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Serena Williams and Angelina Jolie: women who redefine femininity

Williams' striking Vogue cover and Jolie's New York Times piece are changing the conversation about what it means to be a woman.

Photo, Vogue.

Photo, Vogue.

At the Golden Globes in January, Tina Fey told a joke that said a lot about the exertions women in Hollywood endure to simply pass muster as … themselves. “Steve Carell’s Foxcatcher look took two hours to put on, including his hairstyling and makeup,” Fey said. “Just for comparison, it took me three hours today to prepare for my role as human woman.”

Even a lowly non-celebrity who is not routinely subjected to mani-cams and bump watches could relate. Gender expectations may have loosened but many aspects of what’s considered feminine and appropriately female remain strictly policed. Which is why it was so exhilarating this week to see two high-profile women — Serena Williams and Angelina Jolie — broaden those narrow definitions of femininity and beauty.

First up was Williams, who graces the latest cover of Vogue. With her hair loose and curly, makeup elegantly simple and wearing a sleek Rag & Bone dress, the record-smashing tennis pro looks confident, self-possessed and gorgeous. It’s a beautiful and insightful portrait by Annie Liebovitz, who can veer too cutesy with her celebrity subjects. Williams, however, required no props or obscure framing to justify her spot on this prized plot of newsstand real estate. The coverline calls her “Queen Serena” — and hot damn, long live the queen.

Putting Williams’ on Vogue — arguably the arbiter of female beauty and style — is radical not because she doesn’t deserve to be there (she does!), but because her appearance has been the subject of ugly scrutiny, in the long tradition of objectifying and demeaning black women’s bodies. Her detractors have said she is both too curvy and too masculine (figure that one out). Even Williams’ bestie, the tennis player Caroline Wozniacki (the rivals’ friendship is raved about in Vogue), has mocked Williams’ figure by stuffing her bra and skirt with towels.

Photo, Wikimedia Commons.

Photo, Wikimedia Commons.

The irony of course is that all the while that Williams’ body has been criticized that powerful, brilliant instrument has won her 19 Grand Slam singles titles (that’s more than Roger Federer at 17 and Rafael Nadal at 14). As the first black female athlete to appear solo on the front of Vogue, Williams reveals herself a woman comfortable in her own skin, proud of a body that is both curvy and muscular and, most importantly, as a person who is much, much more than the sum of her fabulous parts.

Photo, Remy Steinegger.

Photo, Remy Steinegger.

The week’s other heroine is Angelina Jolie, who revealed in the New York Times on Tuesday that two years after undergoing a preventative double mastectomy, she had her fallopian tubes and ovaries removed to reduce her cancer risk.

Others have weighed in on the public health value of Jolie’s decision. I was mostly struck that after both surgeries she spoke about what they meant for her sense of self. Upon removing her breasts, she wrote: “I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.” And then this week, after noting that at 39 she has gone into menopause, she said, “I feel feminine, and grounded in the choices I am making for myself and my family.”

Despite her sex-symbol status, Jolie has often subverted expectations of how a female star should behave. Not long into her film career, she became seriously and deeply involved in humanitarian causes, specifically refugee issues and combatting sexual violence against women. She seems to have little interest in the trappings of fame, seeing her celebrity instead as a means to serving other, more meaningful work.

Now, Jolie has declared what few in her world would: a woman’s value is not measured by her fertility or reproductive parts, and that femininity is a quality that each woman must define for herself. I’m sure Williams would agree.

More columns by Rachel Giese:

Ellen Pao takes on sexism in Silicon Valley

Let’s get real about penis size

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