You may have heard of the recent debate surrounding a young gymnast named Gabby Douglas, the first Black woman to win the all-around gold in woman’s artistic gymnastics. However, arguably the most intense discussion surrounding Douglas’s superb performance is not the historic nature of the accomplishment, but rather her hair. The “story” originated on Twitter, where some individuals took to criticizing the young gymnast’s hair, which was apparently too unkempt for international television. Allegedly much of the criticism came form Black women themselves. At first glance, this “debate” surrounding her hair seems to represent the cruel intentions of a few individuals in a public forum. However, the “story” represents much more, namely: (1) in terms of U.S. society, it reflects the fault lines of power; and (2) in terms of the media, it reflects the “hype” culture of corporate media, a model where inducing the “right” kind of debate helps to drive internet traffic to commercial-oriented sites, which ultimately makes advertisers happy.
As for how the story originated, let’s take a look at that. About a week ago several Twitter users expressed disdain over Douglas’s hair, commenting things like, “In Olympic news, why hasn’t anyone tried to fix Gabby Douglas’ hair?” Comments ranged from being subtle to outright cruel. The story was picked up from there by both major providers of news as well as more niche-oriented blogs. There’s no denying that the debate is indicative of deep-seated issues within U.S. society, but much of the most popular coverage did not elevate the debate to that level. Much of the reaction stopped at something along the lines of “leave Douglas alone, she’s an Olympic champion.” I don’t want to spend too much time discussing the greater context surrounding the reactions to Douglas’s hair, but it’s important to mention some of it.
I think the story caught on as much as it did due to who did the criticizing. The fact that allegedly mostly Black women were doing the criticism is instructive. If White people had done it, the issue would have taken a particularly race-centric aspect, which arguably the media may have latched onto as well, but perhaps not to the extent that it did. That aside, the concern over Black hair rages much more in the Black community than outside it (see the Chris Rock documentary for a taste). Within the Black community, the fact that there is a debate is reflective of the overarching White narrative in the United States, a narrative that was made possible by the political and economic power of mostly European-origin people from the beginning of European colonization through the present day. How this affect the U.S. today is a problem: African-Americans, for example, have much higher rates of poverty as well as unemployment. Obviously this is a very complex issue, but part of the reason the debate arose in the first place is reflective of what is “acceptable” in terms of U.S. (and even international) appearances. Therefore, a few comments about a Black woman’s hair could have been an opportunity to show how those sentiments could be indicative of a much larger issue in the United States.
However, don’t expect the mainstream/corporate media to provide such important context. Looking at major media presence on the web (there was certainly a number of good commentary, see here, here, and here), the reason for driving the story is to drive internet traffic for a website’s advertisers. For example, Yahoo! posted an article on its new Shine site, which caters to young and middle-aged women. In the posting, Lylah Alphonse points out the mean things people were saying, how we should focus on her Olympic greatness, and the raging hair debate in the African-American community.
Surely many people read that article, as one of Yahoo!’s niche’s is news–both aggregating and producing. Shine is a website created solely to bring young and middle-aged women to the site for the benefit of advertisers. According to Yahoo!, “Shine’s goals are to energize women and give them an environment to develop engaging conversations and learn from one another. Engage this highly interactive community, 57.5 percent of which is female, with advertising solutions that will best showcase your brand.” Shine is essentially an engine for driving advertising revenue. In fact, one of the ads that shows up on the site with the article defending Douglas’s hair is from P&G, showcasing a blonde woman with shimmering hair made possible by Clairol shampoo. How interesting.
So basically, in the case of Yahoo! Shine (and many other news websites), much of the hype surrounding the comments made by private citizens toward Douglas is due to the corporate nature of our media. When advertising revenue is central to the business model in the news business, I find it hard to take it seriously or to consider it as a source of good critique and commentary.