We look at John Inverdale's gray hair and deep wrinkles, idly wondering whether it's time to begin generationally profiling male sports announcers. Is that the simplest way to avoid the resounding idiocy of the BBC radio host's comment that Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli would never have been a "looker"? Must we really practice age-ism in order to defeat sexism?
"I just wonder if her dad, because he has obviously been the most influential person in her life ... did say to her when she was 12, 13, 14 maybe, 'listen, you are never going to be, you know, a looker," Inverdale said. "You are never going to be somebody like a Sharapova, you're never going to be 5-foot-11, you're never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that."
Bartoli provided the best possible answer. Upon hearing Inverdale's remark, she demanded that we pay attention to her, the young champ, the future.
"Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No, sorry," she said. "But have I dreamt about winning Wimbledon? Yes, absolutely."
So yes, by all means, let discrimination flow from this incident, and make it lean in favor of a 28-year-old's vintage wisdom. If we're ever to get past the beauty-pageant impositions on women's professional lives, in everything from sports to politics, it won't happen through the smothering of misguided elders. There's nothing hopeful in that.
The young, they promise so much more.
In the last year alone, female athletes from Bartoli to Brittney Griner to Gabby Douglas have told the aesthetics police: This is what a superstar looks like. If you expect something else, you're looking in the wrong place.
It barely matter who issues the insults. Women can be as harsh as men, social media more vicious by far than paid broadcasters. Inverdale was the most prominently odious of Bartoli's pageant judges, but he didn't hold down the gig by himself. The Independent of London ran a story a few days earlier that called her "not your typical leading lady" and clarified that with "neither poster-girl pretty nor athletic in the romantic sense."
That story, in the end, amounted to a rave about Bartoli's effect on Wimbledon and called her a "great attraction" in the absence of Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova as finalist. Maybe Inverdale meant the same thing. Sure, that must be it.
But enough about the critics. They've been around forever, never learning. The athletes' responses, though, border on revelation. In the past, the cruelty of a "never going to be a looker" remark would have seemed too unbearable to address. Any criticism of a woman's appearance would presumably destroy her. The flare-ups tended to merit only quick shrugs, not passionate rebuttals.
Today, though, we have Griner conducting a magazine interview in which she reads aloud online comments that call her man and say she has a penis. These things used to hurt. At 22, she has this to say: "Reading what people say makes me want to be me even more."
And this: "I never thought that to be beautiful, you had to look any certain way at all. In my opinion, you're beautiful because you are you."
At the London Olympics, after becoming the first African-American to win the all-around gymnastics title, Douglas read streams of social-media commentary about her hair. Only 16, she felt perfectly comfortable retorting: "I just made history and people are focused on my hair? It can be bald or short, it doesn't matter about (my) hair. … Nothing is going to change. I'm going to wear my hair like this during beam and bar finals. You might as well stop talking about it."
The critiques appeared to come from African-American women, who have borne the worst of our pageant culture. When Douglas stood up to the judgments, I like to think she invited her critics to tune out the Don Imus mentality and the foolishness from which it descended, then enjoy their hair any way they care to wear it. That's probably too much to expect. But the possibility is there, in a teenager's words.
Ethnic condescension runs through a lot of commentary about the allure of female athletes. It bankrupts an already-impoverished conversation.
Inverdale's comments played off that narrowness. He said Bartoli could never have grown up to be like the long-legged Maria Sharapova. He skipped right over the fact that a young woman hoping to be a tennis champion, while and also aspiring to "looker" status, would be more likely to picture herself as Serena Williams, the dominant player in the game and an object of considerable lust.
In fact, the dress Bartoli wore to the Wimbledon champions ball gave something of a nod to Serena's famous black catsuit from the 2002 U.S. Open.
"I invite (Inverdale) to come to see me in my dress and high heels tonight at the tournament ball," Bartoli said earlier. "It could change his mind."
Inverdale has apologized, and so has the BBC. But it doesn't matter if he changed his mind. Bartoli's is the one that matters, and on this particular point, it came across as a beauty.