Serena Williams reminds us that when a woman is called crazy, history is usually being made

Serena Williams at the 2019 Australian Open.
Serena Williams at the 2019 Australian Open.
Image: AP Photo/Andy Brownbill
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The worst thing you can call a woman starts with the letter “C.” Crazy.

In terms of gendered insults, crazy is uniquely undermining. It implies that the woman in question is not just unpleasant, she’s not to be trusted, and doesn’t even know what she thinks or wants.

In a new Nike ad that aired during the Academy Awards on Sunday night (Feb. 24), Serena Williams says the word “crazy” 12 times in just 90 seconds. “If we show emotion, we’re called dramatic,” she narrates, over a montage of female athletes who have made headlines for advocating for equal pay, arguing with referees, and insisting on being allowed to play in otherwise male-only leagues plays. The adjectives keep coming: “nuts,” “delusional,” “unhinged,” “irrational,” and that Victorian favorite, “hysterical.”

It’s an affecting opening volley, and in the next moments, as Williams reminds viewers that 50 years ago, women were barred from running marathons, that when the WNBA was founded in 1996 critics predicted that it would fail because of the assumption that women can’t dunk, and that the idea of a female NBA coach used to be, well, crazy.

The message is clear: if you want to know what the future looks like, pay attention to the women being called crazy today. They’re in the process of making history.

Nike, it should be noted, hasn’t always connected with female athletes as well as in this new ad. After years of largely ignoring half their potential customers with a lazy, “shrink it and pink it” approach to women’s sneakers and gear, Nike has woken up to reality thanks largely to the rise of athleisure. (Nike is also in the midst of a lawsuit claiming sexual harassment and discrimination at the company, which has a reputation as a boys club.)

Connecting with women is in Nike’s best interest, and so is the rise of the female athlete. After all, the more women’s teams that take to the field, the more uniforms and sneakers there are to put a swoosh on, and the bigger the market for yoga pants and sports bras becomes.

Even from the most cynical vantage point though, this ad taps into something real. Social media is full of triumphant triathlon finishes, and post-workout glows. Athletes like Simone Biles are pushing the limits of what the human body can achieve, and also speaking with confident political voices. We’re long past a time when women were considered too delicate to run a full marathon, in this age that includes women’s boxing leagues, and weightlifters.

The playing field is not entirely level, it’s true. Williams herself has famously been criticized for being too muscular, for speaking her mind, and for calling out racism and sexism. Caster Semenya, a South African runner who has high levels of testosterone, has been forced to undergo gender verification tests to compete. Professional female athletes generally don’t get paid as much as men. Still, it’s hard to imagine a time when women weren’t allowed to run in marathons and many high schools and colleges had little in the way of competitive team sports for girls beyond cheerleading.

In 1972, the US government passed Title IX, legislation guaranteeing equal opportunities for male and female athletes in educational settings. About a month later, the New York Times ran a story titled, “For-Men-Only Barrier in Athletics is Teetering.” It takes a wide-eyed look at women who talked their way on to men’s college basketball teams, and others who took up running with their husbands as a casual hobby, only to become avid marathoners themselves. It doesn’t mention the new legislation, which would profoundly change American athletics programs over the next half century, though it does include the incredulous rhetorical flourish: “So far, there is no simple answer to the question of what makes Sally run.”

Sally, clearly, was crazy, too.