The Gabby Douglas Effect: The Heavy Weight Of A Golden Image

August 8th, 2012


There are famous children and there are children of famous people. The public closely watches both to see what they will make of their unusual lives. There’s always a chance that the pressure will affect the child in a negative way as they grow into adulthood.

It’s the type of thought that floods your mind when you’re watching the movie Beasts Of The Southern Wild. Lead actor Quvenzhané Wallis was five-years-old when she was chosen as the film’s star. Now, like many fathers of daughters, I’m looking forward to her growth as an actress and as a person–with fingers crossed.

In the film, Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a spirited child who lives with her gruff father in a thorny New Orleans community called the Bathtub. The story is both dark and inspiring. The images, splashed with sun flair, call up the scent of grass, the moist earth, and the rich feel the muddy outdoors. And Wallis delivers a performance that belies her young years. As a father with a five year old (whom I now playfully call Hushpuppy), I’m reminded daily that five-year-olds are not creatures meant to be corralled. Yet her performance helped earn the film top prizes at Sundance and the Cannes.

But with great success comes greater opportunity to fail. Not just in one’s career. But for children like Wallis, there are personal tragedies that can play out in plain view. For black girls who carry the hopes and wishes of a people (whether they accept it or not) on their little shoulders, there is an added pressure.

Take the Obama girls. The eyes of the nation will be upon them in no time. But the eyes of black people have been peeping the movements of the First children from the swear-in. And they are praying for these girls to move into adulthood with dignity.

When Barack Obama was on the campaign trail, black people would not allow themselves to give voice to their excitement: He actually might win! They’d think it. But the hopeful have been burned too many times to fully allow themselves to buy into America’s ability to see past race. They kept it to themselves and gave knowing nods in public and said silent prayers in the dark. They volunteered, they donated. And they waited.

As the First children come of age, the black community watches with careful eyes. They smile at the children and their history-making family with proud smiles. But behind those smiling eyes there are quiet concerns: Sasha seems a little rambunctious. Let’s hope she finds productive ways to challenge that energy.

Quvenzhané Wallis is not born into a famous family. She was a common five-year-old in Houma, Louisiana before she dazzled audiences as Hushpuppy. Now eight, she’ll surely face different challenges than the Sasha (now 11).

And then there’s the child who has a fame-hybrid child, such as Willow Smith. For Smith, there’s bound to be an entirely different set of challenges. Willow is born of famous parents and she has achieved fame in her own right. She’s the same age as Sasha Obama, but  unlike the Obama kid, Willow has already begun to develop an independent relationship with the media and the public. When she tweeted a picture of herself with a tongue ring in June, she invited criticism from all corners of the internets. She later said it was a faux piercing but the move had already built a relationship with the public that cannot be undone.

To an extent Gabby Douglas is now among the watched. To be sure, she is much older than the children who will be raised in public view, but she has come to represent the coveted black girl role model. Her hair, her poise, her dedication to her sport. Black fathers point at the screen where Douglas is flipping and twirling and say, “Look at her go. Think you can do that?”

Douglas was raised by a single parent. Though her hair style was the subject of much mindless chatter, she has so far handled her newfound fame with class. But there was no way she could have known, in her 16 years, that the gold medal would come with the heavy burden of a people.

Sure, there are those who will say that true equality is achieved when black children and white children can fail equally without regard to race. But as long as Princess Tiana is the only Disney role model for black girls, she can’t afford to turn into a frog.

So the world will be watching these black girls as they make the transformation to watched black women. And most will be hoping they will do so with dignity and be afforded the missteps that come with growth, for their own wellbeing and for some semblance of balance in my own little Hushpuppy’s world.

Oh, and this one below might require a different blog post altogether.

2 Responses to “The Gabby Douglas Effect: The Heavy Weight Of A Golden Image”

  1. I wonder how making our lives so public will affect us 20 years from now, or even 10 years.

  2. [...] MUST READ: The Gabby Douglas Effect: The Heavy Weight Of A Golden Image [...]

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