I’m having a little trouble reconciling the “America’s Sweethearts” label with Gabby Douglas’ biceps.
And Simone Biles’ muscular precision. And that video of Aly Raisman climbing a rope without using her leg muscles. And all of their calloused hands.
I love that the Final Five grace the cover of People magazine this week. But I think “America’s Champions” or “America’s Pride” or “America’s Fiercest” would have been a touch less condescending.
Are we in love with them? We are. Are we calling male Olympians “America’s Sweethearts?” We’re not. “America’s Boyfriends?” Nope, not that either.
Sweetheart implies doting. I use it for my kids and my husband. It’s an all-ages, object-of-affection term.
These five - Douglas, Biles, Raisman, Lauren Hernandez and Madison Kocian - are more like warriors. They’ve won more team medals (nine) than the record-holding 1984 and 2008 U.S. teams, and left Russia in their dust. Biles, at 19, is being called the best gymnast who ever lived.
Why are we so desperate to make them our sweethearts?
In 1984, gold medalist Mary Lou Retton was America’s sweetheart - in headline after magazine cover after color commentary. It’s the name of a biography for young readers, “Mary Lou Retton: America’s Sweetheart.” Douglas was dubbed America’s sweetheart by People magazine back in 2012. In July, gymnast McKayla Maroney told Seventeen magazine, “They wanted me to be America’s sweetheart” after her 2012 Olympic debut.
It’s time to retire the label.
It has nothing to do with their accomplishments. It doesn’t do justice to their competitive prowess. And it sends kind of a creepy message to the hundreds of thousands of young girls who look up to these athletes: Be great, girls, and all of America will consider you their girlfriend. Or their daughter. Either way, smile!
Enough. I love that the folks at People put the gymnasts on their cover.
I hope it’s the last time they use that headline.
Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.