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Serena Williams is dressing as a queen who’s come to kick butt

She’s part of a tradition of African-Americans laying claim to royal titles

Serena Williams has been ruling over her sport for nearly two decades, but ahead of and during this summer’s US Open, Williams is enthusiastically stepping into her status as a queen.

In a new ad for Beats headphones, Williams appears dressed in a navy blue floor-length gown, complete with puffed sleeves, bejeweled embroidery and a crown reminiscent of the one Queen Ramonda, played by Angela Bassett, wore in Black Panther.

When she appeared at an event for one of her sponsors last week, Williams wore a cropped hoodie from her own collection that spelled the word “ROYAL” across her chest.

“I’m clearly not royalty, but maybe in a different world, in a different [dimension] … maybe in a different life, I was,” Williams said Wednesday at a postmatch news conference after her second-round victory over Carina Witthoeft of Germany. “I think everyone deserves to think the best of themselves and put the best of themselves on the highest platform. And I feel like royalty is that highest platform that’s still reasonable, that’s not getting into sacrilege.”

Williams is not the only high-profile black woman to lay claim to a metaphorical throne. She follows in the footsteps of her friend Beyoncé and rapper Missy Elliott.

But her gracious handling of questions about the French Open banning her “Wakanda-inspired catsuit,” as well as her decision to use fashion as a means of communication, recall a different side of royalty, namely, the political acumen of Queen Elizabeth I.

All three have used the style and silhouette of Queen Elizabeth I to inform their own permutations of stature. And they’ve all echoed one of Elizabeth’s most significant likenesses: the Armada Portrait, painted after the English thwarted an attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada in 1588.

When Elizabeth assumed the throne three decades earlier, she took on the burden of leadership in a notoriously patriarchal society. She was surrounded by men who were constantly trying to marry her off in hopes of ensuring Britain’s global security. She lived through an assassination attempt, and with the knowledge that the Catholic church despised her. Despite her position, Elizabeth had to assent to monthly gynecological exams to confirm that her nether regions had not been breached. To wield power, Elizabeth had to soothe the egos of men by letting them think that her ideas were actually theirs. Behold, a 16th-century Woman in a Meeting.

Elizabeth’s awareness of her stature and how it was complicated by her gender comes across best in her Speech to the Troops at Tilbury. That’s the one where she tells troops about to fight the Spanish Armada that “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.”

Translation: Look, I know you don’t like being bossed around by some fancy lady in silver armor, but I’ve got the spirit of my murderous, wife-executing dad. Now let’s go kick some Spanish butt.

Like Williams after her, Good Queen Bess proved her mettle by winning. Elizabeth’s Armada Portrait wasn’t just a painting of a queen kitted out in expensive clothes. It was the equivalent of an Elizabethan Instagram post announcing certifiable geopolitical power. It lives on through various interpretations as a representation of triumphant female power in a way that images of, say, Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba (a 17th-century queen in the area of modern Angola) have not, despite the fact that their lives briefly overlapped. Elizabeth had that smoke.

In the Beats ad, Williams, 36, forgoes the ruff and the corset but retains Elizabeth’s silhouette, with a dress open to reveal the layers of petticoats that give it its shape. She establishes herself as royalty in the way her friends and contemporaries Beyoncé (age 36) and Meghan Markle (age 37) have both figuratively and literally. But she puts her own stamp on it too.

Standing in the middle of a New York street, Williams is a modern “Queen of Queens.” (Flushing Meadows, where the US Open takes place, is in the borough of Queens.)

There’s a long history of African-Americans claiming honorifics for themselves, especially after the Civil War, when Prince, Master and King became common names for black boys. Alex Haley immortalized his grandmother, Queen Jackson Haley, in his novel Queen: The Story of an American Family and later in the CBS miniseries Alex Haley’s Queen. It’s a trend that wanes at times, but it’s never been fully extinguished. The lead actress from the 2015 movie The Fits, Royalty Hightower, shares a first name with Chris Brown’s 4-year-old daughter. And well, no one’s ever going to forget Jermaine Jackson’s son, Jermajesty.

During the height of Afrocentrism popularity in the 1990s (which itself was a resurgence of ’70s-style Afrocentrism), it was common to refer to black people as King, Queen, Nubian Queen, Black Nubian Princess, etc. Afrocentrism met hip-hop. See also: Queen Latifah. Later in the decade, neo-soul artists such as Erykah Badu, Angie Stone, Jill Scott and Lauryn Hill deployed such honorifics without irony. Eventually, the verbiage took on a bit of mold and became a way to identify (and avoid) hoteps.

Themes of regality are cyclical in black culture, and Queen Bey, Serena, Janelle Monáe and even the FX drama Pose are ushering in another era of it. Beyoncé has repeatedly employed the use of royal imagery, even before she named one of her twins Sir. The visual references to Elizabeth occur in the video she used to promote the Mrs. Carter Show World Tour back in 2013. Since then, she’s incorporated Nefertiti and the orisha Oshun in the film that accompanied the release of Lemonade, itself an affirmation of the resilience of black women. It’s no coincidence that Williams herself appears alongside Beyoncé in the video for “Sorry,” one queen twerking while the other is perched on a throne.

In the pilot episode of Pose, a group of impoverished street urchins robs a museum of jewels, crowns and robes to make a fabulous splash at that week’s drag ball. The costuming of royalty serves as wings, momentarily lifting them out of the Dickensian circumstances of their real lives. On “Crazy, Classic, Life,” from her latest album Dirty Computer, Monáe sings, “We don’t need another ruler/all of my friends are kings.”

Williams made a clear fashion statement Monday night at Flushing Meadows, when she beat Poland’s Magda Linette, 6-4, 6-0, in a black asymmetrical tutu designed by Virgil Abloh, the current artistic director of Louis Vuitton (Abloh is the first black designer to hold the position). The name of Abloh’s collection for Nike? QUEEN.

When Williams jetted across the court to return a shot or twirled in celebration, the tulle of the skirt would billow out. Her legs were supported with compression fishnet tights. Wednesday night, she wore the same get-up in periwinkle blue. She’ll face her big sister Venus in the third round Friday.

“What I love about tennis is the gracefulness,” Abloh told Harper’s Bazaar. “It’s an aggressive and powerful game, but it takes touch and finesse. So the dress is feminine, but combines her aggression.”

Unlike the Armada silhouette, tulle is commonly associated with princesses, and girliness, and so it provides a high-profile reminder of Williams’ femininity, which is constantly under attack. But the tutu also fits in with previous messages Williams has sent about gender, including the video she made for Glamour magazine in which she pelts a man yelling sexist insults with tennis balls launched from that magnificent serve of hers.

“You’re pretty talented — for a girl,” the heckler shouts before Williams nails him with a satisfying THUD.

The tutu offers a way to go to work while reveling in femininity as a source of strength and pride rather than a weakness that has to be hidden or overcome. And given the sexism Williams and other female athletes still face, it’s a message that’s still necessary.

Queens like Elizabeth I gained their power by the luck of being born into it.

Now, when the primary justification for monarchy is tradition and pageantry, women such as Beyoncé, Elliott and Williams rightfully claim crowns for themselves. They know no one else is simply going to hand it to them.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.