From the beginning of her Olympic moment in London this summer, gymnast Gabby Douglas emanated strength and stamina in her athletic endeavors and in her budding relationship to the media. She fielded questions, even invasive ones, with intelligence and poise. Not only has she been a bold role model for aspiring young gymnasts, she has proven an able ambassador for the United States abroad. Douglas is the first African American gymnast to win a gold medal in her sport at the Olympics, she is also one of the youngest gymnasts ever to boast such an accomplishment.
That is why there was so much surprise and indignation when the blogosphere and the American tabloid media began to focus not on Douglas’ substantive achievements but rather on an issue that was, as Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart put it “of almost no practical concern”—her hair. Within moments of Olympic coverage beginning for Women’s gymnastics, bloggers began to notice that Douglas’ hair was “strange,” or “wild and untamed,” and quickly commentary exploded over the implications of her hairstyle. Feministing.com noted that “much of the feedback on Douglas’ hair dealt with the racial and class implications of different African American hairstyles.”
Douglas shrugged off the scrutiny and made a point of simplifying the issue. If her hair didn’t get in her way during the complicated routines she performed, it was just fine. In a Huffington Post interview the gymnast is quoted as saying “Wait… I just made history and all you want to talk about is my hair?!”
Later she made her frustration even clearer: “my hair is not going to change anytime soon, you may as well stop talking about it.” While the fascination with Douglas’ personal life does not stop with unsolicited comments about her appearance, (multiple interviews have pried Douglas into discussing her “deadbeat dad”) the vast of majority of commentary in print and online media have harped on her hair.
Yet for every disparaging comment on Twitter and for every snide remark on various fashion blogs, the media seems to have done something peculiar: rallied around the young gymnast. Indignation has trumped cattiness, and cohorts of celebrities, online magazines and bloggers have emerged to defend and support Douglas. Beyoncé Knowles posted a congratulatory video on her website. Gabrielle Union pointed out, via Twitter, how silly it would be for Douglas to straighten hair during a sporting event. Serena Williams wrote a letter sympathizing with Douglas and recalling scrutiny surrounding her braids when she was young tennis player. Glamour ran an article applauding Douglas for “not giving a crap what anyone thinks.” Not only did Douglas make it clear that her appearance was not a primary concern for her, her mother immediately fired back at the criticism. “Are you trying to ruin her self esteem?” asked Natalie Hawkins to a curious reporter inquiring about her daughter. While Douglas has proven publicly resilient to such unfair criticism, her story is only one component of a larger dynamic: general coverage of the Olympics, in all media formats, has been disproportionately focused on female bodies.
In addition to experiencing seriously gendered scrutiny during her time at the Olympics, Gabby Douglas has also in recent weeks fallen victim to not-very-subtle racially motivated inquiries. Focus on her “deadbeat father” and her mother’s bankruptcy have been commonplace in interviews and news coverage, even with non-tabloid media. Yet pinpointing this racialization is trickier than discussing the blatant sexism of Douglas’ hair critics, and Douglas and her family have been less quick to call out improper questions about her family or her father’s role in her life.
While it is more complex to pinpoint the racialized and problematic coverage of the Douglas family during the Olympics, it is worth doing. Few other families would be the focus of such financial and personal scrutiny, and while Douglas’ achievements certainly outshine the dampening news coverage she has received, American media appear to have some maturing ahead of them.