Naomi Osaka gave a press conference on Friday night. She’s started doing them again, by the way; I mention this only because after opting out of media duties during the French Open this year, lots of people immediately decided that she was weaponising her own mental health as a sly ruse to evade media scrutiny. Still, a lot of red-faced talk-show hosts and newspaper columnists got to lecture a 23-year-old woman on her personal choices, so maybe that was the most important thing.
It was a tough watch. Osaka had just lost in tempestuous circumstances against Leylah Fernandez at the US Open and, as she announced her intention to take a short break from tennis, she reflected with teary equanimity on a sport that, for whatever reason, was no longer working for her. “Recently, when I win I don’t feel happy, I feel more like a relief,” she said. “And then when I lose, I feel very sad. I don’t think that’s normal.”
Not normal, perhaps, but to an increasing and regrettable degree normalised. The day after Osaka’s defeat the American player Sloane Stephens posted a few of the roughly 2,000 messages she received after losing against Angelique Kerber. Among the abundant racist and sexist abuse were rape threats, kidnap threats, death threats, threats to track her down and break her legs. “This type of hate is so exhausting and never ending,” Stephens wrote on Instagram. “This isn’t talked about enough, but it freaking sucks.”
Pretty much every female tennis player on the tour has stories such as this. It is not just them, either. Simply to exist in the public sphere, however fleetingly, is to be co-opted into a ceaseless noise of instant, reflexive and often performative judgment. Consider the ridiculous treatment of Simone Biles – an athlete who you might feel has earned a certain benefit of the doubt – when she pulled out of various events at the Tokyo Olympics. She was accused of being a quitter, of mental weakness, of essentially violating the contract that all performers unwittingly undertake when they appear on our screens: turn up, entertain us and then get lost.
Really this is a phenomenon that cuts across sport, across popular culture, one that rears its head wherever women have the temerity to occupy space. For example, pop stars such as Lizzo, Lorde, Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish have started to articulate creatively the privations of fame, pushing back against a cultural marketplace that essentially demands they turn up, entertain us and then get lost. When Eilish sings on her new album: “Things I once enjoyed just keep me employed now”, it is not hard to imagine these words emerging, equally plausibly, from the mouth of Osaka or Biles.
Partly, you feel, this is a function of the way we are encouraged to consume entertainment. The packaging of art or sport as content, as a product to be commodified and sold, has implications well beyond the bottom line. In a sense, it re-imagines our relationship with the performer as a consumer transaction, submits their feeling and whims to the wilder instincts of the market at large. Fame and success, accolades and wealth, aspiration and attention, are conflated to the point where we can no longer meaningfully distinguish between them.
And so for many, to empathise with the suffering of the public star – the footballer being racially abused, the cricketer trapped in the tour bubble, the pop star being fat-shamed – makes no more sense than to empathise with Captain Marvel or the insurance meerkats or the basil plant in your basket. This is not simply a media problem, or even a social media problem. The very building blocks of our culture militate against seeing the famous as humans, because that is not the function we have assigned to them.
Of course, pop stars can turn their pain into great art. The female athlete, meanwhile, is constricted by schedules and opponents, rules written and unwritten. Above all they are challenging a predominantly, aggressively white male space, rendered non-normative by convention, constantly being challenged, menaced, forced to justify themselves. The subtext is this: what are you really doing here?
So Osaka cannot simply be protecting her mental health. Something else must be behind it: hatred, control, laziness. Biles cannot simply be a champion going through tough times. She’s a fraud, a diva. In the same way that athletes of colour are forced to navigate an exhausting minefield of bad faith (Marcus Rashford is in it for the PR; taking the knee is a Trojan horse for Marxism!), the institutional suspicion of female athletes takes many forms but springs from one basic impulse. This person cannot possibly be who she says she is.
This works both ways. It is interesting to compare today’s fractured, complex, vulnerable young stars to the immaculate, omnipotent, demi-godlike personae erected around their predecessors: your Serena Williamses, your Cristiano Ronaldos, your Beyoncés. They were implacable and infallible, untouchable and by extension unhurtable. Adversity was something to be beaten. Tragedy was something to be overcome. That this was only a hopelessly warped cartoon of reality was beside the point. When we started anointing superhumans, what did we think was going to happen to the humans within?
This is the horrific din into which today’s young stars – and the thousands below them who cannot afford an extended career break or a full-time psychologist – have been birthed. We want them to play. We want them to win. We want them to make us happy. And if they are not happy themselves? Well, they are famous. Of course they are.