Ask your daughter about Serena Williams on the cover of Sports Illustrated. #MediaMondayTip

Each first Monday of the month, we post a tip to help parents and educators teach their girls how to navigate the often overwhelming world of media. Here’s our tip for this month from Michelle Cove, Executive Director of MEDIAGIRLS

Does a celebrity have a responsibility to act as a role model and/or try to make change? I’ve been thinking about this a lot since Serena Williams graced the cover of Sports Illustrated weeks ago as “Sportsperson of the Year.” I, like many, was thrilled to see her land this unquestionably earned honor, and also to see a woman of color on a magazine cover. But I am still struggling with the image of her on the cover in her black lace leotard, stilettos, and seductive pose.

Obviously Serena can do whatever she wants, and I get that this cover did not happen to Serena. She was in on the concepts and wanted to be seen as sexy and powerful on her own terms. She’s been forced to hear critics harping endlessly on her muscular body and labeling her “unfeminine.” It’s awful and unacceptable. And I cheered her on when she stated on Good Morning America:

“I love how I look. I love that I’m a full woman, and I’m strong and I’m powerful, and I’m beautiful at the same time. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Right on.

But I also feel strongly that there were far better ways to show herself looking beautiful and powerful that have something to do with being seen as a world-champion tennis player. You wouldn’t even know she played tennis based on this cover.

SII try to teach middle-school girls to think in shades of gray and consider various perspectives. So… I understand there is a case to be made for Serena posing exactly how she wants, and that she doesn’t have to appease me or anyone else. She gets to make her own choices that work for her. I understand her wanting to show that someone with her athleticism and ambition can be beautiful and sexy. Yep, she’s on a throne of power… got the metaphor.

But when girls and young women see one of the greatest athletes of all times in a high-cut leotard and heels, it just confirms the idea that being sexy is what matters above all else–even more than dominating a sport. How are we ever going to get past this notion that the most we can aspire to is being hot unless female celebrities demand to be seen in other ways–like, say, smashing a tennis ball across a net or holding out one’s arms in a “V” for victory pose. Serena was not posing for a fashion magazine; this is Sports Illustrated.


You no doubt have your own opinions that may be similar or opposite to mine, maybe in between. That’s fine. Let’s take the media opportunity to have this conversation with our daughters because it speaks to how we value ourselves as girls and women. Tell your girl(s) about Serena’s amazing accomplishments. Then ask her:

1) What do you think of this image, and do you think it is a good fit for Sports Illustrated, a magazine focused on sports reporting and storytelling?

2) What do you think about the fact that so many journalists have criticized Serena for having an “unfeminine” body? [Show her pictures of Serena in action.]

3) What do you think a feminine body means? What should it mean?

4) For female celebrities who have the media spotlight, do they have a responsibility to break stereotypes about girls and women? Why or why not?

You can share your own opinion but wait until she tells you hers. Also, it’s not about getting your daughter to agree with your opinion (no matter how much we want that). It’s about getting her to start thinking through these issues and determining where she stands.

Michelle Cove is the Executive Director of MEDIAGIRLS®, a nonprofit organization that teaches girls how to critique the way girls and women are portrayed in pop culture with an emphasis on creating empowering content.

She is also an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and author whose projects have been featured on numerous national platforms including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Katie Couric’s talk show “Katie,” “The Today Show,” The Washington Post, and The New York Times.

Visit to learn more.

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  1. Bill Ivey

    Another good question would involve her race, especially as a factor in her being judged (by some) to look “unfeminine” and in working to break stereotypes.


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