Star-Spangled Fingernails: Florence Griffith-Joyner and the Mediation of Black Femininity

In the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, local runner Florence Griffith (who later added the Joyner) burst onto the international scene. The relatively unknown runner earned two silver medals; however, the fame Griffith garnered actually stemmed more from her colorful, four-inch long fingernails and clothing decisions than her speedy feats. Four years later in the Seoul Olympics, the superstar, now Griffith-Joyner through marriage and nicknamed “Flo-Jo” by the media, again dazzled crowds, setting two world records. She also impressed with colorful, self-designed, one-legged bodysuits, and star-spangled fingernails.

As Christine Brennan of the Washington Post recounted, “With her long, painted finger-nails, hand-made bodysuits, flowing hair and deep, mellow voice, Griffith Joyner doesn’t even need gold medals to make it big.” From her clothing choices to her fingernail colors, Flo-Jo’s appearance fostered more public awe and scrutiny than did her athletic accomplishments.

This post examines Griffith-Joyner’s rise to fame, representation in popular culture, and the mediation of her image in public lore. As Flo-Jo both embodied and challenged conventional gender and racial norms, she offers a unique opportunity to interrogate the mediation of black femininity in the United States. The predominantly white, male cultural gatekeepers regularly discussed Flo-Jo’s nails, clothing, and sexuality, consequently deploying long-standing racial ideologies predicated on social signifiers of difference. Such mediation in popular culture consequently reaffirmed normative notions of race, gender, and sexuality. A case study of Flo Jo’s fame and legacy provides insight into the cultural understandings of female athletes of color.

Black Femininity in Sport

Due to the historical prohibitions of middle-class feminine norms in sport, few white women competed in track and field in the first half of the twentieth century. Any woman who did opt to participate in track and field frequently faced stigmatization as an “amazon” or a “muscle mole.” As historian Susan Cahn explained, “black women stepped into an arena largely abandoned by middle-class white women . . . and began to blaze a remarkable trail of national and international excellence” (pg. 112). While black women such as Louise Stokes, Alice Coachman, and Wilma Rudolph helped dismantle certain racial prejudices, black females’ victories in track and field simultaneously reinforced stereotypes of black women as less feminine than white women.

While black athletes participated in sports unabashed, white athletes sought to moderate activities with overt feminine tendencies. The victorious figure of the black female runner thus consequently fused together gender and racial stereotypes. Within this raced and gendered context, Griffith-Joyner emerged in athletics.

Born in Los Angeles, California, Florence Griffith grew up in the infamous Jordan Downs Housing Project, a public housing apartment complex in the historically volatile Watts neighborhood. One of eleven children, she started racing competitively at age seven and simultaneously demonstrated an early inkling for fashion. A stylish maverick, Griffith was once allegedly forced to leave a shopping mall for wearing her pet boa constrictor as an accessory. After running track in high school, she attended the California State University at Northridge and was coached by Bob Kersee, her future brother-in-law. Griffith later followed coach Kersee to UCLA, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

After a successful college career, Griffith entered the international track and field scene. In the 1980 Olympic trials, Griffith qualified for the 100-meter race. Yet, much to her disappointment, the U.S. government decided to boycott the Moscow Games due to Cold War embroilments. However, as previously mentioned, when the Olympics returned to Los Angeles in 1984, she earned two silver medals—one in the 200 meter race and one in the 4-by-four hundred relay—and the international spotlight focused on her unprecedented four-inch-long fingernails.

Two years later, her fame was again enhanced by dual reports of 6-and-a-half inch fuchsia nails and a marriage to Olympic triple-jumper Al Joyner. With the wedding, Griffith-Joyner became sister-in-laws with Olympic heptathlon athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Moreover, in the 1988 Olympic Trials in Indianapolis, Flo-Jo set the world record for the 100 meters at 10.49 seconds, wearing a purple one-legger with blue bikini bottoms and fashioned with lightning bolts. She then proceeded to break the world record in the 200 meters in Seoul, this time donning a white fishnet two-legger and one-inch, bright orange nails with stripes.

As Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune noted, “the glamorpuss who once wore 4-inch, curved, tiger-striped fingernails simply broke world records as if they were going out of style.” Similar accounts reverberated around the world, all primarily focusing on various aspects of Griffith-Joyner’s appearance. Accordingly, the ways in which Griffith-Joyner’s nails, clothing, and sexuality were interpreted in popular culture offers an opportunity to interrogate the production and reproduction of black femininity in and through sport.

The Mediation of Flo-Jo

Flo-Jo’s nails and outfits inspired a variety of public responses, from admiration to disgust. In such reports, she was treated as an Olympic abnormality, through subtle signifiers of racial difference. The reinforcement of blackness as the cultural “other” was fostered through the mediation of Griffith-Joyner’s nails and clothing choices.

In 1988, Frank Litsky of the New York Times, a white, middle-aged sportswriter, penned a piece entitled “A Sprinter’s Form Overtakes Fashion.” In this article, Litsky told his readers to “start with the fingernails.” He then described Flo-Jo’s colorful extremities, recalling that in 1984, her nails were four inches long and she painted three of them red, white, and blue. The fourth, the writer noted, was painted gold, the color of the medal Griffith-Joyner hoped to win. Similarly, a different journalist reported in 1988 that “her nails, trimmed to a couple of inches long after reaching 6½ inches at their apogee two years ago, were orange with stripes Saturday and fuchsia Sunday.”

When covering Flo-Jo’s rise to fame and her international domination, few reporters could resist mentioning her fingernails. Oftentimes, the art on her fingers outshone the medals around her neck. The constant reporting of Flo-Jo’s nails provides an interesting cultural moment where race and gender intersect. Although Griffith-Joyner presented conventional femininity through the maintenance of her appearance, she did so in a way that explicitly expressed blackness. Nails are not only a reflection of individual aesthetic choice, but also an important vehicle that illustrates race and gender.

According to women’s studies scholar Miliann Kang, author of The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work, an individual’s manicure preference demonstrates embodied gender and racial difference. According to King, “women’s choices of nail styles and services reflect the social construction of beauty, which is not based on natural or biological traits but upon socially conditioned tastes that are deeply entrenched in gender, race and class differences” (pg. 98). In other words, regardless of intention, French manicures and pastel colors signal white, middle-class, heteronormative beauty. Long, sculptured, airbrushed nails, on the other hand, are markers of blackness, sexually deviancy, and marginalized femininity. Writers highlighted Flo-Jo’s fingernails as both a source of intrigue and revulsion, subtly emphasizing racial differences. Because she preferred long, colorful nails, the runner was depicted as abnormal, deviant, and different. While blackness was never explicitly mentioned in such accounts, the focus on her nails normalized whiteness.

For example, Paddy Calistro of the Los Angeles Times posited that “even at a more manageable length, the runner’s flamboyant fingernails have been discussed almost as much as her flat feet.” Her word choice suggests white normativity.

The postulation of a manageable length stems from white feminine beauty norms. So, too, does the utilization of “flamboyant” as a descriptor. As another example, Patricia McLaughlin of the Chicago Tribune called them “dragon-lady fingernails” and declared that “long red nails look both dangerous and incapacitating.” Because Griffith-Joyner did not keep her nails short and monochromatic, cultural gatekeepers, such as Litksy, Calistro, and McLaughlin, marked her as non-white and thus non-normative.

Further reinforcing racial and gender difference, journalists resoundingly focused on Griffith-Joyner’s athletic attire. Again, such reports ranged from approval to repugnance. Notably, Flo-Jo received a disproportionate abundance of media glare, most rooted in stereotypes of black female sexual promiscuity. All competitors raced in form-fitting, aerodynamic spandex; however, Griffith-Joyner was constructed as a sexual oddity in lingerie.

As Sports Illustrated reporter Kenny Moore tantalizingly recounted in 1988, “Griffith-Joyner’s electric-plum bodysuit caressed her from neck to ankle. Over it she wore a turquoise bikini brief. Yet her left leg was bare; somehow it appeared more naked than any other bare limb in the race.”

The uniqueness of Flo-Jo’s self-designed adornments allowed the media to focus on her body and her sexuality. A majority of popular articles referenced her designs as bodysuits, eliciting images of scantily clad athletes, situated for erotic voyeurism. For example, Hersch described her lime green bodysuit as “one leg stretching to the ankle and the other cut off at the crotch.” More overtly sexual, after describing Griffith-Joyner’s “shocking pink one-legger,” the Chicago Tribune noted that her race was “run in a negligee—oops, negligible headwind.”

As historian Evelynn M. Hammonds explained in “Toward a Genealogy of Black Female Sexuality,” black women’s sexuality has been constructed in a binary opposition to that of white women’s, rendered simultaneously invisible and hyper-visible. Regarding the latter category, Marilyn Yarbrough and Crystal Bennett noted that the stereotype of the Jezebel exists in the white imagination as the alluring seductress with an insatiable sexual appetite. Such stereotypes, as conveyed on the body of Griffith-Joyner, support the sexual exploitation and subjugation of black women, consequently reinforcing white privilege. The erotic undertones of the mediation surrounding Flo-Jo not only promoted a racialized binary of sexual difference, but implied a promiscuity rooted in blackness.

After the 1988 Olympics, Flo-Jo retired from competition. Although she attempted a comeback for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, tendonitis in her right leg ended her aspirations. Sadly, two years later, on September 21, 1998, Griffith-Joyner died in her sleep at the age of 38. The cause of death was suffocation during an epileptic seizure. Despite her premature death, and the speculation that performance enhancing substances played a role, Flo-Jo’s legacy remains significant.

By analyzing the interconnected nature of race, gender, and sexuality as expressed through the mediation of Florence Griffith-Joyner, one can see how popular lore represented her as the “other”, contrasting her nails, outfits, and sexuality against conventional notions of white hetero-femininity. The media’s fixation on her as different reaffirmed racial distinctions and maintained racialized order in sport.

Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College. She can be reached at pieper.l@lynchburg.edu and can be followed on Twitter @LindsayPieper. Check out her website at www.lindsayparkspieper.com.

One thought on “Star-Spangled Fingernails: Florence Griffith-Joyner and the Mediation of Black Femininity

  1. Pingback: Gymnasts Are Not The Only Fashionistas At The Olympics – The Stylestorian

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