Just Call It “Girls’ Gymnastics” and Be Done With It

NBC loves a weeping teenager.

Every four years I try to remember not to be shocked, and every four years I end up yelling at the television, in part indignation and mostly amazement, “Those girls look like they’re 14 years old!” After which I am invariably reminded that, in fact, most female Olympic gymnasts are 14 years old—or anyway the Chinese ones probably are.

That’s right, it’s Olympics season, bringing with it all the mixed emotions that accompany any massive, conquering-nations-of-the-first-world pageant: vague unease at the massive consumption of resources and general thematic bent of the thing, tempered with some pretty epic thrills. And with the media glut that is Olympics season comes, inevitably, NBC, and its eternally ridiculous and overall crappy coverage.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let us revisit the question of the tiny, tiny children launching themselves six feet in the air from a vault this week. The Olympic age limit for women’s gymnastics is 16, but age falsification has long been an issue, culminating in the well-publicized debate about China’s 2008 gold-medal-winning squad. Yet falsification or no, the fact remains that approximately three-quarters of those competitors are either approaching or smack dab in the middle of their teenage girlhood—a period of time that’s pretty darn fraught even if you’re not attempting to win golden glory for your country of origin in front of four billion or so rapt viewers.

So why, NBC and watchers of the world, are we so freaking obsessed with watching these poor ladies cry?

It’s not as if we’ve never seen teenage girls weep before; turn on any ABC Family original series at any hour of the day, and you’ll practically drown in teen and pre-teen tears. The over-dramatic, near-hysterical, troubled young lady is a tragically prevalent trope in our modern culture; girls are inundated daily with televised proof of their insecurities, and the products, sex tips and acne medications they need to make those insecurities go away.  The narrative isn’t new; it’s the content that’s surprising. That NBC and the American media would subject our reigning Olympic heroes to the same treatment as normal beaten-down teenagers? That they would focus so mightily on the tears, the giggles, the hair, the girlish whims? That they would then turn around and refer to the women’s gymnastics team champions as leaders and role models and women of substance, as opposed to the girls they spend so much time and energy depicting?

Yes, we love to watch Olympians of all shapes, sizes, ages and genders cry. Yes, of course, teenage girls cry a lot. (As a former teenage girl, I can vouch, we have a lot to cry about.) Yes, I’m hypersensitive to media depictions of women and girls, in this year of beleaguered feminism. But I just think it’s absurd that we’re talking about Gabby Douglas’s hair and not her impeccable performance; that we’re harping so incessantly on Jordyn Wieber’s very justified sobs. I think it’s ridiculous that Michael Phelps’s docu-style background coverage consists mainly of shots of his abs intercut with footage of him and Ryan Seacrest discussing the crazy intensity of his training, while the women’s gymnastics team’s personal vignettes consist primarily of fraught social lives, family dramas and tearfully emotional interviews.

NBC, if you’re going to call these astounding ladies “women,” then at least do them the courtesy of treating them as such. If Lena Dunham has the guts to call her women the “girls” she considers them to be, then, by golly, so should you.