About a month ago, tennis champion Naomi Osaka announced that she would no longer participate in post-match press conferences, explaining that these events had a negative impact on her mental health. She went on to withdraw from the French Open, following criticism and paying a hefty fine for not attending a mandatory media event. Osaka posted a statement on social media about having “suffered long bouts of depression” since the 2018 U.S. Open and having “huge waves of anxiety” when forced to speak in public.
Some of the criticism, the most publicised of which came from white male tennis celebrities including Boris Becker and Rafael Nadal, painted Osaka as someone ungrateful who didn’t want to do her job. But Osaka’s job is only to train and to play to the best of her ability. As a successful athlete, she could choose selectively to engage with the press or the public through endorsements, interviews and other modes. To expect her to come off the intensity of the court and be cordial or even cheerful on a world stage, without having had time to process elation or defeat, is cruel.
The demand that one be visible, accessible and open to scrutiny just because one’s work is appealing to large audiences is just wrong. This is a burden, not a part of the work. Whether the career in question is that of an international athlete, or of a home-based entrepreneur who is forced to develop influencer skill sets rather than focus on what they are gifted at making, precious time and energy is lost on cycles of feeding and fending off exposure.
Recently, musician Sinead O’Connor released a memoir in which she revealed her perspective on her own trajectory. Collective memory had held that O’Connor destroyed her career through a series of antics. But many of these – tearing up a Pope’s photo in protest against child sexual abuse, refusing to play the U.S. national anthem, boycotting the Grammys – were acts of activism. O’Connor now says, decades later, that her meteoric fame had undone her. These powerful statements were made from a platform that she was relieved to be deposed of.
O’Connor also shaved her head, considered very shocking in the 90s. Not coincidentally, another musician (another woman, too) who did the same in 2007 was Britney Spears. This was a furious attempt to wrest power back from those who controlled her public image, including her own kith and kin. In a statement made this week, Spears petitioned to have the legal conservatorship that her father and family hold over her removed. Some of the abuse that she recounts includes constant monitoring, not having control over her finances, having a birth control device implanted in her body without her consent, and much more. Spears’ situation makes it clear: the eyes of the whole world can be watching, and they’ll still have mutual consensus that they can’t see abuse or unkindness.
In such a world, to release artistic work, exhibit athletic performance or share any creative, intellectual and practical bounties is already too much. Why then would anyone want to also let themselves and their vulnerabilities be open to discussion?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 1st 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.