Monday, August 30, 2010

"The Beauty of the Power Game"

(These images are screen grabs from this NYT video gallery directed by Dewey Nicks)

Left, from top:
Elena Dementieva, Kim Clijsters, Victoria Azarenka, and Jelena Jankovic
Right, from top:
Serena Williams, Vera Zvonareva, and Samantha Stosur

I (Liz) hope you guys don't mind too much if I depart a little from our normal post content to discuss this New York Times Video Gallery, released last week in preparation for the US Open, which begins today.  I've told you before that I am a big tennis fan and an athlete, so I find myself both excited by the premise of this video gallery and disappointed by its execution.  I'll share my reaction to the videos, but I'm most curious to hear what the rest of you think.

First, a few thoughts on what I liked about the video gallery.  I really appreciate what I understand as the premise: to show female professional tennis players in slow motion in order to help us recognize the "beauty" of their bodily movements.  I know "beauty" is a loaded and sometimes dangerous word, but as a student of aesthetic theory, I do think appreciating "beauty" in itself is a worthwhile pursuit.  The title suggests that a woman's physical strength and power can be beautiful, which I think is a step in the right direction.  A few of them are even sweating noticeably!  I was fascinated by watching the women move in slow motion.  I've seen Kim Clijsters perform that split hundreds of times, but this was the first time I noticed that she placed her left hand on the ground to push herself back up.  I was intrigued by where their eyes were focused as they struck the ball.  The movement of their muscles in slow motion is, I think, quite beautiful.  The music does an interesting job of encouraging us to make a connection between these athletic movements and the bodily movements of dancers, particularly ballet dancers, which are more traditionally recognized as "beautiful."

But I think that's where my appreciation for the piece ends.  As I continued to think about it, all I could find were more points of frustration.  I'm bothered by the decision to put the women in designer costumes and, in 5 of the 7 videos, to leave their hair down so it could float around.  I think these editorial decisions reinforce the suggestion that women need to fancy themselves up in order for their appearance to read as "beautiful."  If the intent was really to have highlighted the beauty in their movement or their power, I can't understand why they weren't dressed in either their regular court clothes or even a more neutral ensemble.  If each of them were wearing the same black tank and shorts, for example, I think our focus would have been directed more toward their bodily movements.  Instead, I was thinking "Is JJ playing tennis in Herve Leger?  How is that possible?"

At first, I was delighted to see Samantha Stosur included in the gallery.  Of all the ladies included, she cultivates an appearance that is the least traditionally "feminine."  On court, she wears a dress with athletic-inspired styling accents, hats and visors, and wraparound sunglasses.  She pulls her hair into a tight ponytail and doesn't wear noticeable makeup.  Aside from Serena Williams, Stosur is easily the most muscular woman in the top 20.  It's the combination of these factors, I think, which results in rumors that she is a lesbian (as if that matters) and a steroid user (though she must consent to regular random drug screenings and has never tested positive).  Since I know these things about her, I was both glad to see her in a montage dedicated to "beauty" and surprised that she's been styled in a bandeau top with a bare midriff.  It seems completely inconsistent with her persona, whereas everyone else seems to at least be dressed in something she might have picked up off the stylist's rack.

Stosur's one of the ladies whose hair is pulled back, but you might not notice it, because her face is completely outside the fame within 5 seconds of the 23 second clip.  What gives, New York Times?  In four of the videos, the player's face is prominently featured for the entire clip.  The videos of Jankovic and Azarenka only show their faces for about half the time, but the camera pans up toward their faces rather than panning away from them immediately, as is the case in the Stosur clip.  Stosur's body is prominently featured, and had they focused only on her face, I probably would have complained that they seemed uncomfortable with her physical strength.  But the decision to figuratively cut off her head in a video that purports to celebrate the beauty of her power doesn't sit well with me, either.

My frustration about the refusal to feature Stosur's face was only heightened when I got to the final video.  The clip of Vera Zvonarava is focused almost entirely on her vibrant blue eyes and her floating hair.  Her arm only comes into the picture to strike the ball near the end of the clip.  The darkness of the scene behind her also serves to emphasize her hair and eyes, which I think we can agree fit the traditional Western standards of beauty.

So while I think this video gallery had great potential to ask its viewers to reconsider how they define "beauty" or "power," I think it ultimately fails to do so.  Maybe I wouldn't have expected so much from it if they'd titled it "Nice looking girls in nice looking clothes in slow motion."  But the title drew me in before, ultimately, the content let me down.

  • What's your take on the video gallery?  Which elements of the players' movements or the video production stood out the most to you?  Am I being too critical or not critical enough?


lindsay said...

I saw this in the nytimes last week too and was equally fascinated -- and I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the piece. I thought the videos were exceptionally well done, but would agree that some (especially Zvonarava's) didn't give a great overall picture with regards to what the video was supposed to be about.

As I watched it a few more times, the women reminded me of earlier artistic depictions of strong, muscular women - Michelangelo's Five Sibyls in the Sistine Chapel and Delacroix's Marianne in "Liberty Leading the People", all of which feature muscular women in flowy, draped fabric and dresses. The athlete's clothing here didn't bother me; for the purpose of the video, I thought their outfits did a marvelous job of striking a balance between power and grace, highlighting the women's muscularity in quite a feminine way. It did take them out of context with regards to what they would actually wear on the tennis court, but then, Venus & Serena have done so much to change the style of athletic clothing for women's tennis (I'm thinking of Venus' corseted, lacy outfit she wore in the French Open in May in particular). I'd imagine the focus of the video would be different had they been wearing the same black uniform - perhaps more about the sheer muscularity of women, which could bring negative connotations, than about their beauty. The way it was portrayed here gave nice weight to both.

Anonymous said...

"The way it was portrayed here gave nice weight to both." I have to agree. I think they showed the women in radically different ways across videos just to keep things interesting. I would have liked to see all of each woman, but I can see where that might have seemed repetitive.

It's just lovely, though, and I have say I've never seen calf muscles *ripple*. That's just astonishing, and I don't think the stylization, clothing, and so forth distract the viewer from realizing that these are incredibly powerful women.

Scholar Style Guide said...

Lindsay, you make a very interesting point about the way the women might be set up to look similar to these other iconic images. I hadn't thought of that. I wonder, though, why it isn't consistent throughout-- Azarenka is in essentially a sports bra and boyshorts, for example. The music seemed more consistent through all 7 pieces (though it very well could be that I'm less trained to hear shifts in music than I am to notice differences in apparel).

The intersection between women's fashion and women's tennis has been a very interesting one with a longer history than is often recognized, I think. As an interested follower of both, the debate about V's dress in Paris this year seemed like a culmination of the different opinions about that intersection. There are reasons why the Williams sisters are criticized for an interest in fashion in ways that, say, Maria Sharapova is not (though I think her fashion has actually been more influential over the years). Some of those differences are legitimate and some, I think, are not. Maybe I'll talk more about that in a future post.

Both of your comments, though, helped me to get more to the heart of what disappointed me about the gallery. I think that when I read the title, I was hoping it would make the argument that strength IS beautiful. So while I agree that it does a nice job of showing that a woman can be "both" strong AND beautiful, I think it still keeps them separate in a way that is, ultimately, disappointing to me.


Katie B. said...

Dearest Liz,

As a history major in college I was often frustrated with class critiques from a historical perspective of popular films, such as Gone with the Wind. I couldn’t help but feel like all we did was ruin some of my favorite movies. For example, now when I watch GWTW, instead of getting lost in Scarlet’s drama most of what I see is rampant racism both in antebellum America and early 20th century cinematography. The same feelings overtake me when I see something like this NY Times Video Gallery. I want to see beauty, power, and fashion, but as a sport manager all I can see is the hyper-sexualization of female athletes.

My issue with this video is less about what the NY Times was attempting to show (even though I do still take issue) and more with Dementieva, Clijsters, Azarenka, Jankovic, Williams, Zvonareva, and Stosur. Women have battled for years to have the same opportunities as men in athletics, arguing that while women’s athletics look dramatically different than men’s at times, the competition is no lesser and should be respected, supported, and recognized. By participating in this filming, Dementieva, Clijsters, Azarenka, Jankovic, Williams, Zvonareva, and Stosur undermine the power of the female athlete that the NY Times attempted to highlight. No matter the intent, the message of the video will always be that women need to be sexy to be appreciated.

Any sport management academician would say hyper-sexualization of female athletes dominates this video gallery. The fact that several players have their hair loose is laughable. No female athlete plays with her hair in her face. How many women play tennis with a face full of make up? Hyper-sexualization of female athletes and media exposure has led to some women playing with adorned eyelids and lips, but most female athletes don’t want make-up dripping in their eyes or sweating off onto their uniforms. Williams’ skin is slathered with glitter. What I believe to be fake sweat makes legs and arms shine excessively and draws attention to the chest and crotch of Azarenka. Stosur’s clip focuses mostly on her torso and bouncing breasts, not to mention that no one would play tennis in a bandeau top. The way this video was shot and styled makes all of these women sex symbols before professional athletes.

Phil Knight once spoke about how Wieden & Kennedy helped build the Nike brand in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. He said, “They spend countless hours trying to figure out what the product is, what the message is, what the theme is, what the athletes are all about, what emotion is involved. They try to extract something that’s meaningful, and honest message that is true to who we are” (as cited in Mullin, Hardy & Suttin, 2000, p. 135). In this day and age, professional athletes market themselves just as much as sporting goods manufactures like Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour. Conscious decisions are made to influence the public about who an athlete is and what he or she stands for. I don’t believe Dementieva, Clijsters, Azarenka, Jankovic, Williams, Zvonareva, or Stosur thought about their personal brand and what they are portraying by participating in this project. I don’t think they thought about how this affects the viewers’ perceptions of women’s tennis and women’s professional athletics. If they did, they made the choice to be sex symbols first and did absolutely nothing to help women advance in sport.

And just as food for thought: Would we ever see male athletes in a video like this? We may see the slow motion capture of their movement, but I doubt we’d see comparable styling.

If you made it to the end of this, thanks for hanging in there!
Katie B.

PS: I'd love to submit something about "Personal Branding" as soon as I can!

Scholar Style Guide said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Katie! First, we'd love to see more of your thoughts on "personal branding"!

It's interesting that you honed in on that aspect because one of the things I wanted to address, but I'd already written a long enough entry, was the absence of Maria Sharapova. I don't believe anyone would host this gallery without inviting her to participate-- she may not have won a major title in a while, but she's still tennis's "It" girl, especially in the fashion world. (She co-designs with Cole Haan, for example, the luxury brand owned by Nike.) But I'm not surprised to see that she hasn't participated precisely because she is open about seeing herself as a "brand," like you describe above. So on one hand, I don't think she would do anything that might turn into free advertising, but I also think she's much more careful about which projects she associates her name with because she's cultivating this persona: She's beautiful, she loves clothes and her dog, she's friendly, but above all of that she is a fierce, fierce competitor. And it has worked. I believe everyone thinks of her in these terms. (Unless they find her grunting annoying, which is also highly likely.)

I will say, though, that based on the way you've described "branding" of athletes, participation in the gallery actually matches Jelena Jankovic's persona. I've frequently heard her referred to as "the drama queen of the WTA." Though that has a somewhat negative connotation, she seems to enjoy it. She loves the attention, she smiles constantly on court, she jokes around coyly, she wears unabashedly girly dresses with matching nail polish. I get the sense that this is her real personality. So while I like to be all women's rights-y, I also maintain that she shouldn't be obligated to carry the burden of "equality for women" on her shoulders at all times, in every decision. I just wonder if she's conscious of the implications of this persona upon the sport.

And, finally, to your point about men's players: there is a commercial of Roger Federer playing tennis, in slow motion, with flawless hair and wearing an expensive suit. But while I find this quite sexy, I think the main message is supposed to be "look how sophisticated I am," and I do think it reads as such. And Andy Murray was recently photographed for Vogue looking all spiffed up in a tux, and this is honestly the first photo in which I've found him attractive. But even so, he's sitting in a weight room, wearing tennis shoes.

Moving on to other sports, I can totally see Ronaldo doing a slow motion video in his underwear. The World Cup preview issue of Vanity Fair had many of the major stars in their underwear (photographed by Annie Leibovitz):

So, at least there's that.