Double Standards, Sexism Shape Woods Story

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Washington Post columnist Robin Givhan observes that the press has stereotyped women linked to Tiger Woods by their jobs. She's particularly concerned about the way their occupations, such as model and waitress, are seen as evidence of the women's low moral standing.

NEAL CONAN, Host:

Amid the flood of stories about Tiger Woods' infidelities, the women linked to the world's most famous athlete are almost always described by their physical attributes and by their jobs - as a lingerie model or cocktail waitress - as if those jobs alone instantly identified women who sell underwear or deliver martinis as tarts who could only be expected to engage in adultery.

TALK OF THE NATION: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Robin Givhan joins us from the studios at the Washington Post. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

ROBIN GIVHAN: It's nice to be here.

CONAN: And the listing - you're a journalist, once a sex scandal rises to the level of news, once the identity of an alleged mistress has been disclosed, how else do you describe her as Mary Jones, 38, librarian?

GIVHAN: Well, I think if she - if some of these women had, in fact, been librarians, I think we might have had a different response to them, in general. But it just - what really struck me was that there seemed to be this kind of double standard that, you know, Tiger Woods obviously is the famous one in all of this, and so he casts a much bigger shadow.

But there seem to be this desire to, well, let's hear from Tiger. Let's hear what he has to say. Tell us why this happened. Tell us what's going on in your mind. I mean, for all the insults thrown at him, there was also this desire to understand what was happening. And the women just seem to be kind of stacked up, one on top of the other, as sort of commodities.

CONAN: Mm. It's interesting. The - one was identified as a presenter, as they would say in England, which is where she's from - as a news reader, in fact, an anchorwoman. But nevertheless, an additional modifier was added to her professional CV.

GIVHAN: Right. I mean, she was referred to as a cougar, and it seemed like part of what was happening was, you know, in this sort of 24-hour news cycle which allows us to receive all this information that there also is this need to kind of quickly put these women into types. And I think our popular culture have kind of used cocktail waitress or lingerie model or model in general as a really easy way to mark someone as a type. And it just seemed unfair to me that while, yes, there's a financial discrepancy there and thus a power imbalance, that shouldn't automatically imply that in some way, because these women performed these particular jobs, that they were somehow predisposed to fall for, you know, this famous golfer.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. You do admit that there are a couple who have been described as porn actresses. And their credentials here have to be questioned.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GIVHAN: Their credentials need to be questioned, and I am fully willing to concede that if you decide that porn star is your life's work, then you've made some very serious decisions about how you'd like to be portrayed.

CONAN: And some people might make assumptions about you.

GIVHAN: Exactly. Exactly.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

GIVHAN: But I don't think that you've made that same decision if you've decided to be a waitress in a diner.

CONAN: And - well, cocktail waitress - someone was - the waitress at the - a pancake waitress. But nevertheless, cocktail waitress has always had a certain kind of - I always thought women who had jobs that worked at night were particularly vulnerable to this type of stereotyping.

GIVHAN: I think that's true. I mean, I think that part of what happens is that these - some of these jobs kind of feed into a male fantasy. I mean, that's kind of, you know, part of how they're defined. I think cocktail waitress falls into that category. I think lingerie model falls into that category. And you really have to become the equivalent of, you know, a Tyra Banks or a Heidi Klum - women who have created their own financial empires, to some degree - before you can sort of shake that off.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. We're talking with Robin Givhan, fashion editor at the Washington Post, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for criticism. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And Dawn is on the line from Cincinnati.

DAWN: Hi. I - my comment is that the women that seem to be targeted are women that are in everyday situations that minimize who they are in his eyes. And I think that he has an issue with sex addiction, and I think that they just make it an easy target for him that because they are so accessible, I mean, he's able to act out his addiction.

CONAN: So that by the nature of their jobs, they are more - what? Their occupation plays into this because they - they're around men?

DAWN: Yeah. I mean, I think that because he - you know, it's very hard for him to be around what you would consider normal people. And he wouldn't get away with that on a higher plane that...

CONAN: On behalf of cocktail waitresses, aren't they normal people?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAWN: Well, they are normal people. But they're also, you know, more - I mean, Tiger's not getting accessibility to engineers and - I mean - and not in a sense of being able to have sexual contact with them.

CONAN: Well, I guess that's possible. But, nevertheless, it does play into the stereotype, don't you think?

DAWN: Yeah. I do think it plays into the - I absolutely do. I think that - but I also think that something that's not being talked about is that, you know, I believe that he has a sexual addiction and that they make it because he's targeting those type of people that it makes it easy prey.

CONAN: OK. Thanks very much for the call, Dawn. Appreciate it.

DAWN: Thank you.

CONAN: And, again, it seems to be more about him than them.

GIVHAN: It does seem to be more about him than the women. And also, I mean, I do think that what we were talking about, the women that we were talking about were being identified as, you know, the engineer or the physician or the kindergarten teacher, I think that we would respond to them in a different way. We would respond, I think, with surprise and we would start asking ourselves, well, what on earth could they have been thinking? What would have made them do something like this? And it would not be as easy to sort of dismiss them and say, oh, well, clearly, it was, you know, for the rush of fame and for the money. And, you know, and they were just at such an extreme disadvantage.

CONAN: That we would immediately assume that they had base motives here, as opposed to thinking about what may have - how they may have gone involved here.

GIVHAN: Well, and there's also that, you know, the idea that a wealthy man marries a woman of lesser means, therefore the woman must clearly be after his money. And I think that's another assumption that we often make. And I think, you know, certainly, the most high profile examples of that we remember, and we use that as a template to judge every other relationship that has that kind of financial distance.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. At another time and place, hat check girl or perhaps that might have been the...

GIVHAN: Cigarette girl. Exactly.

CONAN: Cigarette girl. Yes, exactly. I've forgotten about that.

Telsey(ph). Telsey is on the line with us from Boulder.

TELSEY: Hi. I'm - first, I want to say I'm so excited that I - this is the first time, like, ever - had my call picked up, so thank you so much.

CONAN: Well, you're welcome. Thank you for your call.

TELSEY: But I just wanted to say that - just a comment that I really appreciate this thing brought up, because it seems as though people in the service environment, in the service occupations tend to be singled out as being of less character when this kind of behavior is not particular to any profession. And, in fact, if women are using, you know, their sexuality to get ahead as a cocktail waitress or a stripper or as a prostitute, obviously, they're doing the same thing in other environments. And it's just not as overt. It's not as obvious. And that's all I wanted to say. I'll, you know, listen off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: All right, Telsey. Thanks very much for the phone call.

And the vulnerability of women. This - well, this goes back to a very basic divide between men and women and the distinctions between power and, as you were talking about, Robin Givhan, economic power is a big part of it.

GIVHAN: Yeah, absolutely. And, I mean, that's, I think, one of the justifiable reasons to bring up the occupations of the women to basically raise that red signal and say, listen, these are not women - these were not relationships that were on an equal level in terms of the power and who had the upper hand. But I don't think that those occupations should be raised like a smoking gun...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

GIVHAN: ...that says simply because you do lack the same kind of financial wherewithal, that automatically means that your morals should be impugned. And, you know, who knows why these women wanted - slept with or didn't sleep with him.

CONAN: It's interesting, also - in a way, the same kind of descriptions of Mrs. Woods, Elin, who is always described as a former model - and, indeed, that's true but, nevertheless, it's only part of who she is and was - and the daughter of a very distinguished diplomatic family, among other things.

GIVHAN: It's true. And I - you know, it's not particularly popular to defend models who people sort of look at and think that they have sort of gotten all the advantages in life.

But, I mean, I do think that, you know, you could be modeling, you know, jeans and t-shirts for the Sears catalog and 10 years later, you could be the subject of media scrutiny and you would think that you had, you know, posed topless, you know, for someone. And it's that use of it and the fact that it's a profession that's so closely linked to women that, to me, made this something that - it just made me uncomfortable.

CONAN: We're talking with Robin Givhan of the Washington Post about the women who have been linked to Tiger Woods and the stereotyping that has gone along that has gone along with a lot of their identifications. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

CONAN: And Jane is also calling, Jane calling us from Long Island.

JANE: Hi. I completely disagree with the person you're speaking to. I don't think that they're being stereotyped. I think that you're overlooking the fact that Tiger has only picked busty, white women with long hair. They have portrayed themselves in low-cut things. Not every waitress sleeps with people. And many waitresses don't walk around with low-cut busts hanging out. I think if he met a librarian with that same sort of look, he probably would have slept with her, too. I just think it's the look he's going for. And I don't think that means that all waitresses are like that.

CONAN: Well, no. We're not arguing - in any case, quite the opposite - that all waitresses are like that. But busty, Robin Givhan, you point out, that is a word that is frequently associated with these alleged mistresses.

GIVHAN: Yeah. Well, they're - I think they've been sort of caricatured, and the two things that sort of have been used against them have been a look and has been an occupation. And when you start talking about the way that they dress or a particular look, then, again, I think you start getting into very dangerous territory because it's essentially saying that - it's impugning someone because of, you know, the length of their skirt or just how low-cut a shirt might be. And, you know, this - I don't think any of these women will, you know, fall into the category of having been inappropriately dressed for the situation.

I mean, one of the things that's happening, of course, is that as these things come out of the woodwork, well, yeah, the photographs that are appearing tend to be photographs taken when they were at a bar or in a club or at a party. It's not as if they're catching them coming out of Sunday church service and putting those photos online.

CONAN: Let's go next to Rich, Rich with us from Rochester in New York.

RICH: Hi. There's a few points that - you could talk about this thing forever.

CONAN: And a lot of people have.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RICH: Yeah. There's two things going on here. Number one is, talking about Tiger, I think it's a cop out calling him an addict. He...

CONAN: Well, the fact is we don't know.

RICH: Yeah. This is - I mean, people are giving him this excuse that he's an addict. There are many people who do things because they like it. They drink coffee, whatever. This was an event of opportunity. These women availed themselves to him. He was exposed to them. And if he - the reality is if there was 15 women, how many women is he exposed to all the time? Number two, these women made these choices. Every single one of them were adults. Every single one of them put themselves in this situation. For me, I - and I don't know if it's about what they do. We all know Tiger's a golfer, so we've already - we already have him defined. We - now we're defining those girls. And as them being commodities, they don't look like commodities because there's only one Tiger and there's - we don't know how many of them. I think...

CONAN: Well, that's argue - you did point that out, Robin Givhan. I mean, they have the disadvantage of numbers. There's one protagonist to this story. And then, well, there's a long list of other people here.

GIVHAN: Well, that's true. And - I mean, I think the caller's points - makes a very valid points. But I would also say that, you know, we had the advantage of seeing all of this sort of from a distance as if it's a play unfolding on stage. I think for these women, a lot of them perhaps did not necessarily think that they were one of however many.

CONAN: Right. They thought of themselves...

GIVHAN: I mean, in their world...

CONAN: ...as one (unintelligible), yes.

GIVHAN: Right. You know, they were a single person having a relationship - an encounter or whatever you want to call it - with another person. So, I mean, yeah, we're lumping them together and calling it, you know, a long list of women and one Tiger Woods. But for them, it was one and one.

CONAN: Let's go, finally, to Amy, Amy with us from Buffalo.

AMY: Hey. How are you doing? I can't believe I actually got on the line. I'm a former cocktail pianist and also worked a lot in clubs alone. And I have to say that for myself, sure, everybody was trying to pick me up. Everybody assumed that I was, you know, loose. And I had to wear, you know, the appropriate garb for that type of gig. But I also had a mother who was in the business who said you don't go home with the customers. I don't care who it was. I got hit on by Bobby Brown. And...

CONAN: Wow.

AMY: And, you know, yeah, Bobby Brown, the Bobby Brown.

GIVHAN: I think you made the right choice.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AMY: Well, of course, I did. I mean, he's an idiot. But, I mean, a lot of the famous and not-so-famous people would come in to my piano in a bar and I'd say, look, you know, I'll play a song for you but, you know, I don't do windows and I don't do customers.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AMY: And, you know, you just got to have some wits and you've got to have the self-esteem. And I think, unfortunately, a lot of women in these professions take them as a - because it's their only option and because they don't have the self-esteem or the education or the self- education - in my case, I never passed high school - to actually get a different gig.

CONAN: Well, it sounds like your mother gave you an education, too. So...

AMY: Oh, she is a beauty. She is a wonder. And my grandma, too. I mean, and my daughter is a fourth generation musician, and she knows the same rules.

CONAN: Amy, thanks very much for the call, and thanks very much for the education.

AMY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

AMY: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Robin Givhan, and thank you for your time today.

GIVHAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Robin Givhan with us from the Washington Post, where she's the fashion editor. You can find a link to her article "The Tiger Woods Scandal is a Tale Of Sex — and Sexism" at our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tomorrow, after the housing crisis, rethinking the American dream, should every one own a home? Join us then.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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