One of the most talked-about moments from the 91st Academy Awards didn’t even happen onstage: It was Nike’s all-female “Dream Crazier” ad, which aired during the telecast.
The ad included members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, gymnast Simone Biles and snowboarder Chloe Kim — and it was narrated by tennis star Serena Williams.
“If we want to play against men, we’re nuts. And if we dream of equal opportunity, we’re delusional. When we stand for something, we’re unhinged. When we’re too good, there’s something wrong with us. And if we get angry, we’re hysterical, irrational, or just being crazy.”
The ad was particularly resonant as an Australian media watchdog issued a ruling that will be perceived by some as evidence of how much initiatives like Williams’s ad are still needed.
In a cartoon published by the Melbourne-based Herald Sun last September, Mark Knight mocked tense exchanges between Portuguese tennis umpire Carlos Ramos and Williams, using features that reminded some people of dehumanizing Jim Crow caricatures, as my colleague Michael Cavna observed at the time. After her U.S. Open final defeat in New York, Williams also accused umpire Ramos of sexism, saying that she had been unfairly punished over a rant at him, in which she called Ramos a “liar” and a “thief.”
“I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things,” she said at the time, emphasizing that they had not been punished. The episode divided the tennis world, with some defending Ramos for merely enforcing existing rules.
The subsequently published Herald Sun cartoon, depicting Williams with vastly exaggerated lips and hair, further fueled the debate and turned it both into a discussion about racism and sexism.
Australia’s official media watchdog has now said that the cartoon did not violate its standards.
“The Council considers that the cartoon uses exaggeration and absurdity to make its point, but accepts the publisher’s claim that it does not depict Ms. Williams as an ape, rather showing her as ‘spitting the dummy,’” the watchdog argued on Monday. Spitting the dummy is a common Australian term to describe a childish outburst, often by an adult.
While the ruling acknowledges that the cartoon was perceived as sexist or racist by some, it ultimately sides with the artist and his publisher in arguing that the cartoon mocks a public incident and does not cause “substantial offense, distress or prejudice, without sufficient justification in the public interest.”
“I drew her as she is, as an African American woman,” cartoonist Knight said in a response last year.
But civil rights leaders, fellow athletes and journalist groups reached a different conclusion and saw more sinister motives. The National Association of Black Journalists, America’s largest organization of journalists of color, called the cartoon “repugnant,” condemning its “racist, sexist caricatures of both women” (including winner Naomi Osaka, who is of Haitian-Japanese origin but was portrayed as blonde in the image).
“Well done on reducing one of the greatest sportswomen alive to racist and sexist tropes and turning a second great sportswoman into a faceless prop,” book author J.K. Rowling wrote on Twitter.
In the ad broadcast Sunday, Williams appeared to take direct aim at her critics: