In her two Olympic appearances, Gabby Douglas has ignited much discussion, both for her accomplishments and for what others perceive as her less-than qualities.
On the very shallow end, we have the comments made about her edges—which, when you have a certain texture of natural hair, no matter how much you brush them or gel them down, when you are sweating and working out, they will bead up. This harks back to a false reality precipitated by the commercialization of the natural-hair movement, in which the golden standard is silky natural hair with edges that can be laid down with a toothbrush and gel, when most black women have hair that reacts just as Gabby Douglas’ does, and we are shamed into hiding or relaxing it.
On a much deeper level, the comments made about Douglas' personality as it starkly contrasts with that of the very cute and bubbly Simone Biles harks back to old, degrading stereotypes of black women. There is the presumption that the only acceptable type of black woman is the one who is always benevolent and overly positive. That she needs to be soft and feminine with every vulnerability. Douglas has been stripped of her right to emote. The criticisms were also there in 2012, though not as intense. She has consistently been someone who appears to be deep in thought during competition.
Gymnastics is a sport of privilege. And as most things very white and very girly, the faux giddiness is overt. There is no peek into behind the scenes, where the top gymnastic coaches, like Bela and Marta Karolyi, have been noted for their harsh training style. We have no understanding of how Douglas reacts or what she absorbs there. No consideration for how she is a team player when it matters most, without the cameras flashing in her face, and possibly she is just not a reactionary person, especially as she works through a multitude of intense emotions.
This is not a Little League softball game; the Olympics is an intense amount of emotional stress. The media made light of the moment when Mckayla Maroney screwed her face up on the podium during the 2012 London Olympics, but held Douglas to an unfair standard because she appeared tense. It's in the same way that the media softly handles the missteps of Melania Trump while castrating Michelle Obama as the aggressive (“strong”) black woman. How many times this year have we tiredly questioned, “Now what if Obama did that?” We know all too well the double standard that is set against black people. But somehow we’ve slipped and allowed that discord to be placed on Douglas.
It’s not to say that Gabby Douglas, or any of us, can’t work on exuding more positivity, but it is to say that calling her out of her name as "Crabby Gabby" or levying negative assumptions on her is unfair and a microaggression that black women face on a daily basis as we are shamed into being fearful of the "angry black woman" stereotype. Somehow, we are constantly pushed into the box of being the happy Christian black women, who are allowed none of the nuance of human emotions.
In 2012 Douglas was a slightly chubby-cheeked teenager, at the peak age of performance for Olympic gymnastics. She was winning and ostensibly happy, but still an intensely concentrated performer. Quite different from Biles, who always appears effervescent and jolly. Biles has ushered in a new style of gymnastics deserving of her own accolades, but not worth our falling into the age-old traps of pinning two black women against each other.