Gymnast Simone Biles has been a star in the Olympic Games, but instead of saluting her hard work, some reporters insinuate she has an advantage because of what they call “inhuman athletic talent”
The day after gymnast Simone Biles won a gold medal in Rio, the front-page headline in my local newspaper celebrated her as “Superlative Simone.” But I did a double-take when I saw a column headline underneath that read, “ ‘I don’t think she’s human,’ rival says of dominant Texas gymnast.”
How could those words have sailed past the editors? Insinuating in a headline that a black woman is something other than human hearkens back to the days of slavery, when black people in America were considered three-fifths of a human being. (See your history book for the 3/5 Compromise from 1787). It also evokes persistent stereotypes of African American women.
I understand the sports connotation in the quote — that the athlete is better at her sport than any other human—but the historical context makes this headline demeaning.
An academic term called incognizant racism can explain some of the racist and sexist coverage we have seen in the 2016 Summer Olympics. The term refers to an unintentional bias on the part of journalists, who adopt the dominant white and male values of society and pass them along to the public through daily coverage. We have seen several examples of this phenomenon in the Olympics. Consider:
- The San Jose Mercury News had to apologize after tweeting “Michael Phelps shares historic night with African-American,” in reference to the gold medal won by U.S. swimmer Simone Manuel, whose name was not even mentioned in the original headline. Twitter followers called out the tweet as racist and sexist.
- The Chicago Tribune tweeted that “wife of a Bears’ (sic) lineman” — with no name — won a medal when Corey Cogdell won the bronze in women’s trap shooting. Social media critics noted that Cogdell has a name other than “wife” and that she won a medal for her athletic ability, not her marital role.
- NBC commentators have been called out on social media for reinforcing sexist stereotypes. Examples: describing the USA “Final Five” gymnastics team as “they might as well be standing in the middle of a mall” and giving credit to the husband/coach of Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu for her breaking a world record.
- Scottish tennis player Andy Murray corrected a BBC host who congratulated him on “being the first person ever to win two Olympic tennis gold medals” by snapping back: “I think Venus and Serena won about four each.
- The male athletes have not been exempt either, with NBC anchors Meredith Vieira and Hoda Kotb virtually drooling over an oiled-up Tongan flag-bearer and magazines running headlines such as “36 Summer Olympics bulges that deserve gold” (Cosmopolitan.com). (I’m not hyperlinking to those—you can find them).
Objectification — reducing people to their body parts—is dehumanizing. However, it’s much worse for women than men, since a long tradition of media coverage has focused on their appearances, their relationships to men, or their roles as wives and mothers (can you imagine the headline “Father of Two Signs Bill into Law?”). On the positive side, social media has made it easier for the public to hold media organizations accountable for spreading sexism and racism.
But when newsrooms still are 87 percent white, 63 percent male, and 90 percent of sports sections are headed by white men, it’s going to take more effort for media organizations to avoid harmful and degrading coverage. Awareness is step No. 1. Here’s hoping newsroom leaders will move forward to the next step.
Tracy Everbach is associate professor of journalism at the University of North Texas and a former newspaper reporter.