(The title of this post differs slightly from when it was first put up this morning.)
Lots of discussion in the blogosphere these past few days about this Eugene Robinson column in the Washington Post: Tiger’s validation complex. Robinson, who is African-American, is troubled by more than the famous golfer’s equally famous multiple infidelities. He’s troubled by the type of woman that Tiger seems to have pursued:
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…
…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.”
There is a long and painful history in the African-American community revolving around the penchant that a great many successful black men have had for pursuing white women. Indeed, the problem (if we can name it that) is a staple of magazine articles and fiction aimed at African-American women. I’m not a commenter on race, so it’s best that I merely note that the reaction Robinson is having is connected to a bitter and complicated history that is a good deal older than the now-disgraced superstar golfer.
But there’s a part of Robinson’s piece that isn’t just about race; it’s about the way in which men of all ethnicities use certain types of women as “trophies.” It is almost axiomatic that female beauty is a commodity which men employ to boost their status with other men. I wrote about this in April 2006, in a post about men, women, homosociality and weight. An excerpt:
Men are taught to find “hot” what other men find “hot.” The whole notion of a “trophy girlfriend” is based on the reality that a great many men use female desireability to establish status with other men. And in our current cultural climate where thinness is idealized, a slender partner is almost always going to be worth more than a heavy one. For men who have not yet extricated themselves from homosocial competition, their own self-esteem and sense of intra-male status may decline in direct proportion to their girlfriendâ€™s weight gain.
Let me stress that this is absolutely not womenâ€™s problem to solve! My goal is not to make women who gain weight feel bad; protecting a fragile male ego is not a womanâ€™s responsibility. The key thing men need to do is get honest about their own desire to use female desireability to establish status in the eyes of other men. And hereâ€™s where pro-feminist men can do a terrific service by challenging one another and holding each other accountable for the ways in which we are tempted to use our wives and girlfriends as trophies.
“Whiteness” can function similarly to “thin-ness”, particularly for men of color. America has a long and bloody history of violence towards dark-skinned men who were even suspected of a sexual interest in white women. For some men of color, to be with a white woman — particularly one who embodies the all-American “Barbie” ideal — is to say to the world “See, I’ve made it. You can’t touch me; I’ve achieved sufficient power and wealth so that I can have ‘access’ to what was once forbidden and could have gotten my grandfather lynched.” I’m not saying that was Tiger’s motive (Robinson is, and he’s in a better position than I to do so). I am saying that bedding whiteness, in the misogynistic homosocial economy, gives status points.
One of the important challenges we all need to take up is that of separating out what aspects of our desires are organic to us, and what aspects are socially constructed and reinforced. Men who are afraid to date heavier women “because of what my buddies will say” or women who are reluctant to date shorter men “because of how we’ll look together in public” do have, I think, an obligation to distinguish their fear of losing status from their actual desires. As we all know, the human libido is flexible but not infinitely so; it can be influenced but not entirely molded by culture and experience. Most of us have preferences and types, as I wrote in 2005, that are to some degree essential to us:
…feminism is not hostile to the body, nor to human sexual responses to the body. Feminism does ask the hard questions about why our culture suggests only some kinds of bodies are worthy of being deemed attractive! Feminism is critical of the extraordinarily narrow range of womenâ€™s bodies depicted as beautiful and desirable in the culture. But thereâ€™s a difference between speaking out against the ways in which popular culture limits the definition of beauty and desire, and rejecting the idea of lust and physical attraction altogether.
Most of us â€” not all â€” have certain physical “types” to which we are often drawn…A “type” does become a problem when certain physical attributes are presumptively linked to certain anti-feminist qualities (submissiveness, docility, and so forth). Most feminists are rightly troubled, for example, by white men who have an “Asian fetish” that is clearly linked to fantasies about submission and sexuality. But a man who simply prefers brunettes, without attaching any cultural baggage to his attraction, is not violating any vital feminist principle. We are allowed our individual quirks and our individual preferences, as long as those quirks and preferences are not linked to racist and sexist assumptions that certain types of women “know how to treat a man better.”
I’d add the Tiger corollary to that, which is that individual preferences are fine insofar as they are not thinly (sorry) disguised excuses for pursuing a particular type of woman in order to gain validation and status in the real or imagined eyes of other men. Untangling what we want sexually from what we ourselves want in order to meet cultural or familial expectations is a universal challenge. Unlike my postmodernist friends, I do believe we have an identity and desires that are deeper than our culture; our sexuality, although more malleable than many imagine, isn’t entirely a tabula rasa. (If that were so, there’d be far fewer GLBT kids growing up in conservative Christian households than there in fact are.)
Part of becoming a responsible, sexually mature adult is doing the often difficult work of discerning what one craves inherently from what one has been taught one ought to crave, and what one has learned will win approval from parents or peers. It ain’t rocket science, but it isn’t easy either. And while Tiger may “organically” crave youthful white women with Barbie-esque proportions, one suspects that for all his achievements, he has not yet come close to gaining insight and understanding of the role sexuality plays in his life. And the consequences of lacking that understanding are, as we have seen in his case, devastating.