Serena Williams and the lure of the victim card

The Serena Williams-Carlos Ramos-Naomi Osaka triangle has played out on our screens and papers for over a week now, and it has been pretty polarising. Some feel she was the victim of genuine sexism and racism, and some feel she just lost her cool and then tried to obfuscate the issue by playing the ‘black’ and ‘woman’ cards, while the much younger Osaka displayed both grit and grace to score a well-deserved win.

I must confess I am with the second lot on this one. I found it hard to believe that a person who was paid $600 (Carlos) for the match could bully a person who was playing for a minimum of $1,850,000 (the runner’s-up winnings). It was gutsy of him to stand his ground so doggedly, especially as she swore she would see to it that he would never umpire another one of her matches. Most Indian petty officials would have crumbled into a obsequious heap at the threat. Correction, most would not have called her out in the first place.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

In 2012, when Shah Rukh Khan got into a scuffle with a security guard at the Wankhede stadium, the star claimed that the security was “manhandling little girls, not even 13, under the pretext of performing security duties” and that “some people get cheap thrills by acting obnoxious with celebrities”. While this could definitely be true, perhaps the guy was just doing his duty (as celebrated in about half-a-dozen Tata chai ads, but hardly ever in real life), and the celebrity could have been the one at fault.

Entitlement is definitely not cool. And to be fair, most stars do try to stay as grounded as possible. (It must be tough though, with fans gushing at you constantly, assuring you that it is your brilliance and light alone that illuminates the planet.) Maybe that is why, when they are caught being entitled, they are themselves appalled and try to wriggle out of the situation by making it about larger, loftier issues. This sucks, because it is actively harmful to the cause you are trying to ‘stand up for’—sexism and racism, in the first case, and manhandling little girls, not even 13, in the second.

Obfuscation and the magician’s trick of forcing a ‘card’ upon us, has gotten really popular recently. The film Sanju took it to an all-new level, presenting to us a lofty tale of a bumbling, more-sinned-against-than-sinning, large-hearted celebrity who was used by the ‘evil media’ to ‘sell newspapers’.

Mani Shankar Aiyar did the BJP a huge service by placing the poor-me-son-of-a-chaiwalla card in Narendra Modi’s hands in 2014 when he made his infamous “Modi can never be PM, but is welcome to sell chai at the Congress Summit” jab. The BJP played it for all it was worth, capturing the national imagination, even though Modiji had left his chaiwalla days behind decades ago, and had been in the extremely privileged position of chief minister for a good 15 years.

Even Rahul Gandhi, in a daring new move, seems, tentatively, to be playing the ‘Pappu’ card. Witness his recent, impassioned “Aap mujhe kuch bhi bulao; Pappu bhi bulao. Mein aapko tabh bhi pyaar karoonga” [You can call me anything; call me Pappu, even. I will still show you love]. Am sure this pitch will find resonance in the hearts of under-performing millennials everywhere.

Wow, so much card playing. And, it isn’t even Diwali season yet.