January 22, 2014: It was a landmark day for Canadian tennis. Nineteen year-old Eugenie Bouchard, a plucky newcomer from Montreal, had just defeated Ana Ivanovic, formerly ranked number one in the world, to reach the semifinals of the Australian Open.
It was a huge moment. Bouchard had never even qualified for the Australian Open—one of tennis’ four “Grand Slam” tournaments, along with the U.S. Open, French Open, and Wimbledon—before, let alone make her way to the final four of the crowded 128-person draw. In fact, no Canadian in history had ever made the Australian Open semifinals, male or female. Only one, Carling Bassett-Seguso, had ever made a Grand Slam semi of any kind.
The win would push Bouchard into the top 20 in world rankings, the first time any Canadian female had ever accomplished such a feat.
Bouchard’s win was arguably the most significant in the history of Canadian women’s tennis. With such a huge win, one would obviously draw a fawning post-game interview, right? Umm….
Samantha Smith: You’re getting a lot of fans here, a lot of them are male…. And they want to know: if you could date anyone in the world, of sport, of movies – I’m sorry, they asked me to say this – who would you date?
Bouchard: Umm… Justin Bieber?
Smith: Ok, Justin Bieber. (boos from crowd)
Bouchard: So Justin, if you’re watching… Hey?
Yep. Justin Bieber comments aside for a second (if you want to talk about that go to TMZ), let’s focus on that first question. What does it mean for Bouchard, and for female sports stars in general?
First, let me say this: I feel for Smith (the interviewer), who clearly understood the ridiculous, degrading nature of the question her producers were forcing her to ask.
But the question itself is an important indicator of where the mostly male-dominated North American sport society finds itself in 2014: despite all the talk about being “progressive” and “inclusive,” we’re still not ready to draw the line through
attractive female athlete.
Like Maria Sharapova, Danica Patrick, Ronda Rousey and the Williams sisters before her, Bouchard is doomed to draw just as much attention for what she does and says off the court—and for what she looks like—as for what she does on it. Being an attractive woman might not push Bouchard’s tennis accomplishments to the backseat of her celebrity; after all, she’s an incredible talent who seems to have only scratched the surface of her potential, but it’ll certainly be riding shotgun.
For Bouchard, the stakes are very real, and for Canadian sports, they’re monumental. If her Aussie Open run wasn’t just a fluke, and was instead a sign of something more (the heavy favourite among possibilities now, given her past results), she has a very real chance to become the most famous female Canadian athlete of all time.
I’d argue it’s almost guaranteed, actually, given tennis’ year-round nature, its status as the only professional female sport that could conceivably rival its male counterpart in terms of popularity, and Bouchard’s age (at 19, she probably has a decade of contending left to do).
At the moment, Canada’s female sports heroes have largely been held to the Olympic/international stage. Athletes like Christine Sinclair, Hayley Wickenheiser, Cassie Cambell-Pascall, and Catriona Le May Doan are incredible women—accomplished beyond belief in their chosen sport, and great role models for young female fans. But none of them have ever managed to transcend the barrier between sports star and celebrity, post-Olympics.
Bouchard has a chance to do that. She is, as they say, the “total package:” potentially generational skills, ease with the media (she handled that brutal Bieber question like a seasoned veteran) and model-quality looks. It’s the fact that looks are considered to be an indelible part of the toolbox in 2014 that is so disappointing. Even if she reaches the pinnacle of her sport, Bouchard will find herself pushing up against the “sex symbol” marker the media will undoubtedly place on her. But it comes with the territory: it’s the difference between being a top tennis player and a “star.”
The saddest thing about the sexualization complex sports society projects onto female athletes is the incredible complicity of the media. Questions about celebrity crushes and love interests brings eyeballs, online commentary (hi!) and clicks to a webpage. This can be transferred to news in general— CBC’s The National chose to replay the dating question during their Bouchard coverage and CNN’s headline post-match read “Eugenie Bouchard the Belieber reaches Melbourne semifinals”.
This attitude is problematic anywhere, but it’s especially pervasive in sports culture where the audience is predominately male.
Could you get the majority of these people to care about women’s tennis? Probably not.
Could you get them to care about a blonde 19-year-old playing sports in a mini skirt? Probably.
Look, I’m not saying that Eugenie Bouchard isn’t good for women’s tennis or and tennis in general in this country. She obviously is. And by all accounts she happens to be a pretty awesome person and a pretty great role model who’s already drawn more attention to the female side of the game in this country than anyone has in decades. Keep kicking ass and being yourself, Genie. Date Justin Bieber if you really want to (just don’t let him drive the car).
But sports media: I’m disappointed in you. I’m disappointed that the dating question happened. I’m disappointed that nobody critically questioned the fact that a bunch of 20-something Australian men dubbed themselves “Genie’s Army” and gave a 19-year-old a stuffed toys after her matches (creep city?). And, I’m disappointed for the million “Genie Bouchard: Canada’s Sweetheart” columns I know I’m going to read over the next few years.
Eugenie Bouchard will be the most famous female athlete Canada’s ever produced. It’s what else she’ll be labelled that’s fascinating, though: the latest litmus test of the true “equality” of North American sport culture.
Time will tell if we’re ready for a
attractive female sports star. But I’m not holding my breath.