Petri: How not to talk about Olympic women
Lolo Jones is crying on "The Today Show." Lolo is very pretty when she cries.
That is the wrong way to write about Lolo Jones who fell just short of medaling Tuesday in hurdling or, for that matter, to write about any Olympic athlete.
Even in the midst of the much-ballyhooed Olympics of Resurgent Women, coverage of Lolo and gold-medalist gymnast Gabby Douglas has been giving the lie to the old theory that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Sometimes, the only thing worse than not being talked about is being torn up in The New York Times two days before your big race.
I am still recovering from the Lolo Jones profile, and it did not mention me a single time.
That was what was so terrible about it.
As Sally Jenkins pointed out, this Olympics of the Woman has come after years in which people didn't talk about women's athletics. Now our complaint is that they are talking about the wrong things. It's surely a better problem to have. But it's still a problem.
Maybe this whole Olympics thing has gotten out of hand. Was I the only one who thought the Olympics were uncomfortably sexy this year? Please, I kept murmuring to Buzzfeed, the gamboling id of the Internet, stop showing me pornographic montages of showering divers.
Since the time of the Ancient Greeks, the Olympics have offered a unique opportunity for people across the world to gather in peace and fellowship to ogle the glistening forms of semi-nude athletes. And while the male athletes seem to have little trouble simultaneously having and eating their cake, this has been notoriously complicated in the case of female athletes especially the ones who look like Lolo Jones.
Much has been made about this Women's Olympics. How mighty our female athletes! How marvelous their accomplishments! We are about to double the men's medal count! All this is wonderful and, indeed, exciting.
But it is easy to get carried away.
Never mind that these are a few moments of glory snatched out of four years of onerous training before they slip into obscurity again.
The problem with so many women turning in astounding performances at these Olympics is that it turns out our national ability to talk about female athletes has not quite caught up with their ability to perform. So we get things like the Gabby Douglas hair obsession and the Lolo Jones debacle, while medalists like Kellie Wells get well-nigh ignored. And we may slip into the feel-good assumption that because a woman is competing for a country where women have not done so before, this betokens more progress than has actually been made.
Women have moved from not being talked about to being talked about badly.
When it comes to Gabby Douglas, the answers are fairly simple: Why are you fixated on her hair? She's 16, and she has a gold medal! Can you do any of the things you do as well as she does what she does?
Lolo Jones is more complex. You have, after all, seen her all over. She is, after all, extremely lovely. She's been in a McDonald's commercial, a BP ad whose fault is this focus on her looks and this backlash? Hers? Ours?
It's easy to know where to look when the Games are on. Consider our women's soccer team or the indefatigable Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings.
The trouble is what happens afterward.
For many athletes, the Olympics mark the moment when they become celebrities. It is a moment we have not yet mastered, when they climb out of the pool and people ask what they think about the election and who does their hair, not what they ate for breakfast and why they used a particular kick.
It is the packaging and the imaging and the talking, not the racing, that we need to worry about.
Judge people by what they are capable of. Well, yes. But professional athletes have been sneaking away from that for some time. They are what they can do . . . and how they look and what they can sell and the trademark phrases they spout at reporters.
And one of the things that bothers average civilians about celebrities is how much they complain that you are looking at them.
I'm glad female athletes are finally getting bigger billing. We need more of it. The solution to female athletes being talked about badly is not simply to complain about the bad incidents but to talk about them better, to focus on the right thing. To publish profiles that focus on substance, not frivolous arcana. Give us more of everything.
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