In the history of the Olympics, we’ve witnessed a lot of faceplants. However, in the race for most embarrassing moment of London 2012, I think we already have a winner, and it wasn’t an athlete’s slip-up – rather, it was the colossal media fail when Natalie Hawkins, mother of gold-medal-bedecked 16-year-old gymnast Gabby Douglas, was called upon to publicly defend her daughter’s hair.
Douglas’s hair has, as many women of color have pointed out, become this competition’s most popular topic of tongue-wagging. It’s been described as “unkempt” and unbecoming. It’s styled, for the record, much like her teammates’: A ponytail or a bun, kept back with gel and clips. But hers has drawn a unique and very political focus.
Hawkins was invited to list the precise reasons why her daughter’s hair might be a little bit messy, many of which had to do with the fact that Douglas was, you know, doing gymnastics: “She has to keep her hair in a ponytail 28 – 30 hours a week. In gymnastics you’re tumbling around on your hair. You’re falling backwards on it. You’re doing ‘timers’ and your hair is constantly snagging on the mat, and for our hair that’s very detrimental. You’re going into foam pits – and any hair stylist will tell you that foam on African American hair is destructive.” She also pointed out that all this hair talk could have real consequences: “Are you TRYING to ruin her self confidence?”
This is pertinent. Prior to competition, women’s national team co-ordinator Martha Karolyi said that Douglas “lacked confidence and focus.” Now, she’s had to maintain both while living through what is probably every 16-year-old girl’s worst nightmare: competing against the best of her peers, in front of the entire world, while hundreds of people complain that they don’t like how she looks. That she’s been able to do this at all is a testament to her strength; that she’s been able to do it so well — becoming the first African American and first woman of color to win a gold medal in the individual all-around competition, and the first American to win both an individual and a team gold medal — is a testament to her extreme awesomeness.
It’s not just Douglas’s hair that has come under fire: Her pink leotard was criticized by FOX News for being unpatriotic. (A white teammate wore an identical pink leotard; this was not mentioned.) In media interviews with the “Fabulous Five” gymnasts, as Crunktastic at the Crunk Feminist Collective pointed out, Gabby gets a different kind of question. “Aly [Raisman, a white teammate] got asked questions about how excited she was, how she felt about her friend” — Jordyn Wieber, another white girl whose failure to make the team was cast as a tragedy — “but ultimately what this meant for her dreams. Douglas on the other hand received three questions about her shortcomings — her mistakes during the floor exercise, the belief among the coaching staff that she couldn’t handle the pressure, and her feelings about coming in ahead of her teammate (who presumably) deserved it more.”
She’s not the first black woman at the Olympics to experience racism. And that racism has sometimes prevented massively gifted women from receiving their due. In her excellent piece on Douglas, Anna Holmes pointed to French figure skater Surya Bonaly. Bonaly had moves that none of her competitors could match, including a backflip, landed on just one skate, which no skater in history had ever been able to do. But she never won an Olympic medal, and was frequently slighted in competition. In the 1993 World Championship, Oksana Baiul won the gold, “having,” says Wikipedia, “been outjumped and outspun by Bonaly but having received higher artistic impression scores.” Those subjective “artistic” scores were Bonaly’s downfall: Critics said her style was too “athletic,” and not graceful enough. Her personality was also criticized as “intimidating” and “defiant;” for instance, she had this wacky idea that she was unfairly losing competitions due to the judges’ prejudice. And when she did her famous backflip at the Olympics, she was disqualified. A backflip, you see, is landed on two blades rather than one, and is therefore not a real jump. Except that Bonaly’s backflip was landed on one blade. Which — again — no one else could do. Bonaly was cast as a scary, rebellious, unfeminine, “athletic” black woman, in a sport that’s all about frilly, implicitly white traditional femininity, and she was disqualified for making Olympic history.
These narratives cut along more than one line — if you’ll forgive me yet another excursion into figure skating history, the rivalry between “trashy,” violent, blue-collar Tonya Harding and “sophisticated,” “elegant,” Vera-Wang-clad Nancy Kerrigan was obviously about class. But as always, classism and racism are intertwined. As Ebony notes, unlike the other gymnasts, Gabby alone “has been subjected to muckraking ‘journalism’ about her mother’s bankruptcy filings, complete with details of who her creditors are.”
Douglas is so self-evidently talented that not even the media’s hungry attention on her mistakes and hair choices has been able to undermine her. But whether she’ll maintain her sense of self as critics try to cut her down is a pressing question. “I have an advantage because I’m the underdog and I’m black and no one thinks I’d ever win,” she said to the Times. “Well, I’m going to inspire so many people. Everybody will be talking about, how did she come up so fast? But I’m ready to shine.” Now, however, she’s asking a question that sounds more than a little despairing: “Really?!” Douglas reportedly asked her mother. “I won two gold medals and made history and my hair is trending?”
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.