Representation: Why is Simone Biles…?
She has 25 World Championship medals and 7 Olympic medals, including 4 golds, overcame poverty, and is the most decorated gymnast the world has ever seen. Acknowledged by many as the greatest gymnast of all time, Simone Biles is seemingly faultless, a picture of perfection. Given her accolades and unmatched success, how could anyone see Simone Biles as anything less than magnificent? To any unknowing person, a Google search would confirm this perception.
With Google results generating terms such as, “inspiring”, “the goat” (greatest of all time), “inspiring”, and “the best”, it would seem Simone Biles is overwhelmingly, positively, renowned. This search also mentions Biles winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom, not a medal for her gymnastics performance but an extremely high honor in the United States. Why Biles was awarded this honor goes beyond her athletic talents and uncovers a far more controversial narrative than these search results would entail.
After capturing the all-around individual Olympic gold medal at the Rio Olympics in 2016 Simone Biles withdrew from the competition at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, forfeiting her chance to defend her title. Biles’ withdrawal was entirely on her own terms and an effort to protect her mental health. Biles described her decision process to reporters, explaining the stress she felt as well as her inability to nap, stop shaking, or simply go perform and have fun after years of intense training for this very moment. She said, “You have to be 100%, if not, you get hurt,” and added that upon attempting to compete she realized, “No, my mental is not there”.
Biles made this decision with the intention of protecting her health and safety. Unlike many other sports, one instantaneous false step in gymnastics could leave gymnasts with severe or life-altering injuries. Despite this, Biles was met with harsh criticism, though this was not necessarily obvious in an initial Google search. Some personalities, such as Piers Morgan, Charlie Kirk, and Clay Travis reactions were documented on Twitter and subsequently went viral.
With viral characterizations of Simone Biles as weak, selfish, shameful, and a poor role model, members of the public not only refute the positive Google search suggestions but expose the broader stigma around mental health in modern society. While this entire piece aims to analyze the suggestions of search engines, it is important to acknowledge the negative reactions Biles received, those which, in my opinion, continue to act as obstacles to improving the collective conversation regarding mental health. Without acknowledging these opinions, like those of Morgan, Kirk, and Travis, and how they could potentially hurt Biles or someone who is neither famous nor in the public eye, a true analysis of search engines would fail.
With Google being an American company just as Biles is, it is also important to see how other search engines compare in their suggestions. Upon searching on Bing and Yahoo, 2 other American search engines, many results were like that of Google with only a few differences.
Many search results are the same as Google’s with positive connotations of Biles as “the goat” and calling her a hero. However, Bing and Yahoo contain search suggestions that refer to Biles’ withdrawal and mental health, describing her as “out”, “not competing” and “crying today” in a way that Google failed to. Nonetheless, both engines still paint an overall positive perception of Biles even with their slight acknowledgment of her experience at the 2021 Olympics. Additionally, when using the search engine Ecosia, a German search engine, the autosuggestion results match that of Google, Bing, and Yahoo.
Across the 4 previously mentioned search engines, the first page of their search results matches the positive reflections of their search engine autosuggestions. And, when articles did appear documenting Biles’ decision not to compete, their attitude was solely that of praise for her bravery.
So, is this positive perception across search engines wrong? Or, in other words, is there an issue with how Biles is portrayed? While she does deserve to be hailed for her achievements and bravery in addressing and speaking publicly about her mental health, the search results each of these 4 engines provide are somewhat problematic. In her novel, Algorithms of Oppression, Saifya Umoja Noble writes,
“What we find in search engines about people and culture is important. They oversimplify complex phenomena. They obscure any struggle over understanding, and they can mask history.”Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression, 116.
Nobles’ description is extremely applicable to Biles, as a simple search for her combines both a personal and cultural topic. With search suggestions and results regarding Biles as solely a positive figure, they fail to acknowledge that not everyone sees her this way. While one might argue that differing opinions are true for any searchable person or that these results are valid because Biles is this overwhelmingly person (which I am not saying she is not), leaving contradictory viewpoints hidden leaves the problem unaddressed.
With overall positivity, these search engines entirely oversimplify a complex issue and do serve to mask history, as Nobles suggest. It is, however, a paradox. How could a search engine successfully portray potentially damaging counterarguments to tell the whole story while simultaneously diminishing their negative effects? While I do not claim to have the answer to this question, I believe it is a topic worth exploring. If Simone Biles is only seen as a hero with her critics left unacknowledged, we, as a society, leave the issue unaddressed and allow it to happen again. Without openly sharing and subsequently denouncing opinions of those with mental health battles as “weak” or shameful, search engines allow the stigma around mental health to continue and grow.
Langmann, Brady. 2021. “If You’re Criticizing Simone Biles, This Is the Company You Keep. Think about That.” Esquire. Esquire, July 28, 2021. https://www.esquire.com/sports/a37154782/simone-biles-olympics-mental-health-criticism/.
Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York University Press, 2018.