What all of these stories have in common with the hair fiasco is that they reveal the media’s appetite for negative portrayals of Black femininity and, per Cottom, its inability to “accommodate [a] narrative…of a [woman of color] being extraordinary.” Now that Gabby’s excellence is so proven that it can’t be ignored, the media has latched on to a manufactured controversy that conveniently distracts from her accomplishments. Some in the media have preferred to portray Gabby’s family as “broken” and mismanaged by an inadequate Black mother.
It’s no coincidence that hair, one of the most visible markers and symbols of Black women’s difference in a White-dominated culture, has become a focal point of Gabby’s story. The media must forever make an issue of our difference, even in moments of triumph, but never in a way that engages with critical analysis of power and oppression. We’d rather focus on Olympians’ finances than on the fact that the U.S. is virtually alone in denying government funding to Olympic hopefuls - forcing middle-class athletes away from home and to the brink of poverty to achieve their Olympic dreams. Media erasure of swimmer Cullen Jones, the latest “controversy” over Serena Williams’ celebratory crip-walk, and sexist attacks on Lolo Jones are just the most recent examples of how Black athletes at the top of their game are never allowed to simply be great.
But instead about this we’re talking about hair, and the much more significant story of Black girls and women celebrating Gabby and pushing back on racism and sexism in coverage of her has been lost.