The problem with people who talk and write for a living is that they always have to say something. Have to. It has to be loud, too, if they want to get hits online or ratings on TV. The formula? Inflame an issue quickly, then boil it down to sound bites that can be defined in clear, black-and-white, up-or-down points against the person sitting at the other side of the table.
They are always looking for something, anything, as jumping-off points to start a five-alarm fire. That’s how Caroline Wozniacki was set up Tuesday. She was the patsy in a bogus modern-media frenzy.
She innocently, jokingly impersonated her friend, Serena Williams, at a tennis exhibition in Brazil. She used a towel to pad her chest to cartoon levels, and another one to pad her rear end. It was possibly racially insensitive, or possibly just funny.
Did I mention race? That was the jumping-off point for Twitter, bloggers and even “The View.’’
Wozniacki was labeled a racist, and it went viral. International.
And it was unfair. Her little act was not racist. Insensitive, maybe, but not racist.
“You can make as much fun as you want to,’’ Whoopi Goldberg said on “The View.’’ “She’s still going to beat your ass.’’
Yes, anger sells. But in this case, it was created. Williams and Wozniacki actually have quite a different relationship than it might seem based on Goldberg’s comments.
At the U.S. Open last year, someone asked Williams about boyfriend-advice she had given Wozniacki:
“Well, I told her never look through the guy’s phone,’’ Williams said. “That is the worst thing you can do. I told her most relationships end. It wasn’t very good advice.’’
When Williams was sick with blood clots in her lungs and home scared for her life, Wozniacki dropped by her home in Los Angeles to comfort her.
If you look at it out of context, without one tiny bit of research or reporting, this impersonation can be turned into a bitter moment. It was not one. In fact, Wozniacki did a similar impersonation last year that didn’t seem to bother anyone, including Williams. And when Wozniacki did her impression at the exhibition in Brazil, Williams reportedly was in the audience.
Part of the problem is that you have Williams fans who are not tennis fans. For people who don’t know, this probably comes across as someone taking a cold shot at Williams. Maybe they don’t realize that tennis players mimic other players all the time. Every tennis fan has seen video of Novak Djokovic’s on-court impersonations of Maria Sharapova and other players. He did an entire commercial for Head tennis racquets in a blonde wig, ending by saying, “My name is Maria Sharapova and my game is instinct.’’
You can’t expect everyone to understand. But it would be nice if talkers and analysts did, or at least studied up.
There was nothing mean-spirited about Wozniacki’s impression. She was not suggesting that Williams is overweight, or that there is anything wrong with Williams’ body-type. Williams has called herself “bootylicious’’ and talked about her extra “assets.’’ Wozniacki was not insulting the look, but playing it up, like “vavavoom.’’
She was just messing around with her friend, and with Sharapova, who she was playing at the time.
Wozniacki tries to turn moments light-hearted all the time. In Australia, she showed up at a news conference with a plastic kangaroo after joking that a kangaroo had attacked her. She once tried to sneak up behind Sharapova in an interview and pop a balloon to scare her on camera.
True, there may be a difference here in that those were harmless jokes and this is a sensitive issue that goes to the heart of body image and African-American women.
But this was not a statement about black women or their body types. If anything, Wozniacki was making fun of Sharapova, as in “Don’t make me go all Serena on you.’’ Williams and Sharapova are the best rivalry in women’s tennis, and Williams has been crushing Sharapova all year.
Goldberg threw out the topic on “The View,’’ saying that some people are calling Wozniacki a racist. Then, she and Sherri Shepherd expressed anger over the impersonation, and they never shot down the word racist.
They were clearly agreeing with it.
“What’s interesting to me,’’ Goldberg said, “is that that visual is generally seen with a bone in their nose, and a short little skirt like she’s got on. And that’s why people see it as being somewhat racist, because it’s an image that we have seen before.
“And I don’t ever remember them making fun of any of the white tennis players. … I’m just sort of curious. Why Serena? What is it about her?
"Is it her color? Is it the fact she’s not 4 inches wide and weighs 6 ounces, and can beat all of their asses with her eyes closed?’’
Look, Goldberg is bringing up a serious issue, but she’s picking the wrong moment, inflaming because they needed something to talk about.
Not only that, but Goldberg referred to Wozniacki as “Carol.’’ If she doesn’t know the name of a recent, long-time No. 1 player, then why would it matter if she doesn’t remember people making fun of white players?
I’ve written about the racial divide between Sharapova and Williams. It is partly about the love shown to Sharapova, who is tall, blonde, white magazine-cover/tennis “ideal.’’ She gets more endorsement money than Williams, who is a better player but not fitting the “ideal.’’
I put that in quotes because the ideal is actually a dangerous size 0.
Williams has worked miracles over the years to shoot down that ideal, showing young girls that a different body type can be sexy, beautiful and fit. And win Wimbledon and Olympic gold.
So I’m on board with Goldberg in the argument, but it doesn’t fit this moment. Wozniacki was not denigrating Williams or her dress size.
Was it insensitive? Well, she is a blonde woman fitting the “ideal” too, and doing something that evoked a way in which black female bodies have traditionally been mocked and caricatured. Maybe that’s just too much imagery.
That was Shepherd’s point on “The View”:
“I know they’re friends, but it’s still, inside it does something to me because we’ve been made fun of for so long for different parts of our body. And to see Serena Williams reduced to this, I don’t like it. I know they’re friends, I know.’’
For Wozniacki, this just might be one of those things you can’t do. She might have crossed a line. She should probably ask her friend about it.
But from a line of insensitivity to worldwide racist? That’s just too much talk.