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The Tiger Woods scandal is a tale of sex -- and sexism

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 2009

The women whose names have been linked to the transgressing Tiger Woods have been described, in part, by their physical attributes -- busty -- but also by their day jobs. The list of ladies has included both cocktail and pancake-house waitresses, a lingerie model and two porn actresses. One woman was described all over the Internet as a British broadcaster -- or television presenter, as the folks across the pond would say -- but because that didn't sound nearly tantalizing enough, she was given the added description of being "a cougar."

All the women have been engaged in various degrees of denial, obfuscation or the kind of eager, guttersnipe gossiping typically used to ratchet up the price of a tell-all tabloid interview. None of the women, however, has managed to exude the sort of righteous indignation that one would expect from someone wrongly accused of sleeping with a married man or the shame of having such a dark secret found out.

In many ways, the women have gotten, if not what they deserve, then surely what they could have expected. They are being portrayed as tarts, self-serving women who have stretched the definition of right and wrong until it has snapped in two.

But while Woods is being portrayed as complicated and troubled, the women are merely types. Golf fans muse over whether Woods's reputation can be salvaged, whether it should be salvaged. The women are just "the mistresses." The golfer has been called a dog, a liar and worse. But he still gets the benefit of being perceived as an individual. He is still Tiger Woods.

There are countless explanations for adultery -- loneliness, insecurity, narcissism -- but there is no defense for it. But also indefensible in this ever-growing sex saga is how certain occupations seem to serve as generic evidence of the women's low moral standing as much as the actions they are accused of committing.

For the purposes of this discussion, the job of porn actress will be taken off the table. It seems fair to say that if you have chosen porn as your life's work, you are content with being judged as slimy, stereotyped as skeevy and maligned as sleazy -- "Boogie Nights" and Rollergirl notwithstanding.

But the way in which jobs such as waitress and model have been tossed about in the Woods story, with a kind of wink and a nod, one would think there is something inherently tawdry about carting pancakes or martinis around on a tray. And while no small number of parents might hope that their daughters find a more intellectually stimulating profession than modeling underwear or swimsuits, it's not as if posing in skivvies -- even for a brand called Trashy, as is the case with one of the accused women -- is the equivalent of hanging upside down on a stripper pole with a wad of Benjamin Franklins stuffed in your G-string.

Waitressing and modeling are jobs typically associated with women, which makes maligning them seem rather sexist. And unless one manages to become the equivalent of Tyra Banks or Heidi Klum, who once strutted around in Victoria's Secret lingerie and a set of angel wings, they are not especially well paying, either. (Although one of the "Trashy models" on that company's Web site is burlesque star Dita Von Teese, who has made a name performing at parties for the likes of Fendi, and who regularly receives a seat of honor at runway shows for such houses as Chanel.)

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Because of the financial imbalance between the billionaire Woods and the women linked to him, there's a power imbalance, too. So it makes sense to hold up the occupations as emblematic of that inequity. But there's something else going on as well, something that speaks to the idea that certain jobs -- banal jobs that popular culture has tainted -- are an indication of moral fiber, of self-respect and of just how easily one might crumble in the face of wealth, fame and a big, wide smile. Maybe we should begin by blaming Hugh Hefner and his Playboy bunnies for forever transforming the job of shuttling drinks around a lounge into something that is suggestive and sexually tantalizing. It doesn't seem to matter that back in their heyday, those Playboy bunnies followed all sorts of rules about how they were supposed to walk and bend and comport themselves in the room. No matter, the tease is what everyone remembers, and what has stuck in the psyche.

Modern times have also given us such places as Hooters and lesser-known establishments that entertain their customers with buxom waitresses wearing body-revealing uniforms. Surely a woman who dresses in such a way must have a party-girl, anything-goes personality to match. Or so goes the thinking.

It doesn't seem to matter that there are a host of other images portraying waitresses in just the opposite light. Does anyone remember TV's long-suffering "Alice," or the beleaguered Michelle Pfeiffer in the film "Frankie and Johnny"? Or what about all the unidentified fast-talking, no-nonsense waitresses who have populated sitcoms and dramas over the course of the years? They seem helpless in the face of a single stereotype of a gold-digging man-stealer.

For the women connected to Woods, their fairly mundane 9-to-5 gigs serve as a smoking gun of bad behavior.

* * *

And pity the poor women who have ever been models. It does not seem to matter if one's only experience modeling was as an infant promoting Gerber's. If you should ever find yourself under media scrutiny, you will forever be referred to as a former model, a kind of shorthand meant to imply that you are vacuous -- all style and no substance. Consider Woods's wife, Elin Nordegren, who has been described as a former model even though her biography indicates that she has spent a far greater portion of her life as an au pair, wife and mother. It would be one thing to describe Cindy Crawford as a former model -- the job actually speaks profoundly to who she is and how she came to be part of the popular culture dialogue. Nordegren? The only reason for reminding folks that she once modeled seems to be to paint her as someone who falls into the broad category of "Tiger types."

Whatever might have occurred between Woods and all these women might never be fully known, and frankly, that's the way it should be. But for all the careful parsing of Woods's character, the attempts to reconcile his public persona with what might have been going on in the shadows, the women are being lumped into broad categories. They are being stereotyped as usual suspects for this sort of behavior.

Who knows? Perhaps some of these women make a habit of sleeping with married men. But in the same way that the man in this tabloid drama gets the benefit of ad nauseam motivational dissection, so should the women. They are not as famous as Woods. They didn't change the nature of golf, or sports in general. But just like him, they are human and flawed. Adultery is indefensible. But so is turning these women into interchangeable commodities.

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