How defiant Black women athletes like Surya Bonaly and Serena Williams inspire me and help lay the groundwork for the future
This world doesn't know what to do with amazing Black women.
Editor’s Note: April is Black Women’s History Month. Throughout this month, Black Youth Project is celebrating Black women. This month is also National Minority Health Month, Autism Awareness Month, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Child Abuse Prevention Month. We are interested in publishing works that address these topics and the things surrounding them.
Last month, Netflix premiered Losers, a show that unearths the stories of sports legends who faced perceived failure in their fields. The episode “Judgement” (S1,E3) is about Surya Bonaly, the French Olympic skater active in the 90s whose story struck me as a supremely talented Black woman in sports that parallels that of another living legend, Serena Williams.
Both of these Black women have faced unfair criticisms and even mockery for standing out among the very best while being so different from what is considered acceptable and worthy. They have publicly named their frustrations with the misogynoir they’ve experienced and been vocal about the need for changing in their sports, and it’s heartening to have seen them fight back and be so defiant in the face of the prejudice against them.
By the end of her nine year amateur skating career, Surya was a 9-time French National Champion, a 5-time European Champion, and a 3-time World Silver Medalist. She skated better than the more delicate darlings of figure skating, the ones who easily fit the “Ice Princess” mold in both aesthetic and performativity—Oksana Baiul, Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, Kristi Yamaguchi, Chen Lu, Yuka Sato. Surya was a force unlike anything the figure skating world had ever seen. But though proudly athletic, daring, and rebellious, she was never “feminine,” or “pretty,” or “graceful” enough for the judges’ or spectators’ liking, and for that and for her Blackness, they both punished and fetishized her.
Surya once skated in a white outfit with silver sequins around the skirt and down one leg, and audiences responded as if she had worn a full clown suit. In news footage played in the episode, a reporter is heard remarking that the outfit was “criticized by some as outrageous.” Indeed, an outraged white woman interviewed on the news said, “It was more of a court jester’s outfit… I think that something more smart and dignified would have been more appropriate.”
Even in the moments when she was being praised, coded language, dog whistle aggressions, and qualifiers like “exotic,” “different,” “mysterious,” and “unusual” were used in reference to her, her look, and her talents. Quite commonly, both she and her mother were painted as aggressors. In a 1992 piece for the Chicago Tribune, a journalist perpetuated this narrative in describing an instance in which Surya executed a backflip during a practice session, which apparently upset and intimidated rival skater, Midori Ito.
“[T]he chief referee of the women’s Olympic competition, Ben Wright… issued Mrs. Bonaly an order for her daughter to cease and desist… [The backflip] was, Wright agreed, a bald-faced attempt at rattling Ito, who would fall on a triple jump during the short program hours later… With apparent manipulative encouragement from her mother, Bonaly has turned into what the French sports paper, L`Equipe, called a ‘chippie.’ That is a children’s term for the sort of school kid who would pinch the other students or pull their hair… According to chief referee Wright, the practice incident here was not the first time Bonaly has barged about the rink like a bull in a china shop.”
It didn’t matter what Surya did or how well she did it, she was never going to be properly acknowledged as the tremendous talent she was or treated with the dignity, respect, and fairness she deserved in the white and Asian dominated arena. “Well, I tried to have a more open mind and tried to be what people want me to be,” she laments in Losers. “But in a way still have the real, deep Surya still here, no matter what. But people kept telling me that I was not pretty, I was not graceful.”
At the 1994 World Championships in Chiba, Japan, Surya placed second behind Yuka Sato in a tight race, which those interviewed in her episode of Losers seem to agree should have gone to Surya, who executed more jumps and more combinations than the Japanese skater. Frustrated, she decided to protest, first by refusing to stand on the podium and then by taking off the silver medal to the sound of loud boos from the crowd. She knew the gold should have gone to her. In the press, they called it a “tantrum,” they called Surya a “sore loser,” and no one with any power to make change was willing to acknowledge how shitty the system had treated her for years.
“As a Black athlete, I think, we had to do just more than good,” offers Surya, resentful of the disparity in the demands placed on her versus her white and Asian rivals. “My job was to be… impeccable.”
There are various moments in Surya’s story where I find it easy to draw parallels to the way Serena Williams has been treated as a tennis star and a serious athlete. What stands out the most is the similarities in how these women have been conceived of as animalistic and written as overly intimidating monstrosities. Meanwhile, they have also been simultaneously criticized for being too athletic and not “feminine” enough, but also blatantly sexualized and exoticized because of their bodies.
Both were called “sore losers” and accused of throwing “tantrums,” Serena was even accused of having a “meltdown” recently when she calmly told an obviously biased referee that he owed her an apology after an unfair call and the 2018 U.S. Open. Serena’s style of dress has also been scrutinized and the full-body black garment she wore, for medical reasons following experiences with life-threatening blood clots, was banned from the French Open, framed as undignified, inappropriate, and disrespectful of the game.
Both of their careers have been marked by blatant misogynoir. In strikingly similar ways, they have had their bodies and athleticism criticized and seen as disadvantages despite their immense talent as incredible athletes in their respective fields. But I also see similarities in their triumphs, their resistance, and their resilience in the face of it all.
Surya made it to the 1998 Olympics despite having a ruptured Achilles tendon. Due to the pain, she knew she wouldn’t be able to execute a triple jump. She also knew that this would be her last Olympics. So, she did an illegal backflip instead, which is now known as the “Bonaly Backflip.” Afterwards, she finally found the freedom she was searching for in professional skating. As she began her career as a Champions on Ice skater later that same year, she embraced the fact that she could do as many quadruple jumps and backflips as she desired. She now works as a coach and visits communities of color to mentor young Black and Brown skaters. “Black girls can skate, too,” she tells them.
Serena’s black tutu in response to her “catsuit” being banned was such an iconic “fuck you” to her critics, as was Surya’s illegal backflip. It felt like an extension of her unapologetic and ongoing commentary of the racism and sexism in the tennis world, which continues to be an inspiration. Likewise, Surya’s defiant removal of the silver medal from around her neck on the podium at the 1994 Olympics feels ancestral to Serena’s iconic moment at the 2018 U.S. Open after the biased official accused her of cheating and penalized her: “You owe me an apology.”
A friend told me I should write about the future for Black Women’s History Month, and I’ll be honest—I had no idea how to do so at the time they suggested it. It was one of those days when imagining a future feels like the hardest thing in the world. It’s a little easier today as I think about the courage of Surya and Serena, and I’m able to think about a future where Black athletes of their caliber can have careers that are not so heavily marked by misogynoir. I’m able to smile at the idea of Black children growing up in a world where these women exist as icons, as evidence that their greatness does not have to be defined by anti-Black judges.
This world doesn’t know what to do with amazing Black women, especially ones who dominate in sports. Others have experienced similar treatment, like racism and sexism thrown at Venus Williams alongside her sister, the transphobic criticisms directed at Caster Semenya and her abilities, and the mockery of Gabby Douglas’ hair. The more they win, the more this world tries to convince us they’re losers. The way Surya and Serena continue to actively subvert and push back against the unfairness of the systems within the sports they love, the way they have refused to dim their light or shrink themselves for the comfort of others, is inspiring and affirming. It strengthens a foundation for the future of Black women in sports, and makes that future easier to imagine.