Reports of Black women hating on Gabby Douglas’s hair have been greatly exaggerated.
Articles claiming that Black women have fixated on Gabby’s hair have sparked the usual discussion about White beauty norms, hair politics, and internalized racism. But is it really Black women who are obsessed with Gabby Douglas’ hair, or the media?
The idea that sisters are paying “more attention [to Gabby’s hair] than her gold medal[s]” is exactly the image of dysfunctional, belligerent Black women that the media loves. In the understandable rush to defend Gabby from critics, we’ve overlooked that this narrative is being pushed by racist, sexist media that can’t be trusted to report accurately on Black women’s opinions on just about anything. There’s very little evidence that hair is a priority when it comes to Black women’s feelings about Gabby Douglas.
This story can be traced back to one blog post, quoting all of three disparaging comments, that Jezebel slapped a few more tweets on as proof of a trend. Everyone from NPR to the LA Times has since weighed in, all seemingly basing their analysis on the Jezebel piece and a small sample of tweets. Outlets have specifically searched for negative tweets about Gabby, probably overlooking many more celebratory comments. We should question whether the coverage reflects an actual trend, or confirmation bias creating a news story out of a few isolated fools being mean on the internet. It’s possible that the real viral story here is the original piece and the media furor it’s spawned.
So why has American media so eagerly seized on hair anxieties as a major part of Gabby’s story? The rapid spread of this myth is an example of how new and social media increasingly drive content and conversation in traditional media. As sociology scholar Tressie McMillan Cottom notes, this has particularly disturbing implications for girls and women of color. Sites focused on generating buzz, high traffic, and viral content often rely on the “reckless abuse of Black folks ([especially] women) to drive web traffic.”
Traffic-obsessed blogs often truck in sensationalistic racism and sexism, or equally sensationalist reports of such, to get hits. As journalists increasingly treat often dubious “trending topics” and viral posts as sources, even news in themselves, marginalized groups like Black women become convenient and profitable fodder for “hot” stories.
Gabby’s MVP role in the U.S. women’s team gold was noticeably overlooked by media. The criticism of Express Out, which didn’t mention Gabby once in its coverage of the team win, was such that staff took to Twitter to explain that the omission was “a mistake, not intentional.” Commentators who bothered to mention Gabby before her all-around triumph often framed her as undisciplined and unreliable, especially in comparison to all-around favorite Jordyn Wieber. This is despite the fact that Gabby outperforming Wieber several times this year, and earning the highest score at Olympic trials and qualifiers. Even now, journalists continue to unfavorably compare her discipline and focus to White gymnasts like Shawn Johnson. All of the pushback on these narratives has come from Black women.
Coverage of Gabby’s family has been even worse. CS Monitor’s Lisa Suhay implied that Gabby is an over-ambitious, disloyal brat whose mother, Natalie Hawkins, abandoned her parental responsibilities and may be unable to provide Gabby with a stable home life, because she is disabled, divorced, and has struggled financially. Suhay disparaged Hawkins for “[giving her] responsibility” to support and raise Gabby “to a stranger” – but in her very next column praised the father of John Orozco, another US gymnast who trains far from his family, as an exemplary parent.
Most recently, Gabby’s family has been subjected to muckraking “journalism” about her mother’s bankruptcy filings, complete with details of who her creditors are, in another case of reputable news outlets turning to questionable sources (specifically, the AP citing a TMZ investigation into Hawkins’ finances). Others have made erroneous statements that Gabby lives with “foster parents” and has an “absent father.”
What all of these stories have in common with the hair fiasco is that they reveal the media’s appetite for negative portrayals of Black femininity and, per Cottom, its inability to “accommodate [a] narrative…of a [woman of color] being extraordinary.” Now that Gabby’s excellence is so proven that it can’t be ignored, the media has latched on to a manufactured controversy that conveniently distracts from her accomplishments. Some in the media have preferred to portray Gabby’s family as “broken” and mismanaged by an inadequate Black mother.
It’s no coincidence that hair, one of the most visible markers and symbols of Black women’s difference in a White-dominated culture, has become a focal point of Gabby’s story. The media must forever make an issue of our difference, even in moments of triumph, but never in a way that engages with critical analysis of power and oppression. We’d rather focus on Olympians’ finances than on the fact that the U.S. is virtually alone in denying government funding to Olympic hopefuls – forcing middle-class athletes away from home and to the brink of poverty to achieve their Olympic dreams. Media erasure of swimmer Cullen Jones, the latest “controversy” over Serena Williams’ celebratory crip-walk, and sexist attacks on Lolo Jones are just the most recent examples of how Black athletes at the top of their game are never allowed to simply be great.
But instead of talking about this, we’re talking about hair, and as a result, the much more significant story of Black girls and women celebrating Gabby and pushing back on racism and sexism in the coverage of her has been lost.
T.F. Charlton is the social media manager for Barnacle Studios and a Boston-based freelance writer. Her work has been featured in Alternet, Racialicious, and Dominion of New York. Follow her on twitter at @graceishuman.