This TIME.com headline ran with an article that explains the reason: A few of Phelps’ friends from back home were loudly paying homage to their hometown Baltimore Orioles.
Hours before, when Gabby Douglas stood on the gold-medal podium, she didn’t laugh; she just stood at attention. She also didn’t put her hand over her heart—and the world of social media roared. Many people didn’t find her behavior as endearing.
Douglas was called “disrespectful” and “unpatriotic.” Phelps, on the other hand, was considered adorable as he giggled with his friends. His behavior will make you “smile.” Hers was enough to send social media into a frenzy of trolling and bullying, to the point that she had to make a statement.
Putting aside the problems with call-out culture in general, we should consider why Douglas and Phelps were treated differently.
Phelps’ public persona is rooted in being one of the greatest swimmers of all time—but his maleness and whiteness factor into that identity as well. He is “the boy next door,” laughing during the anthem with other boys next door who came to see him swim. He is the Opie to the American Dream perpetrated during the “simpler” time of The Andy Griffith Show—a time when women couldn’t get credit cards and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had just been enacted.
Douglas may be the girl next door for many Americans, but not in the version of the American Dream that privileges whiteness. And her visible identities—black, female—put her under different scrutiny. The fact that her behavior is perceived as disrespectful and Phelps’ behavior is seen as cute exposes structural racism and sexism.
I have already written about how the media does not know how to speak about female athletes, but to speak about black female athletes is another, even more complicated discussion that needs to happen online and in our classrooms.
To cultivate cultural literacy about the ways we talk about people of different identities—and to help students see the importance of intersectional analysis—we can use a comparison of the treatment of Phelps and Douglas. Their similarities are specific and parallel, and the differences are so tremendous they cannot be ignored.
To foster critical thinking, we can ask our students first to compare the situations. Once they have observed that the treatment of Douglas differed from that of Phelps, we can ask them the bigger questions:
- Why do you think the response was different?
- Do you think this situation is a one-off, or do you think it is part of a structural problem?
- How does gender matter here (see the comparisons between Phelps and Katie Ledecky)?
- How does race factor in here (see the difference in response to Douglas and McKayla Maroney)?
- How does the intersection of gender identity and racial identity play into this discussion?
The rhetoric used by this summer’s Olympic media has given educators many rich examples that we can use in the classroom to introduce students to intersectionality. We can use these events in popular culture to help our students investigate larger societal issues.
Clemens is the associate professor of non-Western literatures and director of Women's and Gender Studies at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.