In a perverse way, Harper and Wells will never have that same privilege of selling their looks.
Believe it or not, the United States has at least two hurdlers who are not named Lolo Jones. I admit: It wouldn’t be fair to blame you for not noticing. While Jones gets to pose on magazine covers and makes the late-night TV rounds, Dawn Harper—the 2008 gold medalist—and Kellie Wells hardly make the news, even when they finish 2-3 in the 100-meter. They’re fast. They’re fit. They’re good looking. And they're also black.
Ordinarily, that wouldn’t matter. Usain Bolt proved his dominance in the 100- and 200-meter, becoming the first athlete to win both events at consecutive Games. And the Williams sisters, like always, made mince-meat of their competition on the tennis court. Black men and women regularly compete and win—that’s not news. But the media’s reaction to the pointed New York Times profile of Jones is. Not just because of how she is treated, but because of how her teammates are written off.
According to the Times, Jones is a household name because she exploited the media. She pranced around, never won much that mattered, called herself a “vixen, virgin, victim,” posed nude and then, presto, became a star. In contrast, her teammates didn’t exploit their looks or personal lives. Ergo, they remained anonymous.
What makes the story interesting is that the Times got a few things right—and much more wrong—and that the Internet missed out on the hidden subtext: If Jones looked black, this article wouldn’t exist. She’d be treated no differently than Harper or Wells. Yes, she would still have a very compelling history no matter her color. But right or wrong, her looks dominate the narrative. And if she looked black, that wouldn’t be possible. Black hasn’t always been beautiful, says Ketra L. Armstrong, a professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in sports marketing/consumer behavior.
“When you talk about selling sex, you have to recognize the difference in selling the sex of a European female and the lack of sexiness in a woman of color,” she says. “We still see a racial divide even when we’re trying to promote sex as a market attraction for sports.”
Black women, at least historically, haven’t been considered beautiful. And while they now grace magazine covers, the media still depicts black sportswomen differently than white ones. They’re more physical, but less tactical. Aggressive, not intelligent. Powerful, not beautiful.
The Williams sisters dealt with this regularly. Clearly, both women have power and speed-based games. But rather than recognizing this and moving on, commentators ignored their mental strategies. While a broadcaster might mention Serena’s serve speed or Venus’ agility, rarely would the narrative include mentions of their tactical acumen, says Susan Douglas, the Catherine Neafie Kellogg Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan. And beyond the tennis court, they had to feminize themselves to succeed commercially.
From this perspective, Jones’ success makes perfect sense. Not only did she say the right things (I’m very sexual, but I’m also a virgin), have the perfect backstory (where’s dad?), do the right things (show off her body in magazines), and actually win events(!), but she was breaking the mold by looking white. She was the complete package.
In a perverse way, Harper and Wells will never have that same privilege of selling their looks. To sell your body, you have to do more than just look good. You have to exist in a society that will appreciate your body as a commodity. And, thus far, it’s clear that America doesn’t pay the same premium across the racial spectrum.
“We cannot imagine that we would see the press following Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells,” said Robin Coleman, a professor of Communication Studies and of AfroAmerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. “They’re not being followed around, they’re not being highlighted on the red carpet, they’re not being cast as beautiful. None of those adjectives come up when they’re discussed.”
The media doesn’t just decide what adjectives to use when describing an athlete. The way a woman interacts with her audience matters too. Traditionally, news outlets have categorized women in one of two roles: mother or sex-object. While these lines cut across race, they don’t do so cleanly. Whereas an attractive white athlete may be sexualized or typed as feminine, the same isn’t always true for women of color.
“The media has tended to masculinize women of color in sports, particularly in basketball and track and field. The descriptors that are used to define their talent are more athletic,” says Armstrong. “They talk about skill and power and determination—which are great characteristics for any athlete to have—but they don’t often talk about grace, and poise, and the cognitive aspect.”
As a result, black women often choose to feminize themselves—for a variety of reasons. For some, it’s just a part of who they are. They like wearing necklaces and bracelets, even while competing. But for others, it’s done to role-play. If corporations are looking for a specific type of spokesperson and the media wants a particular type of marketable woman to fit that role, they do what’s necessary to conform.
To an extent, this tension is played out with Harper, Wells, and Jones. It may surprise some viewers, but all three are women of color. But partly because Jones looks brown rather than black, she’s treated differently. While the world has moved away from idealizing blonde-haired and blue-eyed women as the embodiment of beauty, that doesn’t mean brown looks like black looks like white. Darker-skinned women have not entered the pantheon of universally appreciated beauty, says Coleman. But brown looks close enough to white to fly, and when brown is part of a total package—from performance to story to looks—an athlete takes off.
That means Jones is received differently than Wells or Harper. Both Wells and Harper have stories, but they don’t seem to have the complete package—or at least the media hasn’t picked up on it. And part of that might just be because of their skin color. Among other things, skin color provides an excuse for the media to pit the athletes against one another. It fulfills age-old stereotypes, just with a new twist. Instead of black versus white, it’s brown versus black.
While the Times has been primarily recognized for its portrayal of Jones, it also does a number on Harper, casting her as the angry and somewhat jealous teammate (and other publications ran with that story). The TV coverage takes things a step further. Jones—in defeat—is shown as a calm but crestfallen competitor. Meanwhile, Harper and Wells are shown gloating, draped in the American flag—the message is one of conflict.
“It was not the appropriate way to talk about their celebration or win,” says Coleman. “What we saw was a pitting of these women of color against one another. It became a kind of beauty versus the beast.”
Jones may be treated differently than Harper or Wells, but she has something in common with Gabby Douglas. In both cases, the narrative includes the ever-present absentee father. While Douglas’ father was arrested for child-neglect ahead of the Olympics, there is more to the story (it’s unclear if she even knew he was arrested). The media rightfully raised eyebrows when it repeatedly said Natalie Hawkins, Douglas’ mother, was a single mom. Rather than being a vagabond, Douglas is an Air Force Staff Sgt., and he was frequently deployed abroad, starting when Douglas was nine years old. Their relationship isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t fit into the standard absentee black dad stereotype that overwhelmed some television viewers.
The problem with the race-based narrative is that it clouds the reality—from Douglas to Jones to Harper and Wells. So much more goes into winning a medal than race. Opportunity matters, training, genetics, and luck. But because of our inadvertent focus, “what we tend to only see is the racial aspect,” says Armstrong.
Even with Harper and Wells, it’s unfair to pin the entire case on looks, Armstrong says. Sure, it matters. But maybe Jones had the better overall package. Maybe she was more receptive to the media attention. Maybe she was in the right place at the right time. Regardless of what makes Jones a star and her teammates relatively unknown, the focus on sex distorts the picture. Yes, the role of sexuality varies across the ethnic and racial spectrum, but it often drowns out what really matters: the athletic performance, what we’re supposed to be watching the Games for.
“What happens in either case—in the presence or absence of an obsession about an athlete’s looks— is that what matters gets lost: They’re still at the very top,” says Coleman. “They are elite athletes, but Lolo Jones gets reduced to her looks.”