GQ Awarded Serena Williams “Woman” Of The Year But Put Her Gender In Quotation Marks


Nov 13, 2018


When GQ announced that Serena Williams was their Woman of the Year on Monday, the reaction on social media was not what they might have hoped for. That’s because the magazine chose to put the word woman in quotation marks: “Woman” of the Year.

The cover used designer Virgil Abloh’s handwriting (and the quotation marks that often function as his trademark style), but this context isn’t enough to make this seem like a sensible decision. Abloh’s work at the fashion label, Off-White, incorporates these quotation marks to deliver a kind of ironic detachment to his pieces (like a black dress with the words “Little Black Dress” printed on it) but there’s something lost in translation between the world of GQ where this would perhaps land as wit, and a larger audience who may not be in on the joke.

But most of all, the cover is disappointing because conversations about women in sports — especially Williams — so often include sexist questioning of female athlete’s womanhood. The seemingly ironic nod to Williams’s gender that those quotation marks deliver only encourages the idea that women who seem powerful or strong aren’t really women at all.

People took to Twitter to express their outrage, with New York Magazine’s E. Alex Jung posting a comparison between last year’s Women of the Year cover featuring Gal Gadot.


While GQ may have simply meant for the cover to be a design choice, a nod to Williams’s collaborator, it just seems like a tone-deaf move, given the years of well-documented questions around her femininity and gender.

In a reddit post addressed to her mother last year, Williams said, “I’ve been called man because I appeared outwardly strong. It has been said that that I use drugs (No, I have always had far too much integrity to behave dishonestly in order to gain an advantage). It has been said I don’t belong in Women’s sports — that I belong in Men’s — because I look stronger than many other women do. (No, I just work hard and I was born with this badass body and proud of it).”

Unfortunately, Williams isn’t the only woman in sports whose gender has been speculated about. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has long had a rule on the books requiring female athletes with naturally high testosterone levels to either compete against men or take medications to lower those levels, literally diminishing their performance. (The IAAF only recently raised its threshold for what testosterone level is considered ‘natural’ in women.) Indian athletes like Dutee Chand and Santhi Soundarajan have had to undergo ‘gender testing,’ and have spoken about the humiliation of proving one’s gender, and the loss of public support. At the intersection of race and gender, these regulations disproportionately affect athletes who are not white, and these remarks disproportionately target women who are not white.

Casting doubts on femininity, if it isn’t displayed ‘correctly,’ is one of the most basic weapons in patriarchy’s arsenal, and it reaches far beyond sports. From Michelle Obama to Lady Gaga, women who are powerful — not just in the physical sense — have been called men, and shamed for not fitting a certain ideal. So, while the outrage over this GQ cover might seem like PC-culture run amok, the reality is that those quotation marks hold an entire history of sexism within them. 


Written By Nadia Nooreyezdan

Nadia Nooreyezdan is The Swaddle’s culture editor. Since graduating from Columbia Journalism School, she spends her time thinking about aliens, cyborgs, and social justice sci-fi. She’s also working on a memoir about her family’s journey from Iran to India.


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