In the past week, Gabby Douglas, the fabled 20-year-old Olympic gymast who helped the U.S. win a team gold medal in Rio, has been criticized for, among other things:
- Not putting her hand on her heart during the national anthem.
- Not showing enough support for her teammates.
- Having what some critics called an "unkempt" hairstyle during the competition.
A sampling of the offending tweets:
Despite how shallow it was, the criticism got to Douglas.
“When they talk about my hair or me not putting my hand up on my heart or me being very salty in the stands, they’re really criticizing me, and it doesn’t really feel good,” Douglas said in an interview with the Washington Post, which reported seeing "her eyes tearing up" as she spoke.
Douglas's mother, Natalie Hawkins, told Reuters that the online bullying had left Gabby "heartbroken."
"She's had to deal with people criticizing her hair, or people accusing her of bleaching her skin," Hawkins said. "They said she had breast enhancements, they said she wasn't smiling enough, she's unpatriotic. Then it went to not supporting your team mates. Now you're 'Crabby Gabby.'"
Some prominent black commentators have begun speaking out about the abuse Douglas has been receiving. Here's what Jamilah Lemieux, a senior editor at Ebony, had to say about the situation.
Writer Mikki Kendall wondered whether there is a double standard about the support white women receive when complaining about online abuse compared with black women.
Douglas, nevertheless, felt forced to apologize.
“Everything I’ve gone through has been a lot this time around,” Douglas said, “and I apologize if [I seemed] really mad in the stands. I wasn’t. I was supporting Aly. And I always will support them and respect them in everything they do. I never want anyone to take it as I was jealous or I wanted attention. Never. I support them, and I’m sorry that I wasn’t showing it."
A similar debate occurred following Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's apparently sour reaction to losing the Super Bowl to the Denver Broncos. Newton was called a sore loser by (mostly white) sports columnists, and was also the subject of a racist tweet by a former NFL player.
In his case, Newton refused to apologize. “I’ve been on record to say I’m a sore loser,” Newton said. “Who likes to lose?"
Douglas probably felt she didn't have the luxury to take the same tack as Newton. It's the end of her career in Olympic gymnastics, and her image will now be what defines her going forward, moreso than her performance. As both a gymnast and a black woman, Douglas is also held to unfair expectations about not appearing "unfeminine" or "angry" by responding to her critics.
Luckily, Gabby's fans came out on social media, and rallied to her defense, and got the hashtag #love4gabbyusa trending.