Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Beauty, Race and Tiger Woods

I was really going to stay away from the Tiger Woods debacle. Exploring the story from a sociological analysis would inevitably lead to jokes, bad taste puns and other nonsense (those are here, keep reading). But Eugene Robinson at the WaPo wrote an op-ed today that I think is worth commenting on.

Leave Tiger alone. Enough with the puns -- we get that he's really just a "cheetah" in disguise. Enough with the Barbie-of-the-Day revelations -- we get that he's attracted to a certain type. Enough with the whole thing -- we have far more important things to worry about.

Yeah, right. Sit down with a friend over lunch and try to have a conversation about health care, climate change, financial regulation or Afghanistan without straying at least once onto the oh-so-unimportant subject of Tiger Woods's philandering. I've given up trying to deny that the unfolding saga is compelling, even if paying attention leaves me feeling a bit disappointed in myself. Prurient interest is rarely something to be proud of.
I was at a friend's surprise birthday celebration last night, and Tiger was the talk of the table. Everything from why athletes shouldn't be role models (they're "just models" as Maureen Dowd wrote), to the bad puns ("He's no Tiger, he's a Cheetah," "I thought driving was his strong suit" etc.), to the number of "transgressions" and the doctored pictures floating around the internet were discussed. Robinson adds a few zingers himself.
I'm beginning to fear, actually, that the unfolding may never end. If you're the richest, most famous athlete on the planet, and you have an eye for cocktail waitresses and nightclub hostesses, the opportunities to cheat are probably limited only by the number of hours in the day. It's becoming clear why Woods's initial mea culpa was worded vaguely to cover any and all "transgressions." Wouldn't want to leave anybody out.

But as more women surface with claims to have bedded Woods, one does begin to marvel at his capacity for multitasking. He is known on the golf course for almost superhuman powers of concentration. Who knew that between shots he was also juggling such complicated logistical arrangements? Or did he have an off-the-course caddie to help with that sort of thing, the way Steve Williams helps him choose between the seven-iron and the eight?
Ouch. But eventually he gets to the most troubling, sociologically speaking, aspect of the whole thing: the Beauty Myth and the Barbie Complex.

Here's my real question, though: What's with the whole Barbie thing?

No offense to anyone who actually looks like Barbie, but it really is striking how much the women who've been linked to Woods resemble one another. I'm talking about the long hair, the specific body type, even the facial features. Mattel could sue for trademark infringement.

This may be the most interesting aspect of the whole Tiger Woods story -- and one of the most disappointing. He seems to have been bent on proving to himself that he could have any woman he wanted. But from the evidence, his aim wasn't variety but some kind of validation.

I'm making a big assumption here that the attraction for Woods was mostly physical, but there's no evidence thus far that he had a lot of time for deep conversation. If adultery is really about the power and satisfaction of conquest, Woods's self-esteem was apparently only boosted by bedding the kind of woman he thought other men lusted after -- the "Playmate of the Month" type that Hugh Hefner turned into the American gold standard.

But the world is full of beautiful women of all colors, shapes and sizes -- some with short hair or almond eyes, some with broad noses, some with yellow or brown skin. Woods appears to have bought into an "official" standard of beauty that is so conventional as to be almost oppressive.

His taste in mistresses leaves the impression of a man who is, deep down, both insecure and image-conscious -- a control freak even when he's committing "transgressions."

Naomi Wolfe hit on this almost 20 years ago in the Beauty Myth. The standard of beauty is the white, upper middle class, Playmate of the Month, 100 lb. fashion model; it's a standard most women can never attain and a standard that the most insecure and controlling men gravitate towards. The Beauty Myth has devastating consequences for both women (eating disorders, plastic surgery, violent relationships) and men (the standard objectifies women, turning them into objects or dolls that must be possessed by men).

Of course, Robinson argues that the Woods "transgressions" all fit the same standard, failing to note that Woods' wife Elin is a former Swedish Supermodel. In the pantheon of stereotypes, can it get more stereotypical than that?

But as I've argued previously, we often pass judgment on those who fit the standard with unfair stereotypes as well. We assume these women are as brain dead and silly as the stereotype, yet based on the unfolding events and lurid allegations of the past few weeks, Elin Nordegren appears much smarter than her husband.

And then there is the racial angle to this story and the negative reaction in the African-American community.

On the nationally syndicated Tom Joyner radio show, Woods was the butt of jokes all week.

"Thankfully, Tiger, you didn't marry a black woman. Because if a sister caught you running around with a bunch of white hoochie-mamas," one parody suggests in song, she would have castrated him.

"The Grinch's Theme Song" didn't stop there: "The question everyone in America wants to ask you is, how many white women does one brother waaant?"

As one blogger, Robert Paul Reyes, wrote: "If Tiger Woods had cheated on his gorgeous white wife with black women, the golfing great's accident would have been barely a blip in the blogosphere."

Double ouch. Throw in issues of "passing," authenticity and social class, and you have a real Shakespearian drama brewing here.

I realize it blows the "liberal communist marxist proletariat" image we're supposed to have in sociology, and it's terribly bourgeois of me to admit, but I like golf. I love watching golf and even occasionally playing it (if you can call it that). Having followed Woods' career since the mid 90's, it's disappointing and sad to watch this downfall take on the epic proportions it seems to taking.

Part of this is our celebrity-obsessed culture, natch, which loves to tear down the very icons we build up. Nothing is more entertaining spectacle than watching the mighty fall. And part of it, of course, is domestic, lurid and really none of our business.

But as Robinson notes, these kinds of stories sell soap because they involve the nookie. Sex is easy to understand, affairs make sense, and everyone probably know someone who has "transgressed" at some point. We can "take a position" on the Woods affair(s), because it's much simpler than dealing with health care, prison reform or Afghanistan.

Unfortunately.

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