Reports of Black women hating on Gabby Douglas’s hair have been greatly exaggerated. Articles claiming that Black women have fixated on Gabby’s hair have sparked the usual discussion about White beauty norms, hair politics, and internalized racism.
But is it really Black women who are obsessed with Gabby Douglas’ hair, or the media? The idea that sisters are paying “more attention [to Gabby’s hair] than her gold medal[s]” is exactly 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. There’s very little evidence that hair is a priority when it comes to Black women’s feelings about Gabby Douglas.
This story can be traced back to one blog post, quoting all of three disparaging comments, that Jezebel slapped a few more tweets on as proof of a trend. Everyone from NPR to the LA Times has since weighed in, all seemingly basing their analysis on the Jezebel piece and a small sample of tweets. Outlets have specifically searched for negative tweets about Gabby, probably overlooking many more celebratory comments.
We should question whether the coverage reflects an actual trend, or confirmation bias creating a news story out of a few isolated fools being mean on the internet. It’s possible that the real viral story here is the original piece and the media furor it’s spawned.
So why has American media so eagerly seized on hair anxieties as a major part of Gabby’s story? The rapid spread of this myth is an example of how new and social media increasingly drive content and conversation in traditional media. As sociology scholar Tressie McMillan Cottom notes, this has particularly disturbing implications for girls and women of color. Sites focused on generating buzz, high traffic, and viral content often rely on the “reckless abuse of Black folks ([especially] women) to drive web traffic.”
Traffic-obsessed blogs often truck in sensationalistic racism and sexism, or equally sensationalist reports of such, to get hits. As journalists increasingly treat often dubious “trending topics” and viral posts as sources, even news in themselves, marginalized groups like Black women become convenient and profitable fodder for “hot” stories.