Serena Williams reached the women’s singles finals of Wimbledon last weekend but lost in straight sets to Angelique Kerber. By all accounts, it was a much-deserved win for the German player, who secured her first Wimbledon victory in style. Williams, while clearly disappointed, was also delighted for Kerber, and openly congratulated her on the grass after her win. Still, that didn’t stop the near instantaneous media reaction of ‘Sad Serena’ photographs illustrating Kerber’s win, as well as endless chat about the end of a supposed fairy-tale that was Williams’ post-baby comeback.
Williams, one of the most celebrated athletes of all time, has spent her career being tossed between the polar opposites of blatant dismissal and blinding deification, and neither option is especially helpful. Either she is maligned, and her skills denied, or she is pushed as a fairy-tale of mythic proportions with the expectations of the world on her shoulders. More often than not, she’s been someone the tennis world can sneer at: A muscled black woman with lots of hair who wears unconventional clothes on the green, dominates her competition, and shows emotion in public. When she wins, usually against lithe white women with blonde hair, she’s called ‘angry’ or compared to a beast or subjected to smears of being a man in disguise. When she loses, every achievement she’s ever earned is put up for debate because obviously the fairy-tale is over. Half the time, she’s forced into the villain role in her own fairy-tale, as the media try to push ineffectual competitors as rivals (looking at you, Maria Sharapova).
After the Wimbledon final, Williams’ husband, tech investor and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, took to Instagram with a short post in praise of his wife. He reminded fans of how it had only been ten months since the birth of their daughter and the emergency surgery Williams underwent after doctors spent too long dismissing her pain. It’s an incredibly sweet post, the kind of romantic affirmation you see a lot of on social media from celebrities and Joe Schmoes alike. Yet this is also the default mode of Ohanian. I’ve never seen a public figure so relish the role of trophy husband, and to watch it unfold is a true joy.
Ohanian is an immensely successful figure who, on top of Reddit, co-founded the start-up investor Initialized, which he notes in his Instagram bio has $20bn in market value so far. He’s a best-selling author and frequently advises government in both America and Armenia on tech issues. It’s easy enough to find video of him talking about all these issues with zeal, but seldom does he look more animated and prouder than when he’s asked about being Mr. Serena Williams.
Days after our baby girl was born, I kissed my wife goodbye before surgery and neither of us knew if she would be coming back.— Alexis Ohanian Sr. 🚀 (@alexisohanian) July 14, 2018
We just wanted her to survive—10 months later, she's in the #Wimbledon final.@serenawilliams will be holding a trophy again … https://t.co/W3eJQoHkTj pic.twitter.com/anN4dFr7O9
He’s also not afraid to let everyone know just how much he adores his wife. Every interview, Serena is mentioned, and he’s only too happy to talk about why he not only loves her but respects her as a professional figure. His Instagram is full of photos of the two of them together - often joined by their daughter, although she has her own account for further cute - where he proclaims her beauty, her talents, her dominance over the sport she’s made her own, and reminders to the world that yes, she is the #GOAT (his hashtag, not mine). On Twitter, he furthers this by responding to other users who ask about his life as Mr. Williams, something he does with unabashed joy. He even bought four billboards outside Palm Springs to announce his love for her as the ‘greatest momma of all time’ when she returned to tennis. Usually, I cringe at super public displays of affection like this because it tends to say more about the person giving it than the one receiving it. However, I can never doubt Ohanian’s sincerity. The dude means it and it is fucking adorable.
One of? https://t.co/vgPgoQZtBb— Alexis Ohanian Sr. 🚀 (@alexisohanian) July 12, 2018
Being a trophy wife is never positioned as a truly interesting or honourable thing. It’s a dismissive term applied to women, regardless of their intentions in coupling up with a man who is older, richer or both. Trophies, after all, are designed to be decorative and to be won. They are status symbols, pretty and silent and, if you’re lucky, you’ll get more than one in your lifetime. Everyone has an idea in their minds of what a ‘trophy wife’ looks like: Usually glamorous, young or working to stay young, adorned in expensive things, and silent. They don’t tend to be accomplished or ambitious in our image of them.
There’s also the flipside of when famous or highly visible heterosexual couples are made up of two accomplished people in their own right. Societally, we still have a hard time seeing women as the breadwinners, much less so if they aren’t white. If the woman is the more famous or powerful half, the ‘ballbuster’ jokes seem inevitable, as people struggle to imagine a scenario where a man is comfortable with the woman he loves being a bigger deal. How can he be okay with not being the cock-swinging alpha provider? What state is his masculinity in? We see this narrative unfold all the time: From Bill Clinton to Brad Pitt to Chris Pratt before he became the bigger deal in his marriage to Anna Faris. Both of these stereotypes confirm one thing about how our society still views relationships: Women are the accessories, men are the providers.
That’s what makes Alexis Ohanian’s proud ownership of his trophy husband status so remarkable and radical. He’s absolutely loving being Serena Williams’ arm candy! He’s a rich white dude who enthusiastically takes second place to his black wife, a woman who has faced public scrutiny and bullying for almost her entire career. He’s happy to talk about his own achievements but he’ll always position Serena’s first, reminding everyone through his giddy positivity that they’ve slept on her majesty for far too long. A trophy husband comparison isn’t entirely accurate given his own accomplishments, but that’s perhaps part of the reason a trophy husband trope can never be truly identical to a trophy wife trope: Even the most decorative male partner still requires some capital.
Still, Ohanian’s presence as the guy to the side of and sometimes behind Serena Williams is one of the things that’s made him so utterly charming to the world. His puppy-dog boyishness makes him self-aware enough to know he’s never the star of the show, whether Serena is there or not. It’s obviously great PR for him too. I doubt he’d be invited onto talk-shows as regularly as he is if he weren’t married to Serena, and very little of the negative pushback Reddit has faced over the years has landed on him.
Ohanian is currently campaigning for paid maternity and paternity leave in America, as well as taking ownership of his newfound public image as a working father. While he posts selfies with Alexis Jr., he fights back against the notion that he’s special for doing the basic requirements of parenthood, like feeding his kid. This is another side to the trophy husband that makes Ohanian so easy to root for: Not only does he own being the plus-one of his wife, but he proudly wears the mantle of father and encourages people to not see it as something unique. He shares the labour as all marriages should, but in patriarchy, even the greatest athlete alive is supposed to pack it all in once the baby arrives. As both Williams and Ohanian noted, she’s just getting started.
Ohanian isn’t really a trophy husband, although it is fun to give him that label and I’m reasonably sure he’d be cool with it. What he is, is a loving husband and father who seems to see marriage as it should be: A partnership on equal terms. Sometimes, that means he takes a few steps back and does the often-invisible work of running a family, and other times, he’s the ultimate cheerleader because that’s what’s needed. Really, most of what he is doing is the absolute minimum one should expect from a partner, but he remains worth celebrating because there’s something to be said about a guy who understands all that and lets the world know about it. Serena Williams deserves the best, and with Alexis Ohanian, she seems to have a partner who works to achieve that. The world denied Williams’ greatness for too long: At least her husband is working to fix that.
(Photograph of Serena Williams and Alexis Ohanian at the premiere of HBO’s Being Serena courtesy of Getty Images.)