What Does "America's Sweetheart" Really Mean?

Yesterday, we posted about Melanie Oudin, the 17-year-old tennis player who has been deemed the "savior of tennis" and "America's sweetheart," but several commenters brought up a valid point: why her, and why now?

Part of the question is easy to answer. Oudin is a great player, with great technique. She rose quickly out of relative obscurity and has bested players with years more experience and much higher rankings. And according to all the interviews, Oudin also appears to be a fairly normal teen. She is praised for her "heart" and her inspirational faith in her own abilities. On Monday, following her win against 13th-seeded Nadia Petrova, Oudin said, "Today, there were no tears because I believed I can do it. Now I know I do belong here. This is what I want to do."

Oudin certainly seems to be a lovable sports star, and her accomplishments are definitely praise-worthy, but there is something off about the way she is being celebrated. She has been called the "darling" of the U.S. Open, America's "sweetheart," a "pint-sized, freckled-faced blonde from Georgia," the "tiny little savior of women's tennis," everything it seems, save tennis' "Great White Hope" (although given the media coverage of Oudin's win, it would probably be more like the "little, teeny-tiny, super cute White Hope").

Especially problematic was this article from the Daily Beast, which quoted ESPN sportscaster Michelle Beadle comparing Oudin to the Williams sisters. "From Day 1, I've never heard the Williams sisters referred to as sweethearts," she said, which prompted Jez commenter sympathyforthebasementcat to remark:

Yes, there's just something different about them. Americans just aren't quite to fully relate to them. They just don't seem like the type of girls that would live next door. Hmmm, what could it be?

Jezemale put it even more succinctly:

Young, white and cute= sweetheart
Black and muscular= not a sweetheart?

This is certainly only part of the equation, but it is an important part. It seems like every sportscaster reporting on Oudin feels the need to comment on how pretty she is, how cute, how "All-American." Again, there is nothing wrong with Oudin being blonde, petite, and white, but much of the commentary, which focuses so heavily on her looks, fail to recognize the racism that lurks behind these terms.

The New York Times attempts to explain why Oudin's story is so special. Columnist George Vecsey argues that the "crowd is fickle. The crowd wants new faces, new stories, every hour, on the hour." Oudin is just the next new story. However, Vecsey says, unlike the Williams sisters, Oudin has fought her way up from the bottom:

The crowd always loves upsets, which is one reason Venus Williams and Serena Williams are not universally loved at the Open. They are sometimes too good for their own good, and they take up the same airspace, with the same history.

Which reminds me of something commenter heykoukla posted yesterday:

What a shame the Williams sisters don't have a rags-to-riches backstory. You know, like growing up in a poor neighbourhood and being coached by a father who had zero experience of their sport, and fighting their way to success against the odds. Yep, that would have made a great story and endeared them to the public, right?

The Williams sisters are great, but what does it mean to call them "too good?" And, on a related note, when is the last time you heard a male athlete called "too good for his own good?"

An article in the Wall Street Journal suggests that Oudin is working with a new level of technique and precision that had been missing in the game. She may be able, the paper says, strangely, to "drag tennis from the dark ages" with her superior skill. And the New York Observer calls the Williams sisters a "tired act." Oudin and Kim Clijsters may just make women's tennis "watchable again." Unlike many other players, Oudin "doesn't play this monotonous tennis," said Jon Wertheim from Sports Illustrated. He praises Oudin's variety and ability to move about the court, but he also remarks upon her size. "She's noticeably smaller than most players, and that's part of the appeal, too."

Unpacking all the different levels of sexism and racism that are operating subtly behind the scenes is an incredibly difficult task. Oudin is small, skilled, and attractive, which seems to automatically endear her to the American public. None of these things is a problem in and of itself, but it becomes a problem when the focus is no longer on her skill or achievements, but instead on her "relatability." "America's sweetheart" is a label that is only given to certain people, and those people nearly always look the same. I am personally familiar with this phenomenon. Last month I was stopped on the street by a woman who wanted to tell me just how "wonderfully all-American" I look. It was clear that she meant this as a compliment, but when she went on to explain how I have the perfect "all-American skin and hair," I began to feel incredibly uncomfortable. What is so "American" about being blonde and pale? I am all-American, and so is Oudin, but most importantly, so are the Williams sisters. They may be stronger and bigger than players like Oudin, but they that shouldn't make them any less American, or any less beloved.

For Generation Text, Tennis Role Models Get Younger [New York Times]
Thoroughly Modern Melanie [Wall Street Journal]
The Tiny Little Saviors Of Women's Tennis [New York Observer]

Related: American Teen Is The "Cinderella Story" Of The U.S. Open