Andy Murray has announced himself to the world as a feminist. More than a year after hiring Amélie Mauresmo as coach, Murray still feels the need to defend her against what he terms “prejudice,” but what others may, more specifically, deem sexism. When he parted ways with Ivan Lendl last spring, the tennis world awaited the news of who would replace the “super coach.” Selecting Mauresmo was unconventional; few male tennis players – let alone one of the best in the world – had gone the route of hiring a woman coach before.
The responses to the Murresmo pairing have varied from rapturous support to ridicule. But, Murray has been steadfast in his support for the former world #1, doubling down in recent times: he spoke candidly at the Australian Open in support of Mauresmo, then followed up with an interview with Red Bulletin Magazine and a self-penned piece for L’Equipe in recent weeks. His insistence on giving their partnership every chance to succeed is intentional, as is his repeated public and unsolicited support of Mauresmo. Murray’s feminism may appear insignificant, but within a male-dominated sporting culture and society writ large, it matters greatly. It’s not just that he hired a female coach; he is trying, in his own stubborn way, to elevate the discourse surrounding women in sport.
Feminism Given a Bad Name
Feminism is a political doctrine and a social movement that refers to the belief in the “social, political, and economic equality of the sexes,” as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so succinctly put it.
Simply, feminists are people who see injustice done to women and aim to do something about it. This can apply to sexual violence, objectification, equal pay, abortion, slut-shaming, representation, and much more. But without an academic understanding of feminism, most people learn about it by taking cues here and there in their daily lives. While feminism has recently become more openly discussed on the internet and in popular culture (see: Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, tumblr), our culture still suffers from a lack of understanding of the goals of feminism.
Young people are generally not taught about feminism in schools, and so girls become women unable to situate themselves in relation to feminism as a continuing political movement. How many times have you heard someone say, “I am not a feminist,” even though you know that person to hold feminist ideals? This is the destructive legacy of misogyny and sexism; all that is left is the still metastasizing cultural conception of the bra-burning, anti-man, lesbian feminist. If you are not that, then how can you be a feminist?
This excerpt from Julie Zeilinger’s “A Little F’d Up: Why Feminism is Not a Dirty Word” goes a long way toward explaining how the definition of feminism gets muddied. The movement to cast feminism as “anti-man” is a very deliberate, and effective, tool in blunting its power, sabotaging the advancement of women’s issues, and molding it into preserving the patriarchy.
One of the most damaging myths of the movement is that men cannot be feminists. If girls get conflicting messages during adolescence as to what feminism is and whether they should identify as such, then the signals are far less murky for boys. Most young men arrive at adulthood certain that feminism is something reserved for women. Espousing feminist ideals is at complete odds with maintaining the necessary levels of masculinity to survive adolescence for most boys. The truth is feminism occurs on many levels. The woman who takes to the streets agitating for equal pay is a feminist in the same way the man who addresses casual misogyny at work is.
Sport and Feminism
As difficult as it is for feminist ideas to break through society’s consciousness, sport is a subsector even more impenetrable. Before children are even born, parents outfit them in all things pink and blue dependent on the baby’s sex. Children are streamlined into activities thought to be better suited to boys or girls. To be sure, women have made great strides in recent decades toward breaking this practice and showing that girls belong in organized sports. But, as a society, we are still failing our girls when it comes to how we value their athletic contributions, and the discourse surrounding female athletes.
Young boys and girls learn from very young ages where they stand in the sporting spectrum. We teach our kids that sports is the domain of boys, so much so that a 5-year-old boy knows how to taunt his little league friends by saying things like “you throw like a girl.” Then there is the shame cast upon the boy who has been outperformed by a girl, never mind that in their formative years, girls tend to develop physically at an earlier age. Even at such young ages, the sad truth is boys are aware that society values them more than girls. Moreover, boys are mindful that their own worth is a site of contestation when their athletic prowess is challenged by a girl.
What makes life so difficult for women in sport is that their athletic achievement is always judged in relation to men. Society doesn’t know how to judge female athletic performance on its own merits without using men as a measuring stick. This is patriarchy at work; by using physical strength as the standard, society ensures that women will always be considered less than equal. Moreover, women are stifled by the perception that their bodies are delicate and must be protected from overexertion. Yet, they are considered inferior athletes if they can’t run as fast, throw as hard, or exhibit the same strength as men. It’s a lose-lose scenario.
Because these lines have been drawn, there is precious little space for feminist thinking in sports. Tack on the financial disparity in revenue between men and women’s sport and it gets even more difficult to cut through the densely formed narratives arguing against the worth of women’s sport. Serena Williams could never beat Roger Federer, so clearly women’s tennis is inferior to men’s tennis. Extrapolate this further and we see why some asked, “Mauresmo doesn’t know what it is like to play men’s tennis, so what could she possibly bring to Murray’s game to help him?” Women are meant to be docile, sexy, and the object of the male gaze; there is no room for them in elite sport, let alone coaching a man.
But for Murray, it was as simple as “she listened to how I was feeling.”
Why Andy Murray’s Feminism Matters
Socialization is often the most useful point of analysis to understand why people are the way they are. Jamaican sprinters are clearly naturally gifted. But, they aren’t biologically predisposed to running faster more so than people from other countries. There are underlying factors: poverty, lack of opportunity, cultural history, among others, that all play a part in producing a succession of gifted sprinters. Murray himself is a product of his environment. He values the input of women in his career because he grew up with his mother as a prominent guiding influence in his formative years.
In hiring Mauresmo, Murray put into action a decades-long set of values that he picked up through his socialization in sport. He is not restricted in the ways most men are in making the decision to hire a female coach; he learnt from a very early age, from seeing and doing, that even he can learn a great deal from Mauresmo. Great as he is already -- winner of 2 major tournaments, runner-up at another 6, and ranked as high as #2 in the world -- Andy Murray believes a woman can help him get better at his sport.
Predictably, Murray’s decision elicited responses ranging from praise to ridicule. He was lauded by those who thought his decision bold, going against the grain of sporting culture, unconcerned with what anybody thought about him. There were those who dismissed Mauresmo as a token hire, unqualified for such a high-profile post, who couldn’t possibly have anything to bring to the table. There were the sexist comments, questioning how she’d be able to integrate into the team when she can’t even enter the locker room.
Murray even dealt with resistance within his own camp. Shortly after hiring Mauresmo, he and long-time member of his coaching team, Dani Vallverdu, parted ways. The circumstances surrounding their separation were murky until Murray clarified the situation in Red Bulletin Magazine. When talking about his lack of immediate success when Mauresmo came on board, he said:
“During that year I’d spent a total of two and a half weeks training with her. It clearly wasn’t her fault. Rather than doubt her, I started to wonder why no one was taking responsibility for their role in it. So I decided to move on.”
Rather than take the easy way out and lay blame at Mauresmo’s feet, Murray opted instead to cast aside those who were uncommitted to his course of action, showing that her hiring was not tokenism. Mauresmo is a former world #1 and two-time Grand Slam champion. She was a highly successful player in her own right, and one who also had coaching experience on her résumé ( briefly coaching Michaël Llodra, Marion Bartoli, and serving as French Fed Cup captain starting in 2013). Mauresmo’s hiring was groundbreaking, but what is even more important is how committed Murray has been to elevating the public discourse surrounding women in sport. Anybody could have made that hire, but very few would have been willing to be as unflinching in his support as Murray has.
Murray now has a pulpit and he is not afraid to use it for his new-found feminism. He credits his mother, and having her as a coach in his junior days, for giving him this perspective. In his interview, he acknowledges the damaging effects of machismo in sports. For Murray, being able to express his feelings is something of utmost importance to the success of his overall game. This is incongruent with how boys are socialized to suppress emotion, even more so in sport.
In Murray’s interview with Red Bulletin Magazine, he is asked plainly, “Do you regard yourself as a feminist?”
“[Long pause]. Good question. I don’t know. I’m pro everyone being equal and if that’s being a feminist then you could say so, yes. It really opened my eyes when I started working with Amelie. Inequality is something I started to see and become passionate about. It’s opened my mind.”
Murrays hits the same note in his op-ed in L’Equipe:
“Have I become a feminist? Well, if being a feminist is about fighting so that a woman is treated like a man then yes, I suppose I have.”
Murray’s circuitous answer to a straightforward question highlights what was previously discussed: most people are not able to pin down what exactly feminism is. His hesitancy to self-identify as “feminist” without some sort of qualifier also speaks to just how polarizing a word and movement it still is. It might help explain why, even though much of what Murray says and does is aligned with feminist thinking, he is still careful to embrace it fully. This is not to chastise Murray for not identifying the way I think he should. It is more an observation as to how misunderstood and divisive the word is.
Still, Murray’s willingness to speak is what sets him apart from everybody else on the ATP. While the likes of Gilles Simon and Janko Tipsarevic are concerned with women not deserving equal pay in tennis, Murray spends his time promoting up-and-coming female talent on Twitter, and singing the praises of his coach. It’s more than a matter of creating good optics, it’s being willing to stay the course and be a constant voice for progress when his colleagues either do the opposite or remain silent.
The ATP tour has done very little to address issues of sexism when they arise, turning a blind eye whenever its charges step out of line. Murray is the only player who has gone out of his way to disrupt the sexist discourse in tennis. This may seem like a small, insignificant thing; I assure you, it is not. In fact, that Murray is willing to take a stand, however small it may seem, is a massive victory for those interested in creating more access for girls and women in sport.
Murray’s feminism, no matter how underdeveloped it may seem, becomes elevated in the sporting landscape where there is too often very little space for women. He is a man at the top of his sport who uplifts women rather than partake in casual sexism and misogyny. It would be easier to maintain the status quo and just be one of the boys. Instead, he takes principled stands and agitates for better representation for women. His feminism, even if rudimentary, towers over what’s on offer from other prominent male athletes. We could use more men like Andy Murray.
For more on this issue, listen to our discussion on The Body Serve Tennis Podcast!