We begin our story in the twilight of the 2016 NBA Finals–the Cleveland Cavaliers vs. the Golden State Warriors. Following an eventful Game 6, I came across a clip of ESPN’s “First Take.” In the clip, Stephen A. Smith is asked for his thoughts on Ayesha Curry’s tweets postgame. The tweets are brought up because Ayesha is married to one of the best players in the league: Steph Curry. After his team’s loss to the Cavs, Ayesha tweeted that the NBA was rigged (note: her tweet is likely in reference to her husband being ejected from the game, not to the loss itself)–a tweet which she later took down.
Do you ever find yourself wondering how and why people think the way they do? Logically, we know that we all come from different backgrounds, and have different parents and life experiences, but it seems we still expect each other to be the same, to be “normal.” Regardless of our knowledge that everyone is different, we often refuse to see those differences in our daily lives, and this everyday blindness leads to massive misalignments in mindset and expectation.
My aim here is to demonstrate what can happen to our perception of people and events when we don’t think about and question the opinions of their supporters and critics. Not carefully considering another’s opinion–their expectation–is just as bad as keeping your own to yourself. This particular case highlights how thoughtless language can shape and reinforce the societal perceptions (and stereotypes) we have of women.
Curry’s tweets caused somewhat of an uproar among fans, and as a result, the topic was brought up on the following day’s installment of “First Take.” In the episode, the conversation quickly derails from one discussing etiquette of athletes’ family members regarding that athlete’s job into the proper behavior of wives. Both hosts of “First Take,” Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless, are entitled to their opinions, but while watching the clip, I became incredibly concerned about the show’s viewers.
I was spurred into a rage from their words, but it occurred to me that not everyone who watched the clip was going to have the same reaction. My anger morphed into fear when I thought of all the kids watching “First Take” on that summer afternoon. They would probably be bored from being off of school and innocently seek a little NBA Finals coverage. I thought about how they could hear Smith’s words in particular and not question them, or even worse, hear his words and take them as truths. As a result, I am going to take a few quotes from the episode and address how the subtle choices in language result in a different framing of the situation–one that demotes A. Curry and provides a false perception of the situation itself.
The unspoken expectation that others look and act the way we want them to puts us all on a dangerous path to massive misunderstanding, and by extension: ignorance.
Smith begins by stripping A. Curry of her credibility. His first words in describing her are: “Steph Curry’s wife…beautiful young lady, promising future.” Although both statements are wholly accurate, neither actually attribute the value or description she deserves. In reality, A. Curry is an author, a business owner, and a self-made chef. Smith describes her by detailing who she is married to—one of the most well known athletes in the country—by generalizing her looks and by flippantly referring to her success. In doing so, he takes away the value in her name. Smith takes away her personhood by attaching her to someone else and locking her into blanket expectations of women to be either “beautiful,” “promising,” or simply “wives.” Smith later reiterates his point by calling A. Curry an “adorable young lady,” which would be an appropriate description of a 6-year-old, not of a 27-year-old, accomplished woman.
Shortly thereafter, Smith refers to A. Curry’s remarks as “incendiary,” despite the fact that the conversation about the NBA being rigged has been an ongoing one–particularly in reference to the most recent 2016 Playoffs (click here for an example). And yet, Smith still refers to Curry’s remarks as if they are the first of their kind; he continues by saying that her tweets are also a reflection upon her husband. I will give him the latter. A. Curry’s tweets have an equal reflection on her husband just as Steph Curry’s words and actions reflect on his wife. But we don’t have an episode of “First Take” on the effect of Steph throwing his mouth guard and hitting a fan on Ayesha’s culinary career. Referring to A. Curry’s remarks as “incendiary” is an exaggeration. She exercised her right to her own opinion, but according to Smith, in doing so she stepped out of line. This is where the direction of the conversation becomes most important: it could have been one about the public’s acceptance of family members’ outspokenness against leagues that they directly benefit from (even this is an incredibly slippery slope, and one that likely wouldn’t have been brought up if the gender roles in this story were reversed). Instead, Smith specifically moves to acceptable behavior of wives.
Smith continues his assessment of the situation not with alternate examples of family members speaking out against the league employing their relations, but instead with further proselytizing. He says of A. Curry: “She stepped out of line, she stepped out of pocket…You are the wife of Steph Curry. What you do is a reflection on him…you can’t get caught up in your own individual emotions, and having this zest to speak out.” In saying this, Smith attempts to silence A. Curry. He invalidates her voice and her opinions solely due to the status of her husband. Since her husband is in such spotlight, Smith believes that A. Curry should refrain from acting as she would otherwise and belittles and shames her for standing by her opinion. Smith tries to take away A. Curry’s accomplishments as well as her ability to think freely.
And for those who watched the clip and heard statements like the one mentioned above, but didn’t think about its implications, I hope to elucidate how Smith’s comments are damaging. Earlier, I agreed with Smith’s opinion that Ayesha’s actions reflect on her husband, but I’m also pointing out the absence of the inverse. I can see how one could latch onto pieces of Smith’s words like “you can’t get caught up in your own individual emotions” and think about how an athlete’s emotions have to be kept in check, so their family members’ should be as well. Or when one see “you are the wife of Steph Curry,” one thinks about the responsibility of such a title rather than understand that the opposite is rarely, if ever, applied (no one is talking about “the husband of Kim Kardashian” staying in line). Where one might see responsibility, I see chains. But still, I can imagine this thought process, and that is exactly why I wanted to write this piece. Because I can see how these words are heard and not considered carefully, so I want to offer my perspective in the hopes that anyone can see how this kind of language and these kinds of opinions are what keep women silent who would not be otherwise. Their impact, on the larger, real-world scale, is massive.
Now, Ayesha’s actions seem outrageous, and her complaints unnecessary. Therefore, her opinion altogether must be unnecessary.
Eventually, Smith diverts completely. He goes on to bring in S. Curry’s mom, saying that the way she acts during games is “a little extra,” and compares her without prompt to LeBron James’s mother and to James’s wife. Suddenly, Smith crafts a battle between Ayesha Curry and Savannah James. He compares their looks, their countenances, and their personalities around the court. To Smith, the ideal woman is Savannah James because she “sits there, doesn’t bring any attention to herself. She never tweets…she thinks about how she represents [her husband].” Without realizing it, Smith details the action that will result from his own vernacular. Savannah James becomes his pedestal for acceptable wife-like behavior, praising her without cause for her beauty, her silence, and her perceived subservience. Not only do these labels also take away the agency S. James deserves, but they provide a stark comparison to A. Curry. Now, Ayesha’s actions seem outrageous, and her complaints unnecessary. Therefore, her opinion altogether must be unnecessary.
In the span of less than 5 minutes, Smith demotes two incredible women to wives, one of them commended for staying silent at that. Keep in mind this video still has 8 more minutes to go, and it gets worse from there. My point is this: these comments will appear one of two ways. Either one sees the danger in what Smith says or one hears his words and doesn’t think much about it. Sure, she tweeted some things, maybe she shouldn’t have said it, but it’s just another day and another episode of “First Take.”
To those who fall into the latter category, I’m speaking directly to you. I’ve come to realize that the older I get, the more observant I become. Now I’m seeing just how deeply ingrained our expectations are, no matter how different they may be from person to person. The unspoken expectation that others look and act the way we want them to puts us all on a dangerous path to massive misunderstanding, and by extension: ignorance. These misunderstandings are what put us into groups and what put barriers where there should be windows. They are what lead to the kind of oppression that you don’t usually notice until you are the one being oppressed.
When you don’t notice what’s actually being done with words, you are in danger of those misaligned expectations. Smith’s words attempt to take away A. Curry’s agency; he expects her to stay silent due to the status and position of her husband. If one doesn’t pause to question Smith’s expectation of Ayesha, one’s expectations become aligned with his, no matter how misguided his may be. This is where the misunderstanding begins, and how people watching a random episode of “First Take” might grow up subconsciously believing that the wives of athletes, and maybe even wives altogether, should be silent, lest they smudge their husbands’ reputations. And for the girls who watched the episode, another tile in the ceiling that they will come to know has just been put into place. In seeing this they think: stay silent, be beautiful, be “adorable,” throughout your life. Be supportive, be subservient.
To which I say, take that expectation and throw it into the crowd like Steph Curry’s mouth guard.