People Don't Understand Serena Williams's Controversial 'GQ' Cover

Some are calling it racist and transphobic, but there's more nuance to take into consideration.
November 15, 2018, 7:42pm
People Don't Understand Serena Williams's Controversial 'GQ' Cover
Credit: GQ Magazine

Serena Williams’ cover of GQ Magazine was meant to be a celebration. That’s generally why you put someone on the cover of a lifestyle magazine: to celebrate them. Particularly when you give them a lofty title like Woman of the Year. But Williams’ latest cover kicked off a stream of criticism, calling the intention of the legacy men’s publication into question over a set of quotation marks that, depending on the context in which you view them, come as a part of a established creative practice, or as a part of a longstanding critique of Williams’ womanhood.

As one of four covers, the image features Williams in a long-sleeved black bodysuit by Alix, vintage Chanel belt, and David Webb jewelry. Around her sit the requisite cover lines, including her designation as “The Champion.” But the line in question reads, in all caps, MAN OF THE YEAR. In what’s designed to look like handwritten black sharpie, the word “MAN” is crossed out with “WOMAN” scrawled above it—quotations included—courtesy of designer, DJ, and all around creative Virgil Abloh.

The brunt of the criticism boils down to the use of the use of the quotation marks which, according to detractors, nods to insults Serena has faced for the majority of her career. The athlete has gone on the record about those attacks, particularly in 2017 when she wrote a letter to her mother on Reddit saying “I've been called man because I appeared outwardly strong. It has been said that that I use drugs (No, I have always had far too much integrity to behave dishonestly in order to gain an advantage). It has been said I don't belong in Women's sports—that I belong in Men's—because I look stronger than many other women do. (No, I just work hard and I was born with this badass body and proud of it).” While some have surfaced concerns that attacks surrounding the athlete’s body and gender border the line of transphobic, as Williams is not trans, that criticism seems ill-fit.

While transphobia does seek to deny trans women and trans men their identity as men and women, it is not the only way in which people are dehumanized and ridiculed. Black women endure misogynoir, a mixture of racism and misogyny that has seen them routinely written out of what it means to be a woman. These attacks are just one example of that. And though it may look similar, these are two separate and distinct ways of marginalization and should be discussed as such.

“Objectively, I can understand how the optics of this decision to have the quotes around ‘woman’ appear misogynistic and racist, especially after years of attack on Williams’s body,” fashion historian and curator Darnell Lisby told VICE in a statement about the cover. “Black women and their bodies in the US have always been demonized in mainstream culture through being interpreted as over-sexualized or viewed as intimidating, thus I think this outcry [around] the cover delineates the progression of culture to appreciate and celebrate Black Women’s bodies.”

While the criticism against the quotations seem sound considering this assertion, it negates the context of Virgil Abloh, a designer of clothing (his own label, Off-White, as well as Louis Vuitton men’s), furniture, and other objects (this oeuvre will be put on display in his first major solo museum exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago come 2019).

Abloh’s work via Off-White contains very few connective design threads. One hallmark that often appears in his designs is a word related to the piece written in all uppercase letters, set in quotation marks. The detail has appeared on boots, wallets, and scarves, some labeled for what they are (“WALLET”) while others are labeled for what they are meant for (“FOR WALKING”). Abloh himself has taken a Sharpie to sneakers at talks, labeling them before giving the styles away. He has said in the past that he employs that design signature to invoke an idea of irony, and has done so in collaboration with Williams before, as he designed her tennis dress and shoes for the most recent US Open.

Abloh’s history and inclusion can not be negated here. As the cover story was a collaboration with him, it would make sense that the actual cover include a design signature of his. In addition, as the cover story, it’s highly likely that this finalized image came with the explicit and express approval of Williams herself as the current status of magazines routinely undergo talent approval for someone of her stature.

The issue is, of course, knowing this additional context. Though many may know of Abloh, considering he was a high profile creative partner of Kanye West’s for years, their knowledge may not go deeper than surface level.

“Though fashion historians, like myself, may easily understand Virgil’s design history and the cover, most people don’t have the patience to break the nuances down,” Lisby said. “Delivery matters despite the intent in fashion. In this era, fashion magazines are not bubbles separated from politics and society like back in the 1950s during the fanciful days of Dior and Balenciaga; they have become a central facet to mainstream culture and politics.”

A confluence of events including social media, the corporatization of fashion brands, and the progression of digital media have lead to a democratization of fashion and a variety of related creative communities. It has brought with it a reckoning as people have demanded that what were once insular industry events, like fashion weeks, now pose as representation for a global audience. Along with it, details that may have once been understood, now become divorced from the context they were meant for and applied to larger cultural conversations, nuance be damned, and the industry gets called to task for these new implications. It is in this way that a set of quotation marks, meant to pose as a creative’s fingerprints become a smoking gun.

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