NBC has already got an Olympic-scale problem on its hands with the decision to tape-delay all its coverage, ensuring that events are long-over and amply discussed by the time US viewers get a chance to see them. They are, dare I say, old news by the time people get a chance to actually view them. Which makes it hard to enjoy the Olympics as a collective viewing experience.
Case in point on Thursday when Gabby Douglas hurtled into history, taking individual all-round gold in an impressive display of gymnastics so flawless that a judge’s mouth actually fell open during her vault CORRECTION: That was her teammate, Mckayla Maroney. Oh, did I mention that she led Team USA to gold as well, taking 33 percent of the points?
This girl’s got it, yo.
For viewers patient enough to wait until way after every major news outlet had reported on Gabby’s historic win to watch, NBC finally aired the Olympics on Thursday night. And this happened:
Bob Costas tossed off a transition to London with a reference to Douglas and the message she was sending to young black girls right before commercial break, with a huge picture of her on screen behind him, and the commercial NBC chose to cut to was one of a chimpanzee capuchin, thanks to the numerous readers more zoologically literate than I am! on the rings. It’s a promotion for a new NBC show and the network is clearly hoping to capitalize on the high profile of the Olympics to attract some viewers.
Cut to epic controversy. Some people claim the commercial is racist. Others claim it was accidental.
I think you can guess which side I’m on here.
Let’s start with the “accidental” side, though. People say that NBC has been airing the ad throughout the Olympics, which apparently is supposed to magically make it okay; after all, no one complained all those other times. I for one would argue, however, that since team USA gymnastics includes multiple Black athletes, that ad was dubious no matter when it ran; it was just especially offensive in this setting.
Because there is an extremely long history of comparing Black folks to apes. And you can’t escape that history by claiming that the ad is innocent in nature, or referencing the Olympics, or even paying homage to Olympic gymnasts. It is straight-up offensive.
Particularly when you’re running it sandwiched between coverage about a young black woman kicking ass and taking names in the all-round. The connection here is crystal clear and everyone saw it. Numerous black viewers of Olympic coverage spotted and challenged it, and integrated it into their larger discussion about why race is important here; we’d already seen Douglas’ contributions to the team minimized and erased in media coverage, and now the network slapped viewers in the face with a blatantly racist ad.
“But, but,” the it’s-not-racist people claim, “the rings are a men’s event, ergo your argument is invalid.”
You’re right, the rings are a men’s event, but they are indelibly associated with gymnastics, and the decision to cut from a discussion about Gabby Douglas to a fucking monkey doing gymnastics is transparently racist. Oh, did I mention that John Orozco, a black gymnast, represented the United States in the men’s finals? You might not have heard about the men’s finals because the USA men finished out of the running, but that ad was equally offensive to them and to team USA as a whole.
Because using a monkey is a specially loaded image.
If they’d chosen a sloth, it would have read very differently. Because we don’t have centuries of bullshit racist theorizing about how black folks are a “missing link” between white perfection and sloths. We don’t have centuries of cartoons, jokes and commentary linking black folks with sloths. We don’t use highly caricatured images of sloths to depict major black social and political figures. We don't refer to black men as sloths in an attempt to dehumanize them.
The people who developed that ad chose to use a monkey. Chose to do so with the specific awareness that the United States was sending black gymnasts to London, and some of them would undoubtedly make the gymnastics finals. Numerous people involved in the conception and development of that ad saw no problem with imagery of a monkey doing gymnastics airing alongside some of our most elite athletes, including young black women like Gabby Douglas.
Gabby Douglas owned it on Thursday, and I want to focus on celebrating her accomplishments, but I am not going to pretend for one second that the media’s coverage of her and Team USA hasn’t been racist, nor am I going to pretend that I don’t have a problem with this advertisement.
There are some who want to ask “Why we need to bring race into it” and they’re the same kinds of people who say we live in a “post-racial” society. We need to bring race into it because Gabby Douglas’ race is important. The ad content NBC chose to air alongside coverage of her accomplishments was important. Iconography is important, and NBC sent a very clear message here.