On August 14, 2016, 20-year-old Gabby Douglas competed in her final Olympic event. Back in the London 2012 Olympics, Gabby made history as the first African-American gymnast to win all-around Olympic gold, as well as the first female gymnast to win both team and all-around gold in the same year. Following her summer in London, Gabby's life was a whirlwind: appearing on shows like Oprah and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno beside First Lady Michelle Obama, as well as performing gymnastics on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards during an Alicia Keys performance that included the lyrics "cause I win the gold like Gabby". Gabby was America's sweetheart at only 16-years-old, touring the country in honor of her gold medal wins.
Fast forward four years, to the present Olympics occurring in Rio. Gabby Douglas has had to fight her fair share of battles to make it this far. As much as she was the Olympic darling, she was never a stranger to critiques. In the 2012 Olympics, Gabby was chastised for her hair and appearance. In addition, when she was on Oprah, Gabby spoke of the bullying she received as a child for being "different" from other gymnasts. Nonetheless, she didn't let any of the world's negativity get in the way of the gold.
Gabby continued training and shutting out the negativity. Her performances over the last year, including her routine at the olympic trials, have received criticism as being “shaky” and “undistinguished”. Nonetheless, Gabby persevered, earning a spot on the U.S.A. team due to her past experience and success.
Gabby began Rio 2016 the same way she began London 2012: with a gold medal in the team competition. After that, however, her time at the Olympics was very different. Ending 2012 as an applauded champion who would go on to tour the country, Gabby, who did not have as successful of an Olympic run in 2016, is now receiving unending backlash from the citizens who used to be proud of her.
People are criticizing her hair, posting that they are angry that she didn't hold her hand over her heart during the National Anthem and calling her out for being an unsupportive teammate. Social media users have spent the last week and a half sitting idly on their couches typing out malicious judgments about Gabby. While this is nothing new to Olympians, it has gone too far.
Judging and criticizing people in the spotlight has long been a favorite pastime of the human race. We binge watch talk shows that analyze celebrity fashion choices and actions, we follow snarky comedians on Twitter to hear their opinions about the stars, and most of us get a little thrill from reading about the latest feud between Taylor and Kim or Justin and Selena. We all know that it is easy to sit behind a computer monitor and pass judgements about others. Often, however, we forget that the people who we are bashing are in fact people - people with insecurities and real feelings.
Gabby ended Rio 2016, and possibly her Olympic career, crying in a corner. Not because of her performance or lack of medals, but because of the flood of hate and discrimination she was receiving over social media.
"I tried to stay off the internet because there's just so much negativity," Gabby told ESPN. "Either it was about my hair or my hand not over my heart or I look depressed. ... It was hurtful. It was hurtful. It was. It's been kind of a lot to deal with."
As a young adult who has spent the last four years in the most extreme spotlight, how can Gabby completely avoid the hatred?
What sometimes the world might forget is that this Olympic champion is only 20 years old. She isn't perfect. All she is doing is trying to follow her dreams and make her country proud. It is sad to see that after all of her dedication and hard work, Americans are still so quick to jump on the bandwagon of criticism.
After Gabby publicly responded to the online hatred, there has been an outpouring of support for the young gymnast.
Celebrities such as Leslie Jones have come to Gabby's aid, tweeting her followers to encourage them to show Gabby support with the hashtag #LOVE4GABBYUSA. Other celebrities such as Shonda Rhimes and Kerry Washington have also spoken up in support of Gabby.
Yet another case of online celebrity drama, some might say. Why does this matter?
It does matter. It matters because our Olympians deserve better. Our American citizens deserve better. Our human race deserves better.
No one should ever feel as if their looks, their performance, or their identity is constantly being criticized by anonymous accounts online. Gabby is a target because she is an African-American female athlete in the spotlight. Without question, there are underlying racist and sexist connotations at play when people bash Gabby Douglas. However, there is one overarching theme that cannot be ignored: Gabby is attacked via social media because it is easy for people hiding behind screens in the comfort of their homes to pass judgment. It is easy to be cruel online when there is little opportunity for consequence or retribution.
Websites such as Twitter and Facebook are invaluable tools for information and connection in the 21st century. However, one growing negative consequences of these free speech avenues is the toxic breeding of hate and judgement. Everyone becomes a critic with a large, unfiltered medium to voice their opinions. While, yes, free speech is a founding right of this country, it can sometimes be taken to an extreme. Criticizing and insulting a 20-year-old girl is a prime example of the harmful impacts that social media can have.
The hashtag #Love4GabbyUSA, however, is an instance of the good that can also come from social media. While so many are using their voice to spread negativity and hostility, others are banding together to support an American role model.
Already Gabby has responded to the love, expressing her gratitude to Leslie Jones and the many other Twitter users who have been showing her support.
“I’ve been through a lot. A lot. Sometimes I sit back and say, ‘Wait. What did I do to disrespect people? What have I done to disrespect the USA?’" Gabby said to ESPN.
“I don’t get that part,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
At the end of the Olympics, when Gabby packs up and goes back home, I for one hope that the young woman is met with support and gratitude from our country. She has dedicated her life to making us proud. Regardless of the way that she handles the stress of the Olympics or how she honors her country during The National Anthem, Gabby has made us proud.
So, it is time for those of us with the pitchforks to take a step back and ask ourselves what kind of world we want to be living in. One where the internet is populated with hatred and negativity, or one where we can use technology to further human support and connection. The movement #Love4GabbyUSA is the perfect way for us to take a small step towards kindness online.
We are lucky to live in a country full of liberties and freedom. We are lucky to have the right to free speech, but we must also practice caution when typing. We must always remember that with every malicious post typed in spite or in sarcastic humor, there is a receiver with human emotions. In this case, that target is a hard-working young woman who is only trying to make us proud. We are lucky to live in a country where we have a powerful, strong, and brave athlete like Gabby to represent us.
Thank you Gabby for your unending courage and dedication to the United States. We appreciate you.