By Kathleen McElroy
According to the media, black women used Twitter during the 2012 London Games to criticize the hair of Gabby Douglas as the gymnast became a pioneering gold medalist. This study outlines how Black Twitter was misinterpreted as the controversy reached mainstream media. The research identifies three frames that emerged from coverage: Black female commentators as authoritative arbiters; the supposed hair critics as the wrong class of black women; and Douglas as an innocent child whose salvation was to move away from blackness.
Twitter was part of the story of the 2012 London Olympics, with athletes making news with their tweets and the news media treating social media analytics as another form of competition (Haughney, 2012; Timpane, 2012; Ward, 2012; Wharton, 2012;). Still, an unexpected spotlight shone on Black Twitter, a virtual community of African-Americans and the content they produce and share on the microblogging site (Brock, 2012; Manjoo, 2010). Black Twitter became part of the narrative about gymnast Gabrielle Douglas, the 16-year-old African American who helped lead the United States to victory in the women’s team competition then surprisingly won the individual all-around gold, the first American and first black female to do so in one Olympics.
Watching her individual victory on tape delay afforded Black America the opportunity to use “a real-time medium (Twitter) to share spontaneous thoughts about a non-scripted event where most of us already know the outcome,” an Ebony columnist wrote. “Aside from some commentary about her hair, the ‘Tweeting About Gabby Douglas’ experience was also notable because it was almost completely devoid of Twitter’s lifeblood, snark” (Young, 2012). Casual observation suggested that positive, celebratory tweets far outnumbered negative posts (Charlton, 2012; Ruth, 2012; Young, 2012). But America soon learned that black women on Twitter had criticized Douglas’ hair, one of the Olympics’ top 10 Twitter controversies (Couch, 2012). Coverage of the controversy bewildered whites, who claimed they had not given any thought to Douglas’ hair. It disheartened many African Americans and placed the gymnast in the middle of a cultural struggle older than the modern Olympics—the trials and tribulations of black women’s hair.
Five years after Don Imus’ 2007 “nappy-headed hos” quip about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, this conflation of the highest-rated Olympics, black-on-black criticism, and new media captivated the country. As a Washington Post column noted: “Thanks to social media and Douglas’s stunning achievement … the family spat has spilled into a public forum, generating coverage from news organizations around the world” (Williams, 2012). Two days after Douglas had won the individual gold, the Los Angeles Times asked, “Why are people being mean to Gabby Douglas?” (La Tellier, 2012).
This framing study analyzed how that question became national news and who in the media was “being mean” to whom. Framing identifies the ways media organize texts around shared, salient principles (Reese, 2001). The frames emerging in news articles and in commentary during the hair controversy represent a confluence of longstanding racial, gendered, and class issues that were given new potency during the London Games’ multimediated popularity. This study addressed the significance of these issues through the theoretical lens of intersectionality, the examination of multiple, simultaneous modes of oppression (Nielsen, 2011). As theorized by Collins (2007), it includes black women’s resistance to intersecting oppressions like racism and sexism.
A qualitative textual analysis identified the frames. It examined 56 blog posts, articles, and commentaries written by bloggers, reporters, columnists, and academics; their work appeared in sports and on editorial pages, and on ethnic, sports, and women’s websites. In a week of coverage in early August, commentators across racial lines and across media overwhelmingly wondered: “Are some Black people so insecure with their place in the world that a tied back ponytail can set them into a tailspin?” (Burke, 2012).
African Americans were active Twitter users throughout the London Games. The tape-delay of Douglas’ all-around victory “became a victory lap, the type of collective celebration Black Twitter has never really experienced” (Young, 2012). The Busted Coverage blog chose the top NSFW (“not suitable for work”) Olympics tweets posted daily by black men.
Blacks comprise 13% of the United States population but a quarter of American Twitter users (Smith, 2011; Hargittai & Litt, 2011, Manjoo, 2010). One in 10 African-Americans on the web visits Twitter daily, double the rate of Latinos and nearly four times that of whites (Smith, 2011, p. 3). But African-Americans using Twitter is not the same as Black Twitter. Brock (2012) explains that Black Twitter can be understood “as a user-generated source of culturally relevant online content, combining social network elements and broadcast principles to share information” (p. 530). Because of ethnically comic discourse like that on Busted Coverage, non-blacks in mainstream media became fascinated with Black Twitter (Heffernan, 2011; Manjoo, 2010; Sicha, 2009). The term Black Twitter was coined in 2009 by a white writer on The Awl blog, who admitted: “I cannot keep quiet about my obsession with Late Night Black People Twitter, an obsession I know some of you other white people share, because it is awesome” (Sicha, 2009). A year later, a feature on Slate gave Black Twitter widespread exposure (Manjoo, 2010).
Brock (2012) has best conceptualized how Black Twitter functions as a public space and subject of the white gaze. Employing cultural technocultural discourse analysis, which focuses on “how culture shapes technologies” (p. 531), Brock considers Black Twitter a social public, “a community constructed through their use of social media by outsiders and insides alike” (p. 530). Black Twitter, as a cultural entity, “coalesced through the recognition of the unique practices of the group by in-group and out-group observers alike” (p. 545). The hallmark of Black Twitter is culturally oriented conversations organized by hashtags (e.g., #tweetingwhileblack), which are among Twitter’s most popular trending topics (Heffernan, 2011; Manjoo 2010,).
Hermida (2010) heralds Twitter “as a system that alerts journalists to trends or issues hovering under the news radar” and “a collective intelligence system that provides early warnings about trends, people and news” (p. 302). In that vein, Brock (2012) is particularly interested in whether Black Twitter is an appropriate cultural outlet. Because (Manjoo (2010) emphasized hashtags dedicated to comedic and celebrity themes, he was criticized for focusing only on a “subset” of Black Twitter (Higgin, 2010; Talbert, 2012).
In the way Byrne (2007) connects African-American interactivity on the web to a long history of physical social networking, some experts emphasize that Twitter allows African-Americans to organize their fictive relationships online, relationships not built of kin but of shared circumstances (Talbert, 2012). The retweet is similar “to the oral tradition of call and response, as well as passing messages through the community via word of mouth” (Talbert, 2012). Neal, Clarke, and Williams (2013) call social media the default medium for communication within the black community and see Twitter providing “the steady bass beat … with more portability and immediacy than ever before.”
In spite of Black Twitter’s accessibility, Nunley (2011) contends blacks today remain hesitant to speak “frankly in front of Whites or in the public sphere” (p. 2), preferring to steer conversations to such “hush harbors”—safe, black-only rhetorical spaces like barbershops. In asking “Are Twitter Trends the New Barbershop,” Higgin notes in his blog that “within the context of class struggle,” memes and hashtags that seem silly on the surface, like “#thingswesaytopolice” and “#blackmamaquotes,” function as “a coping mechanism and shared acknowledgment of political inequality, however slight or unconscious that intent may be” (2010). Twitter encourages performativity and creativity (Brock, 2012, p. 537). Florini (2013) asserts that “signifyin’ ”—an African-American rhetorical strategy that often includes irony and indirectness—“serves as a powerful resource for the performance of Black cultural identity on Twitter” (p. 223).
Higgin (2010) concludes that Twitter “seems to be fundamentally transforming the traditional safe physical space of the hush harbor,” making it suitable for scrutiny as a site of legitimate and racialized discourse. Crucially, this publicness takes place without Black Twitter showing any concern “with the mainstream gaze” (Brock, 2012, p. 534). Yet Brock emphasizes that “Black Twitter is best understood as a ‘public group of specific Twitter users’ rather than a ‘Black online public’ ”—that is, attributes of the group do not define that group (p. 545). While he did not cite a situation in which such a distinction had been lost, the Douglas hair controversy would provide such an example.
Decades of research have outlined how mediated sports maintain systems of domination through hegemonic practices. To Gramsci (1971), dominance is maintained not just through force but also with ideology that is deemed natural and logical by cultural productions like media and sports. For instance, sports media perpetuate black athletic superiority and American meritocracy (see Hardin, Dodd, Chance, & Walsdorf, 2004; Hoberman, 1997). They maintain hetero-normative patriarchy through magazine coverage (Davis, 1997), journalism textbooks (Hardin, Dodd, & Lauffer, 2006), and coverage of athletes (see Hardin, Kuehn, Jones, Genovese, & Balaji, 2009; Eastman & Billings, 2000; Trujillo, 1991). But intersectionality gives dimension to hegemony by articulating “both/and perspectives” rather than “either/or perspectives” to understand where individuals can be situation in multiple systems of oppression (Cooky, Wachs, Messner, & Dworkin, 2010, p. 144). Given the communication field’s focus on group identity, Nielsen (2011) urges that more of its research adopt intersectional analysis:
Because intersectionality describes how marginalization is magnified where multiple forms of exclusion meet, studying only one form of exclusion, for example, gender, fails to engage women who also face other forms of exclusion (p. 7).
Intersectionality analyzes “signifiers of exclusion and domination work” in terms like race, class, and gender (Meyers, 2004, p. 96). Black feminist theorists see black women at the intersection of cultural and political structures of oppression (Collins, 2000; Crenshaw, 1991; Smith, 1998). But Smith (1998) and Byfield (2014) find this reading of intersectionality veering too closely to essentialism by an insistence on monolithic black female experience, especially when issues of class within the black community can be points of departure, not solidarity (Collins, 1997; Collins, 2000; Smith 1998). Still Smith (1998) believes reading discourse through intersectional analysis “can illuminate the diverse ways in which relations of domination and subordination are produced” (p. xxiii). Intersectionality explains how the mainstream and ethnic press employed different frames when Sonia Sotomayor was nominated for the Supreme Court (Nielsen, 2013) and the ways blacks were unfavorably framed by race, gender, and class during coverage of Atlanta’s “Freaknik” (Meyers, 2004).
Intersectional analysis is particularly useful for examining black female athletes, who face gendered and racialized stereotypes and often are portrayed in media and sports media “as both hyper-sexualized and less feminine” (Cooky, Wachs, Messner, & Dworkin, 2010, p. 143). Focusing solely on media representations of Douglas during the 2012 Summer Games, Carter-Francique (2014) employed intersectionality in finding that Douglas’ sacrifices were framed as a journey of empowerment, but her nickname, the Flying Squirrel, was exploitative, and the hair coverage centered on standards of beauty (2014).
In 2007, talk-show host Don Imus called the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappyheaded hos” after it lost the N.C.A.A. championship game. Intersectionality uncovers the roots of Imus’s racist, sexist and elitist description, as well as the media response to it. Male voices were preferred to criticize Imus, and the coverage chose to cast the Rutgers team as defenders of middle-class values to separate themselves from the underclass women with whom they had been compared (Cooky, Wachs, Messner, & Dworkin, 2010).
Black women’s hair.
Because of their hair texture, facial features, body shape, and skin tone, black women “are routinely defined by a specific set of grotesque caricatures that are reductive, inaccurate and unfair” (Jones & Shorter-Gooden, 2003, p. 3).
The Huffington Post noted that “Gabby’s hair is the latest mane to be caught in the crossfire” of this battle in which “kinky haired women are criticizing those who don’t embrace their natural texture. Women with relaxed hair are firing back to desperately defend their straightened locks” (Marques, 2012).
The 21st century black woman’s choice of hairstyle is still considered a political, rather than aesthetic, statement (Prince, 2009). Her hair, seen during athletic competition or a run to the supermarket, is subject to public critique: “The hair on a Black woman’s head is treated as if it is a separate entity from the rest of her body—she and her family treat it that way, and other Black people treat it that way” (Prince, 2009, p. 15). Good Hair, the 2009 documentary by comedian Chris Rock, gently mocked the relationship between black women and their hair; it was cited in seven analyzed articles, while four mentioned the Imus incident. During the Olympics, ESPN W featured hurdler Lolo Jones discussing the difficulties of balancing black hair maintenance and exercise (Andrews, 2012). A later ESPN W column criticized black women on social media for broaching the same subject about Douglas, calling them no better than Imus (Hill, 2012).
The news media remain significant in shaping, usually stereotypically, public consciousness about race (Campbell, LeDuff, Jenkins, & Brown, 2012; Entman & Rojecki, 2001; Gilens, 1996; Martindale, 1986). Whether explicit or implicit, racist or at least stereotypical discourse is often spread through frames that resonate with media audiences (Entman & Rojecki, 2001). Frames are “organizing principles that are socially shared and persistent over time, that work symbolically to meaningfully structure the social world” (Reese, 2001, p. 11, emphasis in original). Frames construct meaning through “emphasis, interpretation, and exclusion” (Carragee & Roefs, 2004, p. 217). To Hertog and McLeod (2001), frames are a cultural phenomenon with meaning beyond the text. Thus frames are more than themes and topics; they are crucial to identifying how power and ideology use texts to construct a social reality (Carragee & Roefs, 2004; Durham, 2001; Entman, 2010; Gitlin, 1980).
Framing identifies the ways mediated sports function to uphold dominant systems in society (Rowe, 2004). Frames of stereotypes reinforce racial ideology in sports and about sports figures on and off the court (Grainger, Newman, & Andrews, 2006). In 2007, the media used frames to shift blame from Imus and toward hip-hop (Cole & Jenkins, 2010) and to maintain a patriarchal, elitist perspective of the Rutgers controversy (Cooky, Wachs, Messner, & Dworkin, 2010). In 2012, the Gabby Douglas frames reveal how sports can set the stage for cultural meaning far from Olympic arenas.
The coverage of the Douglas controversy was examined though a textual analysis of print articles and columns, blog posts, and multimedia items from August 1, 2012, at the conclusion of the team gymnastics competition, through August 9, 2012, just after the end of Douglas’ Olympic competition. The articles, columns, multimedia and blog posts comprised the units of analysis, and they were read inductively and repeatedly to come up with the frames (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Previous research in intersectionality and framing has found textual analysis an appropriate method (Cooky, Wachs, Messner, & Dworkin, 2010; Meyers, 2007; Nielsen, 2013).
Reading content as text uncovers “the connotative as well as denotative meanings of language and imagery—what is suggested generally about culture, as well as what is literally depicted with regard to the news subject” (Kitch, 2007, p. 118). Textual analysis also considers “literary and visual constructs, employing symbolic means, shaped by rules, conventions and traditions intrinsic to the use of language in its widest sense” (Hall, 1975, p. 17). This kind of analysis, in which ideas and ideologies are articulated and elaborated, goes beyond manifest presentation of the news and focuses on its role in making news “meaningful” (Hall, 1975, p. 21).
The 56 pieces represented a range of publications and sites. Black-oriented sites included Ebony, Huffington Post’s Black Voices, and the Grio (associated with NBC).
Women’s sites included Jezebel, Ms., and Stroller Derby. Sports sites included ESPN W, Yahoo Sports, and Bleacher Report. A few publications spanned two categories, including Essence, which caters to black women, and ESPN W, which focuses on women’s sports. General-interest mainstream sites included CNN, NPR, Time, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post, which treated Douglas as a local celebrity because she grew up in Virginia. No coverage was found in Sports Illustrated or the main ESPN site. All but five pieces were opinionated. The racial and gender breakdown of the writers: 29 black women (including four academics), 15 white women, seven black men, two white men, and one Latino. An Associated Press reporter and a Rumor and Rants blogger could not be identified.
In addition, roughly 1,500 tweets were examined on topsy.com under searches for “gabby douglas,” “hair,” “olympics,” “douglas,” and related terms and also at twitter.com. The research confirmed the existence of tweets and Twitter accounts. They were analyzed to gauge Black Twitter’s response to Douglas. One month after the Games, fewer than 100 negative tweets about Douglas were found among the 1,500 analyzed.
Timeline of a Controversy
In analyzing how the little-noticed arrests of Philadelphia activists made their way into local mainstream media, Anderson (2010) pointed to patterns of news circulation in which certain websites in specific communities of interest served as bridges to “larger, more diffused communities” (p. 289). In the diffusion of news regarding the hair controversy, race and gender propelled the coverage from a niche blog to the most prominent media companies. On August 1, Sporty Afros (a blog about black women, their hair, and exercise) posted a column written by running trainer Monisha Randolph (2012). She noticed that black women on Facebook and Twitter had complained that Douglas’ hair was not “kept,” or textually neat, during competition. She paraphrased three unidentified tweets about Douglas as evidence: “She needs some gel and a brush,” “Someone needs to give her a hair intervention,” and “She has to represent.” Randolph asked, “When in history did it become a hobby for Black women to heavily criticize one another?” Later that day, a black female writer at the feminist site Jezebel cited Sporty Afros, the first of nine references to the blog among the analyzed pieces (Stewart, 2012). Jezebel included screen shots of five Tweets, including one by C. Renee posted on July 27: “on another note, gabby douglas gotta do something with this hair! these clips and this brown gel residue aint it!” Jezebel also included five tweets attacking the hair critics. That evening, another black woman posted a column on Huffington Post’s Black Voices that included images of negative tweets, including the one by C. Renee (Marques, 2012). Her tweet was mentioned or shown in nine different articles or commentaries.
On August 2, the coverage spread to 11 websites and programs, including BET, Yahoo:Shine, NPR, and Bleacher Report. Michael Eric Dyson (2012) told his MSNBC audience that “most people in the African-American community have taken to Twitter to insult Gabby Douglas’ hair.” The Daily Beast interviewed 22-year-old Latisha Jenkins, who said she loved how Douglas was “doing her thing and winning. But I just hate the way her hair looks with all those pins and gel. I wish someone could have helped her make it look better since she’s being seen all over the world. She representing for black women everywhere” (Samuels, 2012). Four other blogs later criticized Jenkins, with The Wall Street Journal writing that she “went on to fuss that Douglas is representing ‘black women everywhere’ ” (Binkley, 2012). The eight tweets first appearing in The Huffington Post, Jezebel, and Bleacher Report were mentioned by other publications, including The Washington Post and The New York Times.
USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post were among the 12 publications joining the coverage on August 3. Serena Williams told USA Today that the hair debate was “ridiculous” (Whitehead, 2012, para. 2). On August 5, Douglas told The Associated Press: “I don’t know where this is coming from. What’s wrong with my hair? I’m like, ‘I just made history and people are focused on my hair?’… I’m going to wear my hair like this during beam and bar finals. You might as well just stop talking about it” (2012). On August 6, the Fashionista blog published an exclusive interview with Douglas’ mother, Natalie Hawkins, in which she revealed: “I started hearing about (her hair) earlier this year actually. … We put all this effort into getting her hair done and they still didn’t like it!” (Wischhover, 2012). On August 7, Douglas stumbled in her two individual events, and The Washington Post and the Grio wondered if the talk about her hair had affected her (Jenkins, 2012; Johnson, 2012). On August 8, when a New York Times blog recycled a Bleacher Report tweet and the Chicago Sun-Times ran its second hair column, T.F. Charlton (2012) criticized the news media, not black women. Writing for Ebony, she questioned whether coverage that started with Sporty Afros reflected “an actual trend, or confirmation bias creating a news story out of a few isolated fools being mean in the internet” (2012). The Huffington Post’s Black Voices then linked to Ebony and asked in its headline: “How Did Olympic History Turn Into A Hair Debate?”
Framing the Hair Controversy
Three frames emerged from the Gabby Douglas hair coverage. First, black female commentators framed themselves as authoritative arbiters in the controversy, once stifled by their hair choices but now liberated and uniquely qualified to scold black women to get in line. While most white women sought solidarity, male and white female sports journalists portrayed themselves as baffled yet objective observers. Second, the hair critics were universally framed as being the wrong class of black women: hateful, ignorant, and/or unhealthy. In the third frame, Douglas was an innocent child and another black athlete who “can’t win for losing.” Her only salvation, this frame suggested, was to move away from blackness.
“How low can we sink?”:
The first frame illustrated how black women “owned” the hair controversy. The Douglas commentary provided a space where black women, their culture, and the jargon about their hair dominated both sides of the conversation: as speaker and audience. Black female writers—in fashion, ethnic blogs, in sports, in academia—framed themselves as authorities in the hair controversy because of their personal experiences and liberation from dealing with black hair. Many used first person, as in “royal we” and “we” as family:
“We need to stop tearing down black women for how we look,” “What is wrong with us” and “How low can we sink?” Rochelle Riley’s column in the Detroit Free Press and USA Today demanded: “Stop it … We will not ruin the greatest moment in the life of a 16-year-old with pettiness about how she looks” (2012). CNN instructed: “We should all aspire to lift our heads so high” (Miles, 2012). The black female commentators spoke of their “own painful hair issues” and “troubled terrain” of having kinky hair. Mitchell (2012) in the Chicago Sun-Times described her hair as “a curse that has been handed down through the generations” (para. 8).
Yet the black women ultimately claimed that they, like the oft-cited singer India.Arie, are not their hair: “My hair, in a natural state, does not block thoughts or slow intelligence or make me a worse writer” (Riley, 2012). They portrayed themselves and women with natural hair as emancipated. Many articles noted that the week Douglas won gold, Oprah Winfrey had appeared on the cover of her magazine with natural hair for the first time, giving explicit approval to the style. Another key voice in the natural camp was Dominique Dawes, the black gymnast who won a team gold in 1996. She advised black women “to go natural and stop relaxing your children’s hair, too. … It was liberating and empowering for me” (Whitlock, 2012).
On the other hand, black female commentators said that they understood the issue of black women needing to “represent.” As The Root’s McEwen (2012) admitted: “It’s not healthy, and it’s not fair, but let’s not pretend like we don’t know where it comes from.” She explained the insecurities that would cause “my (usually very enlightened) mother to act like a wrinkled shirt is the end of the world”:
She doesn’t want me to go out in the world (read: in front of white people) looking messy. Not only does she want me to perform well, she wants me to look good doing it—to leave no room for the criticism that she feared growing up in the 1960’s.
La Bennett (2012) was once “stunned” by a photograph of Coretta Scott King marching with a “clear plastic shower cap” over her hair: “But King knew that she represented all black women—a surrogate First Lady long before Michelle Obama came along.”
Writers who were not black women wrote that they had not noticed Douglas’ hair. Black male columnists expressed impatience (Fountain, 2012; Littal, 2012; Whitlock, 2012). As Fountain put it: “Here’s one black male who was left scratching his shiny bald head, wondering why in hell, after a young woman who had persevered and trained for years to rise to world-class status, anyone—least of all anyone black—would give a rat’s fart what her hair looked like” (2012).
Interestingly, white women in sports joined black men in finding the criticism “a ludicrous, racially loaded conversation,” “ludicrous” and “silly,” a perspective perhaps reflective of patriarchy’s pull within sports. But most white female commentators sought feminist solidarity. Goldstein (2012) on The Washington Post blog “She the People” wrote: “Though I am white and Jewish, my kinky fuzz sprouts from my father’s Lithuanian side of the family, and I feel a deep extra-ethnic kinship with anyone who struggles with unruly curls.” The Wall Street Journal contended: “Once again, people set aside a woman’s accomplishments to criticize her looks. And look who’s doing much of the criticizing: other women” (Binkley, 2012). As Stroller Derby’s Castiglia put it: “I don’t know what it’s like to be a black woman facing the pressure to have ‘good hair,’ I do know what it’s like to be a white woman who is not blonde or thin, so I can relate to living outside of the beauty standard” (2012). But white women admitted being surprised by the criticism.
Right-winger Debbie Schlussel wrote polemically: “It looks fine to me, but maybe it’s another one of those fictional ‘it’s a Black thing—you wouldn’t understand’ moments” (2012). But black women seized their opportunity to attempt to articulate their authentic, everyday struggles and make them part of the national discourse on oppression (Collins, 2000). Especially because the topic was their hair.
“All y’all got is weaves and envy”:
The second frame articulated a divide between black women. Commentary described the black women who “attacked” Douglas as “haters.” More telling, it overwhelmingly joined the Black Twitter backlash in framing the criticism as the byproduct of the underachieving priorities of women with weaves and chemically straightened hair—a lower-class, lesser regarded class of woman. Feminist Jezebel and Ms. Magazine and right-wing Schlussel indicted black women for being vain, frivolous, and trying to be white by having “European” hair. Jezebel applauded tweets that were derogatory toward black women, including: “Talking about Gabby Douglas’ hair? At least it’s hers. You got yours from one of Britain’s Equestrian horses,” and “Gabby Douglas got real hair and real Olympic. All y’all got is weaves and envy” (Stewart, 2012).
The women who complained about Douglas’ hair were accused of being unhealthy and having high blood pressure and diabetes. ESPN, Sporty Afro, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Fox Sports linked the high obesity rate for black women to their hair choices, adding some black women “may skip working out to avoid messing up their styled hair” (Hill, 2012). A black female comedian added: “It’s hard to keep up euro-style hair when you do more than sit behind a desk or at home on your ass all day tweeting about what other black women are doing while they are out there actually doing it” (Castiglia, 2012). Two black men lamented black women’s “obsession” with European, straightened hair, their “addiction to hairweave,” and having their self-esteem “tied up in their hair or the overpriced weave dangling from their heads.” Fountain (2012) compared black women’s “hairweave and nails” to “those foul-mouthed, bed-hopping, brawling sisters on some reality TV shows, who give black women a bad name.”
Even in a space where privileged black women were heard, “certain assumed qualities” attached to black women were used to justify their oppression (Collins, 2000, p. 5.). Instead of solidarity “with their working-class sisters,” as Collins put it, the black middle class chose their “newly acquired positions as theirs alone and thus perpetuate working class-Black women’s subordination” (2000, p. 68).
“Far too young” and “can’t win for losing”:
Douglas, 16, was framed as an innocent girl. Black female commentators outside of sports maternally described her as “a child,” “a young child” and “a little girl.” In this frame, Douglas’ athleticism, despite being the reason the controversy existed, was secondary to her innocence. Commentators referred to her in the youthful, gendered language of gymnastics, calling her a “sweetheart,” “darling,” and “doll.” The Washington Post transformed her kinky hair to “golden girl’s tresses.”
Douglas was “far too young to be exposed to that kind of hate” (Brown, 2012). The criticism was unfair because of what it does to young black girls like Douglas, who face “multiple types of censure.” Drummond (2012) asked: “What message does the criticism send to other little black girls with similar hair texture?” Douglas was likened to the teenaged Venus and Serena Williams, who “endured similar rebuffs for beaded braids, a look that did not conform to the predominantly white world of women’s tennis” (LaBennett, 2012). In fact, black female athletes “can’t win for losing” (Samuels, 2012). Commentators noted that gold-medalist sprinter Sanya Richards-Ross was mocked on Twitter for her long braided hair (with less outcry presumably because she competes in a sport dominated by black women and is 28 years old). One athlete complained: “There aren’t many options for a black woman” in gymnastics. “And let’s be clear—even if she cut her hair off and went bald, black people wouldn’t be satisfied” (Samuels, 2012). The controversy “perfectly illustrates the problem for black women: They can’t win no matter what they do with their hair,” Whitlock wrote, adding, “Gabby Douglas looked like the cute little girl everyone would want as their daughter or little sister and she was still the butt of jokes” (2012). Douglas represented “a history of hurts and wrongs” (Fields, 2012).
The frame’s solution was to move Douglas away from blackness. While LaBennett (2012) hoped that Douglas “represents a new generation of black girls, not just Olympic champions,” most commentators insisted that Douglas be seen not as an African-American but as American. Her blackness was replaced with patriotic and Olympic hues; “representing” took on a national, not racially gendered, meaning. The Wall Street Journal wrote that “if Douglas is representing anyone other than herself, it’s as an American athlete who since March has emerged as one of the greatest gymnasts alive” (Binkley, 2012). Others contended that she was “representing America, not just one single group” and “is red, white and blue.” After Douglas faltered in the uneven bars and balance beam, Sally Jenkins, the white Washington Post sports columnist, blamed “the racial narrative” as a factor affecting her performance. Jenkins (2012) stressed that “race in America is a story line that Douglas is part of—but it’s not her whole story”:
Douglas is black, her coach is Chinese. She’s living with a white family in Iowa, and her captain on the USA gymnastics team is Jewish and danced to a gold medal in the floor exercise to Hava Nagila. Douglas genuinely doesn’t see color—it’s not her first thought. Yet she was drilled incessantly with questions about being a woman of color in gymnastics.
Schlussel (2012) positioned the gymnast closer to white America: “The next time Black America throws around the racism word, remind them what they said about Gabby Douglas’ coif, while we were proud of her.” Yet Black America equally saw a benefit in moving away from race. A black male writer declared: “The time has now come when all women—and men—should be judged by the content of their character, not the texture of their hair” (Fountain, 2012).
Discussion and Conclusion
Race and media have long collided at the Olympics—praise for Jesse Owens, scorn for Tommie Smith and John Carlos. But this analysis of the Gabby Douglas hair coverage demonstrated how the construction of media content in the digital age shapes and distorts racial and gendered narratives in the twenty-first century. Television and sports journalists did not serve as eyewitnesses to the controversy; it unfolded from the ground up, from (allegedly) Black Twitter to blogs to traditional news media. Content was produced and shared by the audience, new media, and traditional outlets.
This study also illustrated that the Olympics remain a tangible source of national and cultural identity. The immediacy of digital media and deep roots of racial pride combined to give black women a leading role in the Douglas coverage, demonstrating that online media represent a new forum for their empowerment (Collins, 2000, p. 285). The coverage was a reminder that while the traditional black press has lost visibility and influence, what has gained strength is a black-powered press, with young black women impacting The Huffington Post, Jezebel, and mainstream publications.
But in performing roles that intersectionality usually presumes for other groups, black women also were “instrumental in fostering other black women’s oppression” (Collins, 2000, p. 68). The writers employed frames about themselves, the hair critics, and Douglas that revealed how intersectionality functions within multiple avenues of oppression. Despite Douglas’ being crowned “America’s Megawatt Sweetheart” by The New York Times (Macur, 2012), the global audience was reminded that black female athletes are subject to the limitations of race, gender, and mediated sports. Crucially, class was interjected in these narratives, with the hair critics framed as lower-class women who were ignorant, unhealthy, and vain. With black pride upstaged by black shame, African American commentators tacitly agreed with reactionary tweets that described the original complainers as “whores,” “on welfare” and “broke.” Black women with the authority to comment on the hair controversy pulled themselves away from the black women imagined to stand at the margins of society, in the process clarifying its boundaries (Collins, 2000, p. 70).
Individually and collectively, the frames further problematized African Americans, a chronic condition that social theorists have noted for more than a century. The problems of black women, rooted in oppressive systems of race, gender, and class, were framed as essentialist, exotic, and unsolvable, familiar ideas that resonated with a broader audience. Charlton (2012) lamented in Ebony that black commentary propagated “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.”
Thus the findings bring into question how mainstream media “read” Black Twitter.
As Brock (2012) had predicted, the portrayal of Black Twitter as “representative of the entire Black community despite the heterogeneity of Black culture speaks to the power of American racial ideology’s framing of Black identity as monoculture” (p. 546).
Mainstream news media treated Black Twitter as legitimate, unified representation of black opinion without giving it the due diligence afforded to other sources. Traditional journalists gave Black Twitter the weight they do not give to reader comments, which they still do not trust (Loke, 2012; Nielsen, 2012). Black people complaining about Douglas’ hair made hegemonic sense.
This study illustrates that Black Twitter, for better or worse, has emerged as a stakeholder in black discourse. It falls short as a reliable space for rhetorical discussion about the African-American experience when it is subjected to incomplete eavesdropping, as exemplified by the hair coverage. Just as journalists use Google searches as proof of a story’s relevance, Black Twitter likely will be used again to take the pulse of Black America. Black Twitter knows this all too well. On August 2, 2012, “Ise7enz” posted: “Just saw an article titled ‘In Defense of Gabby Douglas Hair’. Alright, Black Twitter. ’Fess up. What did y’all do this time?” The next day, “Graceishuman” tweeted: “Now this fake Gabby Douglas hair drama is on the LA Times *and* NPR? Media, you are fired. And I still blame Jezebel.”
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Kathleen McElroy is an assistant professor in Oklahoma State University’s School of Media & Strategic Communications. In December, she received her doctorate from the University of Texas School of Journalism, where she was a Harrington Fellow. She was an editor at The New York Times from 1991 to 2011, working in the digital newsroom, dining, news and sports. She also worked in sports and news for publications in New York and Texas. Her research interests include race and media sociology, collective memory, and reader comments and engagement.