What do you know about Naomi Osaka? That she is a fierce tennis player, who has four Grand Slam titles under her belt and whose playing style is described as powerful and aggressive? Or that she is the most talented player of her generation? And that the likes of Nike & Co have already turned her into the best earning female athlete on the planet? Or that she is an outspoken activist of the Black Lives Matter movement?
The Strong Woman Label
Regardless, what you have exactly heard, most of it will fit the criteria of the strong woman label. This silk ribbon of excellence appears to be covetable and innocent but leaves a sour taste on closer inspection. Ultimately, it suggests that women differ in their level and display of power.
And it also means, when there are powerful and vigorous women, there also must be some who lack these qualities, full stop. This polarisation is harmful beyond that since it invites the conclusion that women are generally lacking in courage and energy. Only the most determined may overcome this deficit and excel through lots of work and effort.
A Greek Gift
In contrast, men, and especially their bodies seem to breathe prowess and power. Like it always has been there and most noteworthy installed by birth. Conversely, there is no need for them to put work into becoming a strong-minded and independent individual – unlike women.
Western cultures seem to love and worship strong women, because – as suggested – they have successfully mastered female vulnerability, lability, and weakness. However, the strong women label comes as a Greek gift – not only to the disparaged weak individuals – but also to the strong ones.
An Uninhabitable Space
It basically creates an uninhabitable space, because of course heroines thrive against all odds and never call for adjustments. And if they do, there is always the threat of being pushed back into the territory of female weakness. Taking this into consideration, Naomi Osaka was beyond brave this spring, when she prioritised her mental health. At first, she challenged the tournament conventions by objecting to mandatory media interviews after every single match played at Roland Garros.
She was even braver when she didn’t back down over the imposed fines and the pending expulsion from the whole Grand Slam tournament. In addressing her mental health struggles she turned the tables on the tennis officials, but also on the female celebrity-obsessed media. Too many journalists are ruthless when it comes to determined and outspoken women in the spotlight. And of course, it is no coincidence, that women of colour have to face some of the worst media scrutinies. The cases of Serena Williams and Gabby Douglas, serve as telling examples for sexist and racist attacks.
The Female Celebrity Obsessed Media
Indeed, white male journalists like Piers Morgan and Oliver Brown were quick to ridicule Osaka on a misogynoir basis. Especially Morgan lashed out at her and called her an ‘arrogant spoiled brat whose fame and fortune appears to have inflated her ego to gigantic proportions. But also Brown denounced the tennis player. He alleged her to diva motives and branded her a ‘risible example of athlete entitlement’.
Morgan escalated further when he called Osaka a narcissist, who exploited mental health to silence the media. Obviously, he tried to camouflage the fact that media commentary can be very hurting and harmful – especially on distinguished women of colour who challenge conventions and set boundaries. But he also denied the importance of mental health and that those who struggle need empathy, understanding, and space.
Turning The Tables
As Naomi Osaka made her mental health struggles public, she gave us the chance to rethink the role and function of press conferences and media commentators. And if we really do need “legitimate media scrutiny” when it comes to sports stars – as claimed by Morgan. And who really profits from unwarranted abuse and belligerent media commentary. Naomi Osaka not only chose to protect herself, but she also tackled the stigma around mental health.
In doing so she debunked the myth that professional athletes are immune to depression and anxiety. Last, but not least, Osaka’s bravery goes beyond the personal and may advance new perspectives on vulnerability, mental health, and discriminatory media practices – what could be a Grand Slam for all of us.