Serena Williams' GQ Woman of the Year Cover Ignites Backlash

GQ named Serena Williams its 2018 Woman of the Year on Monday, but found itself in hot water for a controversial design choice featured on the tennis superstar’s cover.

The magazine annually puts out a Men of the Year list for its December issue and started included women among its honorees in 2003. This year, the magazine released four covers — one with Williams and three others with Men of the Year Michael B. Jordan, Henry Golding and Jonah Hill.

On Williams’ cover, she stands confidently in a long-sleeve black turtleneck bodysuit. In the typeface, the word “Men” in “Men of the Year” is crossed out, with the word “Woman” scripted in handwritten font in its place — and put in quotation marks.

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Critics accused the magazine of mocking Williams, with some pointing out that GQ‘s previous Woman of the Year covers did not have the word in quotation marks.

Though GQ did not immediately responded to PEOPLE’s request for comment, Mick Rouse — a research manager for the magazine — said on Twitter that the cover was handwritten by Virgil Abloh of Off-White. The artist, who also designed Williams’ U.S. Open apparel, often styles words he writes in quotation marks.

Despite Rouse’s explanation, some people were still frustrated by the detail, considering Williams has previously spoken out about being called a man because of her muscular physique.

Last year, in an open letter on reddit, she wrote: “I’ve been called man because I appeared outwardly strong … It has been said I don’t belong in women’s sports — that I belong in men’s — because I look stronger than many other women do. (No, I just work hard and I was born with this baddass body and proud of it.)”

On Twitter Tuesday, one user wrote, “Considering the insults she’s dealt with over the years, one would think putting woman in quotation marks, @virgilabloh ‘thing’ or not, would spark controversy. Either way, there’s no keeping this woman down! @serenawilliams is a SUPER woman anyway!❤?”

“That context definitely helps,” said another. [But] it’s definitely off putting especially for an athlete who has been critiqued for not being womanly/not a real woman in all sorts of racist and problematic ways.”

Tweeted another: “I can’t believe no one at GQ thought perhaps with misogynistic and violent trans insults that Serena (and Venus) have dealt with for the last almost 20 years, to not put woman in quotation marks. Editorial rooms are a f—— disaster, all over this country. … I’m offended for her.”

Williams has yet to speak out about the controversy.

Earlier this month, Williams told Adweek she turns the often negative attention on her life and actions into something positive — for her, her fans and her businesses.

“I just feel like sometimes, for whatever reason, anything that I do gets amplified, and so I use it for my brand,” she told the publication for their Nov. 5 cover story, in which she was named their 2018 Brand Visionary. “I use it to promote messages that are affirmative, like ‘you are strong, brave, proud, great’ and all those things that I feel like I’m in a position to not only express playing tennis but can also be expressed in my fashion line and other products.”

In addition to being a professional athlete, Williams has launched her own fashion line called “Serena” and has collaborated with some of the biggest brands in the industry, from Nike to Puma to HSN. She is also an author, activist, and mom to 1-year-old daughter Alexis Olympia with husband and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.

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