Shattering the Image: Tiger Woods and Star Scandal

19 05 2010

Perhaps the most important element of understanding stardom as a cultural phenomenon is the idea that stars are made up of, as Richard Dyer says in Heavenly Bodies, “everything that is publicly available about them.” Our knowledge of stars comes is based on their on-screen/public performances (whatever that may be or how tied to talent such performances are) AND all extra-textual moments that occur outside of these “official” public performances as an actor, singer, etc. The extratextual includes public appearances specifically tied to their public performances (such as a star being interviewed on a late night talk show as a means to promote his or her newest film) but, more importantly, glimpses into the star’s private and everyday life. As audiences, we put these textual and extratextual moments together in order to arrive at the overall image of that star.

These extratextual glimpses are “freely” given in the aforementioned publicity moments in order to support a certain perception of the star image and to promote his/her latest project. They retain a certain sense of “truth” because they come from the star, but are always a part of a larger constructed image controlled by various media and celebrity producers. Enter the gossip media and their preoccupation with revealing the “truth” behind this constructed façade. If the audience is preoccupied with discovering who the star “really” is through these glimpses of their private lives, the tabloids promise to deliver this by (purportedly) going around the publicists, managers, studios, and other industry producers who carefully construct a coherent public and private star image. In so doing, they add an important extratextual layer that seems outside of any producer control, when it actually often serves to reinforce a carefully crafted image. Anne Petersen usefully points out that “gossip matters not because it’s true, or because people even necessarily believe it, but because its suggestions become permanently affixed to the star image. And gossip especially sticks when it seems to complement a pre-existing star image.”

Gossip can be a way to confirm what we know (or think we know) about a star based on the textual and more controlled extratextual images. Consider how closely Angelina Jolie’s image is tied to a sexy bad girl self that is constantly reinforced by the gossip media. Despite some attention to her charity works and her role as a mother to her children, the core of her image, I argue, is rooted in this bad girl/sexy siren persona that is reinforced in her films (like the upcoming action flick Salt) as well as in the gossip media, particularly in the ongoing coverage of the “love triangle” between Jolie, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston in which Jolie is still portrayed as a man-stealing hussy. Jolie’s existing star image was, and is, central to the scandalous nature of her initial relationship with Pitt as well as the ongoing coverage of it. Even when her public performances go against this, such as her role in A Mighty Heart, she can’t shake this overarching image. The fact that those movies don’t do particularly well at the box office speaks to the power of the off-screen image to influence audiences’ perception of her on-screen performances.

Good Girl? I think not.

But there also seems to be an important branch of celebrity gossip, perhaps more clearly categorized as celebrity scandal, that rests upon the contrast between star image and “truth.” Instead of rumors confirming what audiences want to believe about the stars based on their public personas, the biggest scandals seem to arise from private life rumors that shatter the carefully constructed star image, particularly squeaky clean images. It’s a battle over the definition of “authenticity” in the star image and who, ultimately, controls it. Who is the “real” star? The one we see presented textually and extratextually and under the control of the celebrity producers? Or the one revealed by the gossip media? Or the one pieced together by audiences? This inherent battle for control is breeding ground for scandal.

Lull and Hinerman suggest the star scandal is a unique type of scandal that erupts when the “private behavior of a public persona enters the public arena under circumstances that are outside of the star’s control.” I discussed, briefly, how this sort of moment of contrast played a role in the recent Sandra Bullock/Jesse James scandal because of Bullock’s role as America’s Sweetheart. But it is even more apparent in scandal surrounding Tiger Woods that dominated the gossip media back in the fall and just won’t go away.

Caveat: I’m not a sports fan, and my knowledge of Tiger Woods is entirely extratextual and largely based on the most recent discussion of his image post-scandal. I recommend David L. Andrew’s piece on Tiger on FlowTV for a more through reading of Tiger’s image. I’m going to focus here on using Tiger and the scandal as an example of this moment of contrast that feeds gossip scandal.

In order to qualify as a scandal, the behavior revealed through the media has to go against the dominant social or moral code. Certainly a star’s sexual escapades or drug addiction, whether it fits with their image or not, has the potential to turn into scandal, and gossip tabloids and blogs are filled with salacious details about the private lives of stars as a way to both build up and break down the glamorous façade of stardom. But there seems to be some difference between the everyday gossip (even if about sexual lives or drug abuse or other particularly potentially morally objectionable behavior) and the “big” scandal that grips the gossip media for weeks, if not months.

For example, it seems hardly a day goes by that Lindsay Lohan and her allegedly drug fueled antics are not mentioned on gossip blogs like Perez or TMZ. Though the first revelations of her alleged drug abuse, stints in rehab, and court appearances were more of a “big” scandal (probably based on the contrast of good girl Disney star gone wrong), now it’s just part of the everyday gossip landscape. Lindsay, and celebrities (who are mostly female) like her, keep the gossip engine moving. They give audiences something new, but something that reinforces what we already knew about her. At this point, this gossip about her is simply the background chatter of the gossip media, not really even a scandal.

The heart of the Tiger Woods scandal rested on the revelation of a “double life.” You didn’t need to be a golf fan to know Tiger, the most famous (and well paid) athlete in the world, as a public figure. Setting aside (for the moment) the notion that his public image was itself highly constructed, the revelation of Tiger’s multiple mistresses and other raunchy behavior completely shattered the “good” Tiger image supported by his athletic achievements and numerous endorsement deals, all of which presented him as accomplished but fairly banal and safe.

"Good" Tiger as Professional Athlete

Tiger rarely appeared in gossip media, and then usually around positive stories like his marriage to Elin Nordegren or the birth of their children. But that is precisely what gave the scandal such traction. I don’t think there was any evidence, prior to the Thanksgiving car crash that started this whole mess, indicating Tiger led a double life or that audiences would even want to believe that he was like all those other celebrities whose public images masked the truth that the rich and famous are also debased and immoral (in other words, NOT AT ALL “just like us,” right?).

"Good" Tiger in an extratextual moment

A range of media sources, and not just strictly celebrity gossip oriented media, gleefully trotted out this binary of the inner and authentic Tiger-as-bad-boy as the “real” Tiger that was carefully hidden by his well managed public image. Even better, for the media, the scandal just kept coming as more mistresses surfaced and the details got more and more salacious, further challenging dominant moral codes. This loss of control over the Tiger’s image was central to this turning into such a major scandal because it intensified the moral violation. Not only had he offended our moral sensibilities by allegedly having multiple affairs, he did so while having the public image of the squeaky clean star athlete. That is scandal at its most fundamental.

The extratextual emergence of "Bad" Tiger

More extratextual evidence of Bad Tiger

Tiger’s subsequent attempts to move past the scandal have generally been focused on his return to golf. That is, to his public performance as an athlete. The few press conference “apologies” aside, he’s not really using the extratextual media (and certainly not the gossip media) as a vehicle to reframe his image. Unlike celebrities who hit the apology circuit in an attempt to reframe their images by appealing to their private selves (People magazine is usually the go-to for this sort of image maintenance, just ask Miley Cyrus or Jesse James ) This may be the wisest move, as it affords him greater control over his image and works to remind audiences of the talent that is at the core of his stardom anyway.

But the reality of star scandals is that they never really go away. They may diminish in intensity, as already the fickle public has moving on to a new scandal du jour and the media frenzy around Tiger has died down somewhat. But this scandal will always remain tied to his overall star image. Interestingly, Nike, one of the few sponsors who didn’t flee from Woods in wake of the allegations, used this in Tiger’s first post-scandal ad, but in a way that speaks to a sense that Tiger is repentant and has “learned” from his mistakes. This is an interesting attempt to recuperate the “scandal” Tiger back into the image in a way that allows him to move forward as a talented golfer (and remain a profitable spokesperson for Nike).

He’s back playing the sport that made him famous, and can use this public performance to rebuild his image. But it will never be quite the same because it will forever be marked by this public revelation of contrast and the ensuing scandal because stars are never simply public performers.




3 responses

21 05 2010
An Admirer

Okay, a few questions:

(1) Do you think alongside the chorus of shocked voices was also some element of smug satisfaction, i.e. “Oh, how the mighty have fallen”? Or was Tiger too universally liked pre-scandal, too much of someone parents across the country actually pointed out to their kids as a role model? It seems when politicians (e.g. Sanford) have such spectacular sex scandals, the reaction is not so much scandalized disappointment as much as knowing head-shaking or even shoulder-shrugging, no?

(2) How the hell did Tiger keep this under wraps for so long?? Between him and Jodie, I’m starting to think the paparazzi might be a rather incompetent lot :o). Or is it just that – contrary to what we might believe – reporters do not actually follow celebrities around 24/7 (unless they’re at the Princess Diana level).

(3) Just an informational one – do you know the races of all his mistresses? Were they all white? And has any commentary you’ve come across provided any analysis of race in this all?

22 05 2010

Good question!

1) I think there’s always that sort of smug satisfaction involved in scandal. We like to see the rich and famous brought down a few pegs, even if he/she was a “good guy,” because ultimately fame can be seen as a corrupting (though desirable) force. I think there were some in the Sandra Bullock/Jesse James scandal, for example, that smugly though “I told you so.” But I think in the case of Tiger Woods, the fact that so much of his image rested on his legitimate talent and ability (as opposed to luck or other “undeserved” fame) that the shock was actually more than the smugness. He EARNED his place of fame, but still fell victim to the pitfalls of fame.

2) I have no idea how he kept this under wraps. Partly because he wasn’t already a staple of gossip media (in the same way that Jodie is more of a “serious” actor). Since paparazzi photogs generally work on commission (i.e. they only make money when they can sell a photo), they spend most of their time chasing those celebs they know will make them money (either because they are “hot right now” or are known to be trainwrecks). Those people get followed 24/7, but since the average golf fan is not the average gossip media reader (I’m assuming!), Tiger wouldn’t be a hot property. I’m guessing maybe also some payoffs to mistresses to keep them from talking?

3) All are white women, I believe. I added a composite photo above. Though the fact that they (like his wife) are white has been mentioned, the I’ve seen more of a focus on class than race. The extra shock here is not that he crossed racial lines (his image has transcended that in some ways), but that he cheated with such “trashy” women who were beneath his own standing (not just as a famous person, but I think as a “proper” upper class role model). The assessment of the women has been loaded with this sort of commentary. Some links, if you dare:–pictures/

23 05 2010
An Admirer

Thanks for your answers!

Yes, it does seem that if one’s fame is seen as stemming from “actual” talent and hence deserved, it’s a different kettle of fish than just being beautiful and/or rich via inheritance.

Thanks for the links to articles about Tiger’s mistresses. It really is fascinating in this slightly icky way to look at those photos and wonder about the whole story. I’m still surprised not more is made about the fact that he just chose white women (or at least, those are the ones who’ve come forward). There was one reader comment about this, but the actual articles, like you say, focus on the class incongruities. I guess if I were really curious, I could look for commentary in publications aimed at African Americans, now and around the time of Tiger’s marriage, to see what they say…

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