GQ's Serena Williams cover sparks outcry, despite simple explanation

Virgil Abloh designed Serena Williams’ U.S. Open attire, which features quotations just as her Woman of the Year cover does. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

GQ Magazine named Serena Williams its Woman of the Year with a cover that has sparked controversy since its release Monday.

The magazine named tennis superstar Williams and actors Michael B Jordan, Henry Golding and Jonah Hill its 23rd annual Men of the Year issue honorees. GQ began including women in the 2003, but is receiving flack this week for its use of quotes around the word “woman” on Williams’ cover despite its efforts to explain it beforehand.

Williams, 37, reached the finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2018 within a year of giving birth to her first child and is chasing a record-tying 24th major.


GQ cover design choice sparks controversy

The December cover is what sparked controversy for the magazine, with the feature on Williams set to be released online Thursday. She spoke to the magazine about her future plans, Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court appointment and being a black woman in America in 2018.

The cover, one of four, features a photo of Williams in a black long-sleeve turtleneck leotard with a belt. The top right text reads “Introducing the 2018 ‘Woman’ of the Year.”

It’s the quotes and insinuation behind that has people talking, as previous covers have read, simply, “Woman of the Year.”

Gal Gadot, the actress who plays Wonder Woman, received the honors last year without the quotes.


Quotes an artistic signature for designer

The initial GQ tweet as well as the magazine’s announcement on its website of the honorees attempted to stop this before it began, noting the following about Williams’ cover in particular:

“GQ worked up a special surprise cover collaboration with Virgil Abloh — the Off-White designer behind her coolest on-court looks in 2018 — featuring his signature quotation marks in his own handwriting.”

Mick Rouse, identified on his Twitter bio as the research manager for GQ, is the only one from GQ or Williams’ camp to comment so far.



Abloh dressed Williams for the 2018 U.S. Open, shown in the tweet above, in an almost immediately iconic black leotard and tutu with the words “Serena” and “logo.”

Quotes included.

“Virgil always does the logo thing and the quotations, and he has a particular style,” Williams said in a Vogue interview before the U.S. Open

Controversy erupts due to long-standing norms

The social media buzz was off base, considering the magazine tried to explain it beforehand, but it taps into a hot button issue not only in today’s society but in Williams’ career.

Williams is a strong, black, female tennis player who owned the No. 1 ranking for years and came back 10 months after nearly dying while giving birth to her daughter.

It is therefore constantly implied because of her success, race and looks she is “like a man” or actually a man playing on the women’s tennis circuit to win titles. Ridiculous conspiracies litter the internet.

She focused on it in an open letter on reddit last year:

“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).

Quotes around the word woman on a major magazine give pause, and seem to play into that idea of lacking female characteristics while feeding gender norms, but in this case it’s a compilation between artist and athlete who have taken the year by storm.

Abloh’s work with Williams, interestingly enough, made her feel the opposite of what social media users were suggesting the magazine implied.

“When I first tried on the dress, I felt very strong and feminine at the same time,” Williams told Vogue in August. “It has all the really strong elements, from the leather to that really cool stretchy material. I felt so feminine in the tutu, which is probably my favorite part of it. It really embodies what I always say: that you can be strong and beautiful at the same time.”

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