When U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka won against Serena Williams this weekend, she apologized.
“I just felt like everyone was sort of unhappy up there,” she said on NBC’s Today show. “I just felt very emotional, and I felt that I had to apologize.”
As the events from the U.S.Open continue to play out, we are watching unfair gender dynamics take shape in real time. We are watching Williams, one of the game’s greatest players being penalized for behavior that male players carry out all the time.
In the interim, there’s been much-needed debate about double standards around gender, race and anger. Tennis great Billie Jean King summed it up perfectly in a tweet:
But perhaps the most heartbreaking part of the final was Osaka’s apology for winning.
“I’m so sorry it had to end like this,” she told the crowd, who booed during the trophy ceremony, with Osaka in tears over what should have been a moment of joy and triumph and a highlight of her career.
She later told the Today show that “I felt a little bit sad. I wasn’t really sure if they were booing at me or if it wasn’t the outcome they wanted.”
Which goes to the heart of one of the stickiest and most toxic expectations put on women, be it at work, in relationships, or simply during any part of their existence alongside other people: We are constantly made to worry about other people’s feelings.
Women have been socialized from childhood to take care of other people’s emotions, to make sure that everyone else is okay, and to neglect their own needs and wants in the process.
Let’s go back to that key line: “I felt that I had to apologize.”
Even in her moment of glory, Osaka displayed classic feminine socialization.
Even worse, the feeling that she had to somehow apologize for her brilliance and downplay her achievements is a quandary women still grapple with.
Feminist author Lois Wyse once said that “men are taught to apologize for their weaknesses, women for their strengths”.
Yet again, a woman was made to feel ashamed for her hard work because it made other people feel bad.
The irony is that her opponent was a woman, and her opponent wasn’t the person putting this expectation on her. Having to shoulder the mistakes of someone else (in this case, a male umpire) is a reflection of how women have been raised and continue to be treated.
It’s a dynamic familiar to many women. When someone else makes a mess of things, women are made to feel guilty and obliged to clean it up, to make sure everyone else feels okay (in this case the crowd) and to apologize.
The U.S. Open final has made us very rightly talk about how men and women’s behaviors are treated on the court, and our conflicting expectations around gender, race and anger.