Caster Semenya in a new role – as “glamour girl”?
This week (in September 2009) the South African glossy gossip mag You has a cover showing Caster Semenya posing in a little black number with bling dripping, ever-so like a starlet pitching for a soapy role. The tagline on the cover reads “We turn SA's power girl into a glamour girl – and she loves it!” And then in large, bold type: “Wow, look at Caster now!”
Is this really the way women want to be? And are “power” and “glamour” the values young women in a country with problems of poverty and the unfair distribution of resource should be encouraged to espouse? Is “glamour” better than “power?” Is this really an appropriate response to the still raging controversy over those gender tests and the political posturings of sports officials both here and in Europe?
These were some of the questions that came to me on seeing this week's edition of You with its, to me, exploitative cover images and the four page spread inside which did nothing to allay my suspicions and doubts.
Here is a young woman from a poverty-riddled rural area with hopelessly inadequate resources who has, controversially, been thrust into the international spotlight for two reasons – firstly for setting a blistering world record in the 800 metres at the Berlin IAAF World Championships, and secondly, for having her sex challenged, or at least doubted, in a most humiliating and, I think, avoidable way.
Then on her return to South Africa, as the latest of our “golden girls”, she is turned into a political football kicked around by all the power-grabbing politicians, professional and amateur, who shamelessly use Ms Semenya to push their own agendas.
So what is the purpose of trying to turn Ms Semenya into a “glamour girl?” Is it to preempt the results, which are still awaited, of the gender testing that has been done by the IAAF?
Of course, Ms Semenya loved the opportunity to be pampered and dressed up like a doll. Who wouldn't? And I hope that You paid her well for her time. But it leaves me feeling distinctly uncomfortable – a young woman with a great talent, a world-record breaking talent, being turned into something else – for what?
Does the answer lie in the demographics of the mag, which is aimed largely at middle-class white women? Is this some attempt to make Ms Semenya acceptable to these people? As though middle-class white women are not able to appreciate talent wherever it is found?
Ms Semenya runs fast – very fast. She also has features and a build that have cast doubt in some people's minds about the levels of testosterone in her blood. This is a sensitive, and potentially, at least, humiliating issue for the young woman.
To exploit this, as You magazine has done, is not acceptable. Especially when they use the word “girl” several times. Now for any South African with any sensitivity to our past and the racial issues that still bedevil us, they should know that the word “girl” applied to any young woman, but more especially to a young black woman, has a heavy load of paternalism attached.
The word “girl” was commonly used by whites in South Africa for black women of any age. It was the term usually used for a woman working as a domestic worker in a white household: whites would refer to their domestic worker, of whatever age, as “our girl.” Even young children, young enough to be the woman's grandchildren,would refer to her as a “girl.”
Apparently I am not the only one who has found this issue of You distasteful in the extreme. The chief sports reporter of the Times, Owen Slot, in his on-line column “World in Motion” (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/columnists/owen_slot/article6825732.ece), wrote this week: “On the subject of posing for “YOU”, why do it now? Why such a public statement about her femininity now when a team of scientists are simultaneously drawing conclusions that may not agree with it. It is indecently hasty when she could easily have waited until the science had been completed.”
And I suppose that all this writing about the issue of You will only add to its circulation figures. And that's sad, because it deserves to tank for its tastelessness and insensitivity.
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2009