Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
It feels almost cliché to say that I have loved watching Women’s Gymnastics during these 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. I can raddle off the names of the “Final Five” like they are my best friends, (Aly, Gabby, Madison, Simone, and Laurie) and have eagerly looked forward to seeing them flip and twist and fly through the air each night. I am especially proud to see a racially representative group of women competing on behalf of a country that is so deeply divided. I have cheered and yelled and cried and kvelled for these incredible athletes as they have achieved super-hero status and celebrity.
But along with status and celebrity comes the inevitable critique and gossip and online hate that so many public figures deal with on a daily basis. In these Olympics, no one has endured more than Gabby Douglas. At 21 years old, Douglas has been a fixture of competitive gymnastics for many years and has broken records for African-American women in Olympic history. She is a role model for hopeful gymnasts of all ages and races and even has her own Barbie.
The hate for Douglas has been brutal, first on twitter and then in the mainstream media. In the past ten days she has endured excruciating public criticism, specifically on her physical body—her uneven hair lines, her messy and unkempt hairstyle, her too-bold lipstick, her hand not on her heart during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner, her face not enthusiastic enough watching her teammates, her too-sassy overall attitude. They have nicknamed her “Crabby Gabby.”
So what do we want from Gabby? What do we want from our female athletes overall?
We want them to be happy. And tough. Muscular. But not too muscular. Confident, but not cocky. We want them to smile. Smile if they win and smile if they lose. Supportive of their teammates. Perfect and understated hair and make-up. Grateful. God-fearing. We want them to be more than super-heroes. We want them to be super-human.
In my second year of rabbinical school, I was given a book called The Rabbi as Symbolic Exemplar, which speaks of the immense symbolic power of a title like “rabbi.” Without preaching one word of a sermon or teaching one class or comforting one grieving person, we put forth a symbolic presence. We may find ourselves symbolizing all rabbis, or reminding someone of a rabbi they knew. As a female rabbi, I often find myself in the position of feeling like I have to represent all female rabbis past, present, and future.
Is that why we are so quick to criticize Gabby Douglas? Do we want her to be more than a 21-year old athlete? Do we want her to be a different kind of symbolic exemplar? A symbol of strength? Athleticism? Diversity? Patriotism? Perfection? Perhaps that is why Douglass has received so much online critique and hate—she hasn’t lived up to the symbolic expectations that Olympic viewers, gymnastic fans, or the unrelenting media have placed on her.
I know that by the time she returns home the online haters will have moved on to their next target. I then hope Gabby Douglas will search #LOVE4GABBYUSA and feel the online support she has relieved during these weeks. I hope she will remember that she doesn’t have to symbolize anything to anyone. I hope she will take a few weeks to wear her hair however she wants, apply her extra-bold lipstick and be as crabby or sassy as she wants. Because her success isn’t symbolic. It is 100% real.