the Pledge of Allegiance. And oh yeah, Serena takes on Sara Errani later today. Hang with me, friends, and I’ll be back with you shortly.

Because it might be crazy, but I can do this. We can do this. Oh yes we can.

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I’m having my own breakfast at Wimbledon and finally putting to webpage something I’ve marveled at for the whole tournament: Serena Williams’ beautiful natural hair.

You’ll excuse me if I see this as a statement. A growing number of Black women have chosen to reject the plethora of hair straightening products and treatments in favor of natural hair lately — a choice that isn’t necessarily easy. The artist Zina Saro-Wiwa recently talked about her own transition to natural hair and the strange emotional ambivalence that accompanied giving up on forms of Black hair that you’ve been told are more beautiful. It’s hard to give up the sense that one’s own hair is somehow … in need of alteration.

If white women have their own madness around hair, Black women experience those crazy emotions about their hair as all the more aggravating. Despite the ascendance of the Afro in the 70s, many Black women can’t escape the feeling that their natural hair is ugly, frizzy, and unmanageable — and they’re willing to undergo all manner of chemical treatments to straighten it or achieve soft waves.

Given that many have had lifetimes of hair-straightening treatments, what would it take to chop it all off and start over with natural hair? What would that hair look like if you just let it go?

So after years of great and distinctive ‘dos each year from the Williams sisters (this year Venus sports very long braids, which she often ties into an elegant bun), I have to gush about Serena’s natural hair. Is it a political statement about Black women’s beauty? I’m not sure it matters whether Serena intended it that way — in our era with the ever-proliferating chemical industrial complex that profits from women’s insecurity about their appearance, Serena sporting long, beautiful natural hair can’t help but say something important to fans.

I say yes.

I don’t remember exactly when I started watching Chrissie Evert closely, but I’m guessing it was about 1977 or 1978, just about the time that I started to take tennis a little more seriously. It was also about the time that mean girls in my class started to emerge to taunt the rest of us about our clothes, musical tastes, whatever. They lurked, menacingly, in hallways. Chris Evert was my solution.

Evert seemed unmatched at the top during those years, even though women’s tennis was only a shadow of what it would become later. Entire games went by during which the two players simply lobbed the ball, back and forth, endlessly. It was boring, honestly.

Not that it mattered to me: watching Evert play was like watching someone figure out a problem. I was too young to understand her strategy, or what made her win. What I paid attention to was her laser focus, the set of her jaw, the unsentimentality of her play. She never cried or whined or threw her racquet — like a lot of the male players of the day. Neither was she very girly, despite the blonde hair and short skirts. She drove every single one of her emotions into winning games and sets and matches. She never seemed to get distracted by unimportant details. She’d squint her eyes and get down to business.

Watching Evert was therapeutic.

I started playing tennis in 12-and-under tournaments and realized quickly that tennis is full of mean girls, and that tennis is an emotional game. If you were picking up your balls, your opponent might throw one at you so it’d whiz by your face. “Sorry,” she’d say disingenuously. Or she’d interrupt play and waste some time rifling through her bag looking for some chapstick while she caught her breath. Or she might not shake hands after the match, or she’d cry. Plus, it’s really annoying to have someone lob balls at you for an entire game — enough that you get frustrated and make mistakes.

Clearly, Evert’s steeliness was hard-won.

Then, of course, Martina Navratilova came along. She was strong — ridiculously strong — and tall and left-handed, and she played a man’s game, serve-and-volley rather than that feminine baseline game. She was emotional. She was also Czech, which seemed dangerous and scary to my 12-year-old self. She started winning tournaments, and she didn’t stop. (Martina won Wimbledon titles nine times. Nine! as well as nine other Grand Slam titles — tying Chris’s own record.)

I hated her on Chrissie’s behalf. When she started losing matches to Martina, she seemed flummoxed. How do you solve a problem like Martina? It was as if the rules had changed.

Which is exactly what had happened. Evert has spoken many times in recent years about how Martina brought the entire women’s game to a new level because they all realized they had to start getting stronger and smarter. I didn’t know that then, though. I also didn’t know that she and Martina were great friends off the court. I felt myself caught up in Chrissie’s confusion.

Evert got stronger and smarter. She stopped being “Chrissie,” even for me, and was just Chris. The whole women’s game changed, and younger players of all kinds swarmed onto the court. Even my school’s tennis coach had us do weight training.

But what I really learned from Evert was to squint your eyes at the problem — stop getting all weepy-eyed and emotional, and figure it out. It was a subconscious realization for a while. My first Evert-inspired shift came during those tennis tournaments: I decided I would never be bitchy or bratty toward my opponents; in fact, I’d treat them exactly the way I wanted to be treated. I reasoned that whether I won or lost, I didn’t want to dirty myself with the bullshit.

I’m not sure at what point during the horrors of junior high and high school that I consciously realized what I’d learned from watching Evert. At some point I learned that being smart could make up for weaknesses in your game. It was a huge revelation. It sounds facile now, but I became a much better player when I stopped focusing on my opponent’s attempts to annoy me, and more on what I could do to move her around the court till she got tired.

I squinted my eyes and saw around the problem.

Not that the mean girls went away. The worst of them became a terrific tennis player late in high school, accentuating her skills with great use of her capacity for bitchiness. But by then I’d learned a kind of mental toughness that allowed me to set aside her worst behavior. It really didn’t matter that much anymore.

I’ve been thinking lately about how much I learned as a kid by over-identifying with female athletic heroes. I’ve wondered whether tennis taught particular lessons because it’s so personal and emotional and intellectual — as opposed to team sports, which dilute the focus on individuals — or whether young girls in Waco, Texas watch the Baylor women’s basketball team, which includes phenomenon Brittney Griner (whose complex gender performance seems to flummox so many commentators), and learn lessons of their own.

There didn’t seem to be a lot of gender options for girls back in 1977: Farrah Fawcett was probably at the top of a very short list. So you’ll have to take my word for it that Chrissie Evert nevertheless taught me how to be smart, how not to be just a girl, and how to get my mind right for dealing with mean girls. Watching her address the problem of Martina Navratilova helped me figure out problems of my own. Considering the Charlie’s Angels of contemporary television, Evert was mind-blowingly interesting and complex.

What does it mean for girls now to have female athletes as wide-ranging as the fiercely muscled tennis genius Serena Williams, the highly masculine-looking/ gender-bending Griner, the openly gay soccer player Abby Wambach? I wish I were 11 years old and could figure it out on my own — and go on to change the world.

The Wonder Woman franchise has struggled, which makes no sense. They were supposed to re-boot it this fall with Adrianne Palicki (who played Tyra in Friday Night Lights), but the episodes couldn’t make it past the test audiences. Let me humbly suggest that you need to stop looking at skinny white chicks and cast Serena Williams in the role. (Why, isn’t she sort of auditioning already in her great US Open dresses, switching to the blue one for the semifinal rout against Caroline Wozniacki?) I, for one, would love to see Serena ‘fro her hair out a bit, exchange the sweatband for the crown, and kick the shit outta some red boots. But only if she could still keep to her tennis schedule.

Un-fu¢king-believable.  The New York Times writes about Brittney Griner, a 6-foot-8 female basketball star at Baylor University, simply in terms of her attractiveness.  How does the author, Guy Trebay, make this into a news item?  By celebrating how female athletes are expanding our ideas about feminine beauty!  Yay, feminism!  Let’s look at his tally of feminist triumphs via women’s sports:

Feminine beauty ideals have shifted with amazing velocity over the last several decades, in no realm more starkly than sports. Muscular athleticism of a sort that once raised eyebrows is now commonplace. Partly this can be credited to the presence on the sports scene of Amazonian wonders like the Williams sisters, statuesque goddesses like Maria Sharapova, Misty May Treanor and Kerri Walsh, sinewy running machines like Paula Radcliffe or thick-thighed soccer dynamos like Mia Hamm.

Now that you put it in such a sensitive manner, Trebay, I see more clearly how much women have succeeded in making thick thighs and an “Amazonian” physical presence completely mainstream.

Clearly, when presented with the topic of female athletes, our sole question should be:  am I attracted to them?  And thanks to Trebay, we know the answer is yes.  Never mind that Griner has an “attenuated Gumby torso, coltish legs and tomboy features,” he attests; she’s gorgeous!  And he quotes a lot of model casting agents, stylists, and scouts to confirm that fact.

Thus, with our coltish legs and thick thighs, we resolutely take 10 big steps backward.  And I thought it was cool that Griner can dunk.