Relationships

The Very Public Love of Serena Williams and Alexis Ohanian

The two are extremely good at performing their happy relationship online. Why do they do it?

Alexis Ohanian and Serena Williams with text and hearts and Hearts and Stars logo

Hearts and Stars is Slate’s pop-up blog about celebrity relationships.

The day before Serena Williams was scheduled to play in the women’s final of this year’s U.S. Open, the match Williams would go on to lose after a controversial confrontation with the umpire, Williams’ husband, Reddit founder and tech entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian, posted a tribute video to social media. “Help me make sure she sees it!” he wrote, as if he were just another adoring fan and not someone who shares a life with Williams and can presumably show her anything he wants, whenever he wants.

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Ohanian is prone to these kinds of public displays of affection. In February, he put up a series of billboards on a highway near a tournament in Indian Wells, California, to welcome his wife back to tennis after she took time off to give birth to the couple’s daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr.

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There was also the time Williams wanted Italian food, so Ohanian flew them to Venice (and, naturally, posted about this smooth move on Instagram). Though these actions are objectively romantic—they feel straight out of a rom-com, in fact—they also play as strangely performative, like Ohanian is the too-good-to-be-true Justin Trudeau of tennis spouses. Why would Ohanian include the whole world in his overtures to his wife if not because he craves praise for absolutely killing it at the feminist-husband game?

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To be fair, Williams may not be the one setting up a drone to record the couple’s life together—that’s Ohanian—but she sometimes participates in turning their marriage into the stuff of #RelationshipGoals. On Instagram, she has posted about Selexis Day, a made-up annual holiday in which the two celebrate their relationship and treat each other.

And together, the two run the social media accounts for their baby daughter. Olympia is Twitter-verified—a status she achieved even though Twitter claimed verification was suspended at the time—and has been on Instagram since shortly after her birth. Each post is written in the voice of Olympia herself, though the account description usefully clarifies that this baby cannot actually write: “Everything here is from Mama (@SerenaWilliams) and Papa (@AlexisOhanian).” All of this is somewhat confusing from a narrative perspective: Even though Williams and Ohanian admit outright that they write the posts themselves, they also sometimes comment on them anyway as if they didn’t!? In response to one caption that reads, “#TBT when u was young” (temporarily suspending the from-Olympia’s-point-of-view conceit), Williams commented, “My love. U are still young,” and Ohanian added, “My baby nerd.”

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And not only do Mom and Dad run an account for Olympia, which has racked up about 489,000 followers, but they also run one for Olympia’s put-upon baby doll, Qai Qai (“Daughter of @olympiaohanian, Granddaughter of @serenawilliams & @alexisohanian,” its bio reads), which has a more modest but still impressive 27,700 followers. The only other celebrity spawn I can think of who has this large an online footprint is DJ Khaled’s son, Asahd, he of the 2 million Instagram followers, executive producer credit on his father’s most recent album, and Kids Foot Locker collaboration, all before the age of 2.

The Williams-Ohanian family lifestyle is, unsurprisingly, a luxe one, and they don’t pretend otherwise. In addition to the aforementioned impromptu trips to Europe, a perusal of their oeuvre yields Instagram captions like this one: “ ‘I can buy her ANYTHING but her fav is anything fisher price. Can anyone else relate?’ Olympias mom” “What is the rich-people alternative to Fisher-Price?” is a thought I’ve never had before, and I have to admit I sometimes roll my eyes when people with endless resources share these kinds of “relatable” moments. But it’s also hard not to admire the way Serena Williams is modeling motherhood with refreshing candor. She does have endless resources, and a supportive partner, and yet motherhood is still a struggle for her: She suffered from serious blood clots after her pregnancy, and she has posted about how hard she finds it to balance her grueling practice schedule with her desire to spend time with her daughter.

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Williams is the ultimate powerful woman, and, thanks to the cliché that men don’t want to be with women who are more successful than they are, it’s nice to see her with a partner who, despite being a (lesser) hotshot himself, seems happy to take a back seat to her career. By the crude math that we use to judge couples, it sure seems like they both won—or at least, Williams and Ohanian are very good at reassuring us of this. On the whole, the Williams-Ohanian family’s online content is extremely cute, but it also feels like a pretty baroque and labor-intensive domestic charade.

This gets to the heart of what’s fascinating about the two’s very public performance of marriage and parenthood: What exactly are they trying to prove? Williams has more money than she could ever need, and Ohanian has millions of his own. So why are they so intent on packaging their family life into social media–friendly morsels of content? It’s true that the work of building a brand is never done—maybe the more perfect Williams’ personal life looks, the more endorsement dollars she’ll be able to get Nike to cough up. Maybe Williams and Ohanian are hoping to burnish their public personas in preparation for whatever comes after tennis. Or maybe it’s cynical to consider the financial upsides, and this is just what it looks like to fall in love and start a family with a fellow cajillionaire who just so happens to have built his fortune on the social internet. What makes this question so endlessly compelling is that we’ll never really know.

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