Saturday, February 20, 2010

Forgive me Mother for I have sinned

Was anyone else as uncomfortable as I was seeing Tiger Woods’ mom at his already awkward enough press conference last Friday?

When a public figure is caught with his pants down, it has become commonplace for a betrayed wife to take her place stoically beside her wayward husband while he begs for public forgiveness. The subliminal message of these theatrics is not hard to discern: if she can forgive me, why can’t you?

Recently, however, men who have made a marital mess are being left to clean it up themselves. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned—just ask Mark Sanford or John Edwards, both of whom performed ritual apologies alone. In response to this trend, the rules of the apology game are being quickly re-written to make a virtue of necessity: nowadays, the man who stands alone hopes to be seen as the honorable philanderer courageously atoning for his sins by sparing his already aggrieved wife the humiliation of publicity’s glare.

In the case of Tiger, though, this is a tough sell. It's pretty clear that Elin skipped the apology press conference not because she hates the press, but because she hates Tiger.

Perhaps this was just as well for Tiger, given the racist undertones of this sex scandal from the very beginning. For many Americans, I suspect that the true scandal here concerned more than a simple marital transgression (well, ok, a lot of marital transgressions). But what's so scandalous about that? Particularly when it comes to our star athletes, Americans actually seem pretty comfortable with the idea that sex with whomever one wishes, whenever one wishes is one of the perks of the job, whether or not the athlete in question happens to be married.

Of course, Tiger Woods is no ordinary athlete in America. He is a man of color in a white man’s game—the one who crossed the color line and in so doing brought renewed vitality to a sport whose longstanding racism (not to mention its anti-semitism and sexism) nearly paved the way to cultural obsolescence. It’s no surprise, then, that Tiger Woods was regarded by many in the golf world not so much as an African-American golfer as a post-racial figure. That is, until it was revealed that the man they had let into their elite club had a thing for sleeping with white women. With that revelation, Tiger suddenly became Black again on his way to being kicked to the curb (check out this recent Vanity Fair photo spread to see what I mean about the re-racialization of his body). Talk about a high-tech lynching.

Against this troubling background, it’s hard to know if America would have been ready for a public display of interracial marital harmony, even if Elin had been in the mood to stage one. With Elin out, however, Tiger faced a daunting forgiveness deficit.

Enter his mother.

To be sure, there is no more powerful symbol of the capacity to forgive than a mother’s unconditional love. But what Tiger and his handlers overlooked was the “ick” factor here. If Tiger had been caught gambling or evading his taxes, his mother’s presence at the apology might have made sense. But this is a sex scandal, and it doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to know that people will find it creepy to hear a son talking about his sex addiction in front of his own mom. Sexual liberation has broken down lots of cultural taboos, but what parent doesn't get the willies just thinking about one's kid having sex—and vice versa.

But maybe that’s the point. The force of the incest taboo may be the strongest shield Tiger can rally to inure himself against any further discussion of his actions. Now when we think of Tiger and his wild nights of sexual debauchery, we’re also going to be thinking of his mom. Next topic, please.

Don’t get me wrong, though: I have no problem forgiving Tiger. In fact, if I’d had my way, the matter of his sexual doings would never had made it into the headlines in the first place. What does distress me is the way Tiger's reputation is being resuscitated by recourse—however sub rosa and unacknowledged—to gendered and racist stereotypes. That is a scandal.