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When Champions are Shaped by Abuse
How can you be a fan of a gymnast, or an actress, while rejecting the system that shaped her?
I’m impressed by the quality of conversation on the previous post on what differences matter between men and women. As I wrote, everyone has encountered poorly-founded and painful claims on this topic (even if we disagree on which they are). I look forward to sharing highlights from your comments in the next post.
Note: This Olympics post was written before the beam finals!
I’ve been watching gymnastics as my reward for packing boxes (see note)1, despite having mixed feelings about the state of the sport. I wrote an essay for The Bulwark before the Olympics began—since seeing Black Widow left me feeling queasy about being a gymnastics fan.
The story of the girls reshaped and thrown away by the Red Room trainers isn’t so different from the story of USA Gymnastics over the last decade. With the Summer Olympics now underway, I don’t know how to balance celebrating the fortitude of the members of Team USA and rejecting the abusive system that chose and trained them. Natasha may end the movie standing amid the smoking wreckage of the Red Room, but American gymnasts are still fighting to dismantle the system of abuse that they grew up within.
I know now that some of the moments I saw as unalloyed triumph when I was a little girl watching the Olympics were in fact shadowed by abuse. In 1996, when I watched Kerri Strug land her second vault on an injured ankle, clinching the gold and collapsing in pain, I was moved by her strength and stubbornness. I didn’t realize that one of the people rushing to her aid was the team trainer, Larry Nassar, who would go on to take advantage of his position to sexually abuse gymnasts for decades. For years, I’ve been watching young women’s strength be celebrated—and marketed—by forces that have no real respect for the women as people.
The week that’s followed has hardly made it easier. There have been joyful moments (Jade winning gold on floor after stumbling so badly on vault!) but, once again, those moments of triumph have a toxic undercurrent. Jade was one of many women to stumble during the individual events, since the gymnastics federation omits the apparatus warm-ups that happen in the team and all-around events.
Without the warm-ups, it’s harder for the athletes to perform safely and do their best. The federation makes them skip the warm-ups because it helps streamline the sequence of events for TV. As I said above…
For years, I’ve been watching young women’s strength be celebrated—and marketed—by forces that have no real respect for the women as people.
I saw Black Widow with my husband, and he also wrote an essay afterwards (sometimes our post-movie kibbitzing includes calling dibs on pitching certain outlets). He’s touching on some similar themes, but drawing on different examples. Here’s an excerpt from his First Things piece.
In Avengers: Age of Ultron, director Joss Whedon introduced the idea that Natasha’s fertility had been stolen from her. But Whedon, it transpires, may not be so different from his villains. Actress Charisma Carpenter alleges that Whedon treated her with cruelty and contempt during her pregnancy. According to Carpenter, after she told him she was having a baby, Whedon called her into a closed-door meeting to ask if she “was going to keep it.” Carpenter writes, “He proceeded to attack my character, mock my religious beliefs, accuse me of sabotaging the show, and then unceremoniously fired me the following season once I gave birth.” Like the Red Room, Hollywood sets run by men like Whedon have little use for women who have embraced motherhood.
On Buffy, as in the Olympic arena, I’ve been watching young women’s strength be celebrated—and marketed—by forces that have no real respect for the women as people.
And then, for all that, there are moments like this, where the strength of the women outshines everything that surrounds them.
Where do you find yourself cheering for women, but worried about the system that’s selecting and shaping them?
How do you remain a fan and booster of the women, while avoiding being complicit in strengthening those bad systems?
August will be more of an every-other-week schedule, as I prepare to begin a new job (more soon!) and find a new place and prep a move. I’m looking forward to resuming our usual schedule in the fall.