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Serena Williams’ Nike ad isn’t just marketing – it’s a mission statement

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Sarah Shaffi
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Serena Williams. Image: Getty

Yes, celebrity endorsements are designed to sell products. But Serena Williams’ Nike ad is also a powerful rebuke to the racism and sexism she’s faced over the years. 

Hysterical. Dramatic. Unhinged. These are all easy insults to hurl at women, and are usually used by those who feel threatened by a woman’s success.

But in Nike’s latest ad, which debuted during the Oscars, tennis superstar Serena Williams is taking those insults and turning them into a powerful rallying cry for women across the world.

In a voiceover, as we watch awe-inspiring clips of female athletes including 15-year-old American football player Samantha Gordon and South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya, Williams says: “If we show emotion we’re called dramatic. If we wanna play against men, we’re nuts. And if we dream of equal opportunity, delusional.

“When we stand for something, we’re unhinged. When we’re too good, there’s something wrong with us.

“And if we get angry, we’re hysterical, irrational or just being crazy.”

The ad includes footage of Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967, being attacked by a male race official; Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first Muslim American woman to compete for the US in the Olympics while wearing a hijab; and Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Simone Biles. Also shown are Chloe Kim, who at 17 became the youngest woman to win an Olympic snowboarding medal, as well as clips of Williams playing tennis after the birth of her baby.

Williams’ voiceover continues: “A woman competing in a hijab, changing her sport, landing a double cork 1080, or winning 23 Grand Slams, having a baby and then coming back for more? Crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy and crazy.”

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“It’s time we all dipped our toes into the rage pool”

The ad ends with a call to action: “So if they wanna call you crazy? Fine. Show them what crazy can do.”

It’s easy to dismiss celebrity brand endorsements of this kind as superficial; as nothing more than cynical attempts to use politics to sell products. But the message contained in this ad is a profoundly important one. Williams is often the victim of sexism and racism, and has spent decades fighting against the stereotype of the “angry black woman”. 

She has been punished both on the tennis court and in the court of public opinion for being emotional and competitive when it comes to her sport – something that male athletes are rarely penalised for in the same way. When Williams talks about being called crazy, she is speaking from a place of hard-won experience.

We don’t have to look hard for examples of Williams being caricatured as mad or bad. Earlier this month, TV talk show Lorraine was criticised for its choice of picture of Williams in a segment about Meghan Markle’s baby shower. While glamorous images of the other guests were used, the show’s producers chose an unflattering picture of Williams caught off guard while playing a match.

And on 24 February, the infamous Australian cartoon depicting an angry Williams throwing a temper tantrum came back into the news. Australia’s Press Council ruled that the 2018 cartoon by Mark Knight – which appeared in the Herald Sun newspaper after an incident where Williams accused a match umpire of sexism – was not racist, despite its deployment of the “angry black woman” stereotype and the exaggeration of Williams’ lips, nose and hair.

While cartoons like this are still seen as acceptable, ads like Nike’s Dream Crazier campaign are more than just a marketing exercise. They’re pushing back against the view that women aren’t compatible with competitive sport – and rejecting the idea that women who dedicate their lives to making sporting history are somehow unfeminine. 

Because those tired old tropes? Yeah, they really are crazy.

Images: Getty

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Sarah Shaffi

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