Is Serena Williams right? A linguist on the extra challenges women face in moments of anger

EPA/Jason Szenes

Is Serena Williams right? A linguist on the extra challenges women face in moments of anger

Are women athletes treated differently to men? Or, perhaps more to the point, are they interpreted differently to their male counterparts when it comes to their behaviour on the sports field? Was umpire Carlos Ramos acting fairly when he penalised Serena Williams for verbal abuse during the US Open Women’s Tennis final? Is Williams even trying to deflect attention away from her on-court outburst by arguing about the matter?

Whatever your opinion, there does appear to be a wider societal issue underlying this case – the question of whether women are free to speak in the same ways as men or whether they are subject to different expectations about their behaviour and language.

Sociolinguists would argue that women are indeed under greater pressure to speak in standard, supportive and more polite ways than men. That’s because society unfairly expects this of them. When a woman deviates from these norms – whether out of choice or unintentionally – these often abstract gendered expectations that are taken for granted can be brought to bear on them.

We see women struggling to negotiate this social phenomenon in many walks of professional life, and this is especially the case for female athletes like Williams.

Who gets to be confrontational?

Williams’ main fault may have been that she was actually confrontational. Ramos penalised her a whole game when she called him a “liar” and a “thief” for issuing a code violation for on-court coaching.

Her defenders, including the Women’s Tennis Association have said male players get away with similar, or even worse behaviour without such severe sanctions.

In men’s tennis, famous cases from the US Open include Jimmy Connors calling umpire David Littlefield “an abortion” and “a bum” and telling him to “get the fuck out of here”. In the 2009 US Open final, Roger Federer instructed the chair to not “fucking talk to me”. Connors escaped punishment and Federer only received a US$1,500 fine after the match. Neither received in-game penalties.

Most people would comfortably associate confrontational actions and behaviour with men and we regularly see this in male sporting competitions. In other words, such behaviour is seen as normal, or at the very least, not unexpected of men.

Angry, yes – but angrier than a man? EPA

But confrontation is not widely associated with women’s language and behaviour. Instances of women being confrontational challenge society’s view of them. That leaves them subject to greater scrutiny.

In this case, society’s expectations of women as polite, supportive, non-competitive and certainly not aggressive may have indirectly contributed to Williams’ penalties in the US Open final.

Williams’ example was also particularly direct. She probably caused considerable loss of face for the chair umpire by demanding he apologise to her (essentially admitting he was wrong) and directly criticised him and his umpiring calls by drawing on the now extensively quoted constructions, “you are a liar” and “you are a thief”. With these societal expectations in mind, William’s directness is likely to have come across as particularly marked for the umpire, commentators, opinion writers and tennis fans.

Women first, athletes second

These societal standards for women and their behaviour can make claiming a professional identity as a sportsperson more difficult for a female athlete. When a woman goes into a context or a domain where society’s stereotypical values are less likely to help them succeed or achieve their goals (leadership is another one), then they can find themselves stuck.

They often feel they have to make a choice between either orienting to standard forms and supportive language use – and maybe being unsuccessful as a result – or orienting to more masculine forms and being interpreted negatively.

In this specific case, values and expectations of women contradict many of the values we hold for professional athletes. Women are stereotypically seen as delicate, polite, supportive and non-confrontational. However, athletes are stereotypically competitive, aggressive, confident and strong-minded. In some situations – like the decision to confront an umpire – these societal expectations may put female athletes in a bind. Do they orient to these norms and risk being accused of not being a professional athlete, or do they confront these societal expectations and risk a number of potential consequences, including fines, penalties, image damage or accusations of being unfeminine?

At the very least, this makes it hard for female athletes to make decisions about how to present themselves, how to act and how to behave when in the public eye – often at times when there is already a great deal of pressure on their mental processing. It also influences other people’s interpretations of their behaviour – whether it’s fans, referees, sponsors or other interested stakeholders.

The often negative reaction to women speaking out or being confrontational seems to point to the idea that female athletes may be seen as women first before they are seen as athletes. Their behaviour may be primarily subject to the often gendered or stereotypical expectations society holds for women before it is interpreted through the lens of their identity as a professional athlete.

For fans, readers and viewers, it is important to critically evaluate the basis for the opinions we arrive at. The social norms and expectations we develop across our lives become so ingrained and taken for granted, they automatically inform our processing of speech in context.

Our opinions are not stored in our minds ready for use. Rather our experiences and examples of behaviour we encounter are filtered and interpreted through our social and contextual expectations. Because these expectations are so taken for granted, we seldom critically question how we arrive at our opinions and assessments.

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