Nobody Has Beyoncé’s Weavologist: Gabby Douglas

Blue Wire Podcast

May 2, 2022

Episode 5: The Story of Gabby Douglas

Episode 5 of the American Prodigies podcast tells the story of Gabby Douglas and her turbulent portrayal in the media.

In 2012, Douglas’ name blew up in the media and she won the hearts of gymnastics fans everywhere. She became the first Black gymnast to become the Olympic individual all-around champion and the first US gymnast to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics. She returned to the Olympics in 2016 and won gold again. But after 2016, she stopped training and disappeared from the sport. So, whatever happened to Gabby?

To help us answer that question, we spoke with Dr. Courtney Cox, assistant professor in the Department of Indigenous Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of Oregon, and Dr. Sam Sheppard, an associate professor of cinema and media studies in the Department of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University, on this week’s podcast episode.

Dr. Cox and Sheppard both study race, gender, and sports. They look at the portrayals of athletes in media studies on TV and in documentaries. In this episode of the American Prodigies podcast, they examine how Douglas—the prodigy—was thrown into the media spotlight right at a time when social media was making it much easier for fans to interact with and attack athletes—especially Black girls.

“In certain ways, she just disappeared. She has this big media blitz, she's everywhere, she's on the shows... she's got the lifetime movies. And she seems so public. And then she's gone,” said Dr. Sheppard.

In this episode, you’ll also hear insights from Jasmine Swyningan, one of Minnesota’s only Black gymnastics judges, Derrin Moore, the founder of Brown Girls Do Gymnastics, Wendy Hilliard, the first Black rhythmic gymnast to compete on team USA, and Olympic silver medalist Jordan Chiles.

What’s next for gymnasts after winning gold?

Douglas was a huge, highly visible figure in the media, but she was not a public personality and did not have extensive media training. She was highly commodified as a Black girl and became something to be marketed and sold. In fact, Douglas became a literal “thing” when they created a Barbie doll in her likeness. She also wrote her own autobiography about being a gymnast in 2012, had a lifetime movie made about her in 2014, and starred in a reality TV show about her family in 2016.

Her story was portrayed as only meaningful because she was a Black gymnast, but her life and personality were much more than that. As with many other Black women in sports, she was used as an inspirational figure with this oddly truncated story. And when Douglas stumbled with her media image and the next inspirational Black girl came onto the scene—Simone Biles—her story became oddly threatened by being replaced.

In an article she wrote for Interview Magazine, Douglas said this about elite gymnastics:

"Hopefully they’ll change and realize that we’re humans, too, at the end of the day. We’re not just machines, we actually have emotions that need to be expressed and not bottled up."

Learn more about Gabby’s story in this week’s podcast episode.

Stay Tuned for Weekly Episodes of American Prodigies

Each week, American Prodigies tells gymnasts’ stories, unraveling what it means to be a Black girl navigating overwhelmingly white spaces. Their stories consider the burden of visibility, the weight of expectation, the anguish of injury, and the joy of winning.

In a sport that divided and conquered and isolated athletes from each other for so long, there’s power in bringing these voices together. With interviews from gymnasts, coaches, judges, and experts—and sonically rich journeys into the past—American Prodigies will give long-time gymnastics fans new insights and grab the attention of those who normally only tune in every four years.

Further Listening

If you want to hear more interviews with gymnasts and more sports podcasts, subscribe to Blue Wire's Apple Podcast Subscription Channel here. The first 7 days are free.

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