It’s not really fair, but I felt like rolling my eyes when I found out Lifetime will air a biopic about gymnast Gabby (Gabrielle) Douglas in 2014. After all, the girl is a remarkable athlete and a mostly dignified, charming celebrity. She’s climbed nimbly up on the Olympic pedestal, and balances there with aplomb. Lifetime could do worse.
Here’s the plot, familiar to anyone who follows the perky myth that Douglas and her handlers have created about her:
“A prodigy from a very young age, Gabby Douglas originally made her mark on the world of competitive gymnastics at age eight. She won numerous state championship titles in her age group throughout her early competitive career. While her star was fast rising In The Arena, Gabby and her family faced economic challenges at home and she made the difficult decision to leave her mother Natalie (King), three siblings and grandmother (Merkerson) in Virginia Beach and move to Des Moines, Iowa, to train with renowned coach Liang Chow (Brian Tee, The Wolvernine) to pursue her dream of Olympic glory. Buoyed by her early success, dedication and unyielding love from her family, Gabby made it onto the 2012 U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team, with whom she faced intense competition in the London Games. Her sacrifice and perseverance were triumphantly rewarded with Team Competition and Individual All-round gold medals, placing Gabby and her teammates – known as “The Fierce Five” — among the world’s all-time greats in gymnastics.”
No doubt, this story is true enough. But I’m getting to the point where I want more. I want to see her fierceness, not just in that moment when she decided to train with a coach far from her family, but in the moments of her life now, as she wanders the country as a young black celebrity, as she trains for her next Olympic bid, and “flips” for egg-white McMuffins.
There’s something — forgive me, please — whitewashed about the public Gabrielle Douglas. Granted, she’s getting pressure to walk that narrow parallel bar of authenticity that impossibly requires her to be every-girl and every-black-girl at the same time, so her pedestal makes it hard to see the real competitor behind the cute grin and bouncy bounce. But does her advice have to be so — bland?
In 2012, she said in her Seventeen interview, “Making the team would mean so much! I’m the youngest one competing and I’m African American. I think that would just inspire people and inspire a nation. I would love to be a role model.”
Although her accomplishments have earned her the respect of an athlete-loving nation, her new book, Raising the Bar (2013), seems more like another pretty-as-a-picture celebration of God and family, full of snapshots and vague stories about how her brother or her second family in Iowa kept her going when she was ready to quit.
She would tell her 13 year old self, “Be strong and confident. When I was 13-years-old I didn’t believe in myself, so I’d just tell myself to stay strong and really confident.” and she thinks about the red carpet as a prom to keep herself energized. OK. But — really — is that all there is?
The Crunk Feminist Collective blog calls the focus on cuteness and Gabby’s grin “the smile politics,” a larger expectation for Douglas, because she’s a black athlete. This may be part of the problem — Douglas has to be more positive, more cute, more religious and more disciplined in order to get and keep the spotlight she earned during the 2012 Olympics.
Maybe it’s unreasonable for me to want more substance, to look for a political message beyond the presence of an African American in a realm once reserved for white girls. It will certainly be interesting to see how Lifetime’s mainstream schlock-machine will deal with the racial discrimination and representation issues behind Douglas’ remarkable achievement.
I remain skeptical of the publicity machine driving Douglas’ post-Olympic leadership as a “role model.” I remind myself, though — she’s young, and talented, and on her way back to the Olympics. She’s someone to watch, now a role model by her presence — and perhaps later, as a coach or senator or diplomat or journalist, a leader with political clout as strong as her disciplined gymnastic body.