The WTA “Strong is Beautiful” Controversy

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Last week, the Women's Tennis Association launched the first commercial in its new advertising campaign with the tagline "Strong is Beautiful." The ad focuses on all the characteristics necessary to become a successful professional tennis player. World No.1 Caroline Wozniacki described the video this way:

"It takes so many elements to reach the top of such a competitive sport as tennis - strength of character, discipline, and will power. All of these things define who we are as people and as athletes. For me the new campaign is able to capture the inner strength of players in a beautiful way."

 

The campaign was shot by Los Angeles photographer/filmmaker Dewey Nicks, who originated some of the slo-mo clips last August for a New York Times Magazine web feature. The WTA commissioned Nicks for this latest campaign. The stunning imagery portrays the players in a unique way, with an ultimate focus on their inner strength. A post by the Times about "Strong Is Beautiful," quotes Nicks on the thinking behind the shoot:

 

While dressing players in stylish clothing with their hair down may seem like trying to make them glamorous, Mr. Nicks said “it was always more about showing how the body was twisting and turning and moving through space.”

 

Reception of the "Strong Is Beautiful" campaign has been mixed. Writing on Women Talk Sports blogger After Atalanta says of the campaign,

 

"And I was really shocked to see the photo of Francesca Schiavone which, upon first glance, made me think I was looking at a slighter Rafael Nadal. She appeared very masculine in the photo. So I was pleasantly surprised the WTA included it. Are they throwing us queer gals a bone with that one? Are they seeing that this isn't just all about the male gaze?

 

But she also points out that Western-looking femininity seems to be a requirement for most of the female athletes featured, asking, "But is strong alone beautiful? Probably not if you look at the WTA campaign," noting that the ad features "makeup and flowy dresses or bandeau bras which reveal a lot of skin."

In a post for Forbes entitled "New Ad Campaign For Women’s Tennis Is Strategic Blend Of Performance And Sexuality," Patrick Rishe categorizes the campaign as sexy -- then says there's nothing wrong with that:

Women’s tennis, arguably, is the most commercially popular and successful among all women’s sports. Likely because it draws a greater chunk of male followers than other women’s sports, and that’s likely because of the sex appeal which seems to be inherent in the sport. From Chris Evert to Gabriela Sabatini to Anna Kournikova to the Williams sisters to Maria Sharapova, the decades prove that sex sells in women’s tennis.

And there is no harm in emphasizing the characteristics of your sport which create greater fan appeal, especially if such messages can be conferred with class, grace, and responsibility.

The Williams sisters are conspicuously absent from the WTA's individual print ads, though Serena is featured in the 30-second commercial. The notion that sex sells can sometimes have an adverse effect. On Thursday, May 12, the day the WTA announced "Strong is Beautiful," Serena was under fire for putting up, and quickly removing, a sexy Twitter picture. Williams put up the shot of herself standing in high heels and wearing undergarments Thursday afternoon. She took it down hours later, but not before the criticism began.

"Someone must have gotten to her and suggested something about common sense and hypocrisy," wrote Greg Couch of The Sporting News. He's referring to the recent arrest of a Florida man accused of stalking the tennis star. Couch's post seems to suggest that Serena was somehow encouraging the stalker with her outfit.

So the question remains: Are these ads an example of selling sex appeal or are they tasteful examples of filmmaking featuring players who are all beautiful and strong? Are they pieces of propaganda trying to define femininity? Or something else entirely?

The truth is that everyone's body is different. Not all women are meant to be either feminine in a Western-looking way. Not all women in sports are meant to conform to the every-athlete-is-a-lesbian stereotype, either. But all the athletes in the WTA spot are athletic, active, physically capable women. All of them exhibit a drive and a determination that few are willing to attempt. It seems they've earned the right to use their own personal names in any way they see fit.

And doesn't beauty come from within? Everyone is unique and beauty really is in the eyes of the beholder. Rather than hating because an athlete's beautiful, perhaps it's better to appreciate the special blend of attributes and support these superb athletes.

The Times article went on to quote Stefan Copiz, creative director for Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, which built the campaign, who said that the tagline

 

is not meant to convey that the players are beautiful in a conventional sense, but rather to challenge conventional notions about beauty. The commercial that subverts the “sugar and spice” nursery rhyme line “serves as a manifesto” for the campaign, Mr. Copiz said.

 

"Strong Is Beautiful" will be unveiled in 80 countries over the next two years. The TV, print and digital elements of the campaign will begin to run globally later this month, culminating at the season-ending WTA Championships in Istanbul.

What do you think of the ad campaign?

@jschonb

dare to dream

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