You think you know everything about Maria Sharapova? Think again. Then, sign up for a quarter-long course at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Students will examine the intersections of “representation, gender, and the global in elite sport” as they study the career and media perceptions of Sharapova, a former WTA World No.1 and five-time Grand Slam champion.
“Picturing Maria Sharapova” is an undergraduate class offered as a part of the 2019 Spring catalog of UC Santa Barbara’s Department Feminist Studies, and it’s taught by Professor Anita Stahl, a tennis fan and doctoral student at the university.
Combining her BA in Gender and Sexuality Studies from New York University, an MA in Gender Studies from Humboldt University of Berlin and her in-progress PhD in Feminist Studies at UC Santa Barbara with a lifelong passion for women's tennis, Stahl’s academic work seeks to examine the sport from a feminist point of view.
At its core, “Picturing Maria Sharapova” is not about Maria Sharapova at all. According to Stahl, it’s about gender, femininity, globalization, labor, immigration, history, race, and media - and the ways these concepts clash and intersect - all viewed through the lens of the 11-time highest paid female athlete in the world.
As a result, the class syllabus lists Sharapova’s 2017 memoir, Unstoppable: My Life So Far, as required reading, along with academic texts
“For example, one day students might read French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s work on class and cultural capital, and the second day they would be asked to scroll through Sharapova’s Instagram feed and analyze how she portrays herself in Bourdieu’s terms.”
“My goal is for students to question culture,” Stahl added. “The point is not for them all to become Sharapova experts, but for them to think through the layered meanings of the culture they consume and are exposed to all the time.”
It’s not the first time that a university course has chosen to take on global issues with a celebrity or sports figure as a point of reference. Both Rutgers University and the University of Victoria have offered courses studying pop singer Beyoncé’s impact on music and feminism, while Staffordshire University has given students the chance to study David Beckham, and the University of British Columbia has analyzed the global image of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Born in Germany, Stahl’s affinity for tennis began when she first picked up a racquet at four years old, and she’s never looked back.
“Growing up German when Steffi Graf and Boris Becker were in their prime, tennis was always present in my life,” Stahl said.
Her focus turned to Sharapova in 2016 during the wake of the Russian player’s announcement of a failed drug test, and the suspension and media scrutiny that followed.
“When she was suspended, some of the most powerful global organizations commented on it,” she said. “Her actions got responses from the United Nations, Nike, the Kremlin, Porsche, and I just find that incredible.”
According to Stahl, the class is a “culmination of years of research into women’s tennis” and the academic fields she’s used to analyze it. As a freelance photographer and journalist, part of Stahl’s hands-on research - called “participant observation field work” - involves attending tennis tournaments and documenting tennis life on court and behind the scenes, interviewing players and media alike.
“I get a peak behind the scenes of how tennis is produced for fan consumption,” she explained. “I get to meet the players, see press conferences, talk to fans, and observe how journalists work to create meaning and find stories.”
The class - initially meant for 25 students, but increased to 30 due to high demand - isn't Stahl’s only academic venture involving women’s tennis. One of her previous courses, “The Meaning of Serena Williams”, explored gender, race and sexuality in sports celebrity. And her dissertation, “Reading Between the Baselines: Global Regimes of Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Elite Women’s Tennis” seeks to tackle the issues and opportunities presented by the global nature of the WTA.
“I study and teach about a handful of the most elite women in tennis history,” she said. “I’m interested in the most powerful: how they got their power, what makes them different, and how they use their influence.”
“Love her or hate her, Sharapova has been an extremely powerful figure in tennis for over a decade,” Stahl added. “I write about Sharapova, Serena Williams, Althea Gibson, Chris Evert, and others because I really believe these individuals have significantly impacted the trajectory of women’s tennis.”