by Michelle Manno
This week thousands of comments have been posted online about the contradictory responses to Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark, women’s basketball players who both engaged in a form of “trash talk” during the NCAA tournament. As numerous commentators have pointed out, the disproportionate reactions to Reese versus Clark is about race. But it is also about gender, and not in the “but they do this in men’s sports all the time” way (although that is absolutely true). It is about how race and gender work together to differentially shape individuals’ experiences, in sports and beyond—a phenomenon most people know of as “intersectionality.”
The criticism of Angel Reese is deeply racialized. This is not just because Caitlin Clark, who is White, used the very same hand wave in an earlier game and was called “competitive” rather than “classless,” but because for Black women, showing any emotion at all invites a torrent of condemnation. Black feminist scholars have articulated how racialized tropes or “controlling images” of Black women as angry, aggressive, loud or otherwise “too much” pervade society. There are countless examples of this in women’s sports, with professional athletes like Serena Williams, Brittney Griner, and Gabby Douglas being portrayed as too angry, too aggressive, and too ungrateful. The attacks on Angel Reese are, as Moya Bailey coined, misogynoir at work. When Reese says, “I don’t fit in the box that you all want me to be in. I’m too hood. I’m too ghetto” she is shining a light on the specific ways Blackness and misogyny are intertwined.
The gendered and racialized backlash that Angel Reese has been forced to navigate is real and it’s harmful. She’s demonstrated courage and strength in her response. And, it would be unfortunate to lose the opportunity to discuss how similar kinds of backlash have been experienced by Black women athletes at other intersections. Gender presentation and sexuality matter here. Angel Reese calls herself the “Bayou Barbie.” Her other nickname is the “double double queen.” She fully embraces and embodies a hyper femininity in her gender performance—long eyelashes, glossy lips, and acrylic nails. It’s not uncommon to see her wearing a tiara. On the homepage of her website, Reese is featured in front of a glittering, pink backdrop holding a basketball (the ball is also wearing a tiara).
As I watched the backlash against Reese unfold, a part of me couldn’t help but wonder in what ways her gender expression insulated her from even more egregious vitriol, like that experienced by athletes like Serena Williams and Brittney Griner over the course of their careers. Unlike Reese, Williams and Griner, do not perform idealized versions of femininity. As Williams once put in a 2018 ad for Nike: “I’ve never been the right kind of woman. Oversized and overconfident. Too mean if I don’t smile. Too Black for my tennis whites.” Their “failed femininity” coupled with their Blackness (and Griner’s queerness) has led to their being likened to animals or referred to as men. In February of this year, ESPN tweeted about Griner signing a one-year deal with the Phoenix Mercury and in response, Twitter users replied things like, “Dude don’t look like a lady” and “Oh, and congrats, sir.”
Race, gender, and sexuality operate in tandem within the context of sports to differentially shape athletes’ everyday lived experiences. This is the primary argument I make in my forthcoming book Denied: Women, Sports, and the Contradictions of Identity (NYU Press). In Denied, I profile a highly successful Division I women’s basketball team and show how these athletes are constantly navigating competing and often contradictory expectations of them based on their identities. The queer, Black, gender non-conforming athletes received the brunt of these expectations, and the coaching staff attempted to regulate their behaviors and expressions of their gender and sexuality. They were often told to “tone it down” or otherwise hide who they were. Although they were not immune to the impossible demands placed on all women athletes, the athletes like Angel Reese who embodied and embraced idealized forms of femininity were spared from the strictest forms of policing because they succeeded not just as athletes, but as feminine women who are perceived to be heterosexual.
I’ve wondered what the criticisms of Angel Reese would have looked this week like if she were not the Bayou Barbie. If instead, she were more like many of the athletes in my book—existing on a wider spectrum of gender presentation that includes expressions of masculinity and queerness. Would she have been called a “thug,” like Griner? Would she have been likened to a man, like Williams? Would playing against her have been compared to being “in a bar fight,” like the South Carolina women’s program? Similarly, would all of Twitter have been so up in arms about what happened if Caitlin Clark were not White, and if she didn’t present her own version of idealized White femininity? We can’t know for sure, but my research and that of other sport scholars indicates that our identities, and the specific ways they intersect, can shield us or make us more vulnerable to marginalization.
Ultimately, these things matter because the institution of sport offers us a way of experiencing and understanding how larger structures of inequality play out. What happens on the court is often an indication of what’s happening off of it.
Michelle J. Manno is a sociologist and the Assistant Provost for Diversity and Inclusion in the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion at Northwestern University. Manno’s book Denied: Women, Sports, and the Contradictions of Identity can be pre-ordered now.