Serena Williams’ Anger is Not the Problem

“Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being.”

Audre Lord, keynote speech to the National Women’s Studies Association in 1981


Earlier this month, tennis star Serena Williams’ loss at the U.S. Open exposed a perennial question about women, especially black women, and anger. Is there a double standard about how women express anger, not only in sports, but life in general? Williams was fined $17,000 for three code violations, including “verbally abusing” chair umpire Carlos Ramos after Williams called him a “thief” for taking away a point. Never mind male tennis players such as John McEnroe or Roger Federer have called umpires much worse with fewer consequences, or the limitations of Martina Navratilova’s goody-goody counterpoint, “What is the right way to behave to honor our sport and to respect our opponents?”

While Navratilova’s shining past as a phenomenal tennis player is legendary, her question overlooks the many ways the sport and its governing bodies have not respected Williams. The French Tennis Federation banned Williams from wearing her Nike full-body compression catsuit, despite the garment’s functionality to help Williams with persistent, life-threatening blood clots, especially after the birth of her daughter Olympia. Also, Williams is tested for performance-enhancing drugs more than twice as often as other top American women players. For Navratilova to bandy about words such as “honor” when a fellow player’s body, health, and integrity are not treated with the same respect as other players is problematic. The era of valuing a woman’s likability and silence over her humanity and voice is over.

Ultimately, Naomi Osaka won her dream match against Williams, who asked tennis fans to stop booing and support Osaka’s win. While some like to pit Serena Williams’ anger and exasperation against Naomi Osaka’s poise and tears, the two women refused to play that game. Williams’ encouragement and grace during the trophy ceremony after a major loss is evident when she turned the spotlight on Osaka’s well-deserved victory. Osaka, in turn, told Ellen she doesn’t feel sad about the attention to Williams’ outrage initially eclipsing her win “because I wouldn’t even know what I’m expected to feel.”

Research says there is a resounding double standard about how angry women are perceived compared to angry men, especially in the workplace. In a 2008 Harvard study, Victoria L. Brescoll and Eric Luis Uhlmann found that “women are subject to negative backlash for expressing anger in professional settings even while men are accorded higher status for the same emotional displays.” Men who express anger are often seen as passionate or inspired. Conversely, women who express anger are labeled difficult or bitchy. As Dr. Robin Boylorn, an associate professor of intercultural communications at the University of Alabama, said to the BBC, “Black women should be celebrated for not being completely consumed by anger.”

Furthermore, it is important to underscore that anger can be constructive and healthy, especially when it comes to changing unjust systems and situations and regulating our own emotions and pursuit of happiness. Social psychology research in Cognition and Emotion indicates that expressing anger in situations where confrontation is necessary is healthier than tamping such feelings down.

“If you’re not angry,” Maya Angelou famously wrote, “you’re either a stone, or you’re too sick to be angry. You should be angry.” Bitterness is what Angelou cautioned us against. Anger in the service of change, however, was fair game.