THE MASTER NARRATIVE
"Tyson Verdict Sends a Message." These were the words that greeted me on the front of the sports section of my morning Los Angeles Times on February 11, 1992. The subhead read, "Some say conviction on rape charge shows athletes are not above the law."3 I suppose it was a headline I might have expected on the sports page, but it was hardly the message that was screaming in my head. I was hearing another message, one about racism and patriarchy in America. It was a message I had been anticipating from the moment I first learned that this troubled young black man had been charged with rape.
The Tyson trial was the final act of a three-act American morality play. The play had begun in Washington, D. C., in the fall of 1991, with the Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. The second act was set in Florida, at the trial of William Kennedy Smith, who was charged with raping a woman at the Kennedy family estate in Palm Beach in March 1991. And now, in Indianapolis, the curtain had come down on act three. A more complex and deeply textured message of the Tyson verdict is contained in the social text of this three-act play; the message of and the meaning of this dramatic trilogy can only be understood within the context of a historical meta-story, or Master Narrative, about race, gender, and sex in America.4
It was early the previous evening that I first learned of the verdict in the Tyson rape trial. I was watching a college basketball game on ESPN, the sports channel. The game was interrupted by a news bulletin reporting that, after ten hours of deliberation, a jury had found Mike Tyson guilty of rape and two counts of "deviant sexual conduct." Now two white male reporters appeared on the screen standing outside the Indianapolis courtroom. In a dramatic tone indistinguishable from that used by sportscasters covering a heavyweight championship bout, one of the reporters recounted the events of the past several minutes. A brief video clip showed Tyson leaving the courtroom flanked by two policemen and trailed by his entourage of attorneys and handlers. Prominent among them was Don King, the flamboyant promoter.5
It was July 1991 when I first heard that Desiree Washington, a contestant in the Miss Teenage Black American pageant, had reported being raped by Mike Tyson. I had every reason to believe this young woman’s account of Tyson’s assault on her. Tyson, like Kennedy Smith, had a history of similar behavior.6 He was accustomed to having his way with women. But I was just as certain that unlike the Kennedy brat and Thomas, Tyson would pay for his misdeed. His conviction was inevitable. This was not because his jurors were racists, though their roles in this play were determined in part by our culture’s racism.7 It was because the Master Narrative called for a third act to this play, which had begun the previous September with the confirmation hearings—a third act in which we were told that truth and justice prevail in the American legal system and in which we learned that "good girls" will be protected from the unwanted advances of "bad men."
"Why was this case different from Willie Smith’s rape trial?" the ESPN anchor was asking the reporter who had witnessed the Tyson trial.8 The reporter’s answer was given in the manner of a knowledgeable sports commentator asked to compare the relative merits of Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. Kennedy Smith was a much stronger witness, he said. He was attractive, likable, and well spoken on the stand. He remembered details about the evening. His accuser was confused and couldn’t remember details. She was a much less credible witness than Tyson’s victim, who was articulate and poised throughout the trial and had a clear and consistent memory of the details of that evening. Tyson’s testimony, by contrast to Kennedy Smith’s, was vague. He was inarticulate, brutish, and altogether an unattractive witness. In short, the Indianapolis prosecution simply had a better case. The reporter concluded by saying, "The jury usually gets these things right." In other words, the difference between the William Kennedy Smith trial and the Tyson trial was that Tyson was a rapist and Kennedy Smith wasn’t.
The message of the Tyson verdict was clear. The system works. We know a rapist when we see one, and this is what a rapist looks like. He is big and burly and black and inarticulate. He hangs around with guys with weird hairdos and questionable reputations. He is not attractive and well spoken. He is not William Kennedy Smith, a medical student from a good family.9 He is not Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court nominee, with nuns and law school deans to testify to his impeccable character.10 He is not the white-haired Harvard graduate whose adult daughter tells her therapist she was the victim of incest as a child.11 We do not believe the victims of these men because we know what a rapist looks like. He looks like Mike Tyson.
"JUDGMENT DAY: Payback Comes to Sexual Predator," screamed the headline in People magazine.
After the Clarence Thomas hearings and the William Kennedy Smith
trial, it was beginning to seem as if a woman might never win a
round in the he-said-she-said battle of the sexes. This time, though, a panel of 12 jurors chose to believe the accuser.12
Helen Neuborne, executive director of the National Organization for Women, called the jury’s decision "an important victory," and Miami law professor Mary Coombs agreed that the Tyson case "may mitigate the public image that there’s no point in bringing accusations (of date or acquaintance rape)."13 The rape counselor for Patricia Bowman, Smith’s victim, said, "This sends a message that there is a chance that justice will prevail and that a woman will be believed by a jury."14
The editorial and opinion page of the Los Angeles Times two days after the Tyson verdict was also proclaiming a victory for the cause of women’s liberation. "Reclaiming the Meaning of the Word ‘No’: Tyson Verdict a Clarifying Moment for America," trumpeted the headline of the paper’s editorial. And under the subhead "Direct Message" the editorial announced:
Tyson’s conviction. . . has been hailed as a victory for all acquaintance rape victims who might have been afraid to come forward because they feared that they would not be believed.
Now slowly but surely American society seems to be coming to accept that when a woman says "no" to sex it should be assumed that "no" is what she means. . . . [T]he most enduring—and positive—result from this verdict is that the word "no" may have regained its true meaning as, in this kind of case, the very last word.15
On the next page an opinion piece titled "Sexist Myths Take a Beating," written by an activist woman lawyer, closed with these lines: "Women everywhere should be encouraged by the verdict. The system has shown itself willing to believe rape survivors, at least some of the time, and even against the word of a powerful man."16
Did sexist myths really take a beating in this case? Should potential victims of acquaintance rape feel more secure? Are victims more likely to be believed? The system has always been willing to believe rape survivors some of the time. When black men have raped white women, and often when they haven’t, women have been believed.17 When poor men have raped rich women, women have been be – lieved.18 But the Thomas/Kennedy Smith/Tyson trilogy of cases is not a simple matter of "One out of three ain’t bad" or "This last case shows things are getting better." Women, and men who support feminism, would do well to ask whether the "some of the time that women are believed" is evidence of the continuing vitality of patriarchy, rather than of its demise. We should ask ourselves whether the story told by these cases is the same old story white males have always told and too many of us have believed.
My point here is not to justify or defend Tyson’s behavior or to claim that he is the innocent victim of racism. Nor am I arguing that laws punishing violence against women should not be enforced until we are prepared to enforce them against all. I believe that Tyson was guilty and that he deserved to be punished for his crime. I grieve for his victim, Desiree Washington. I admire her bravery and wish I could find a way to ease her pain. My concern here is with the message of the Tyson verdict, the story it tells, not with the result. I am troubled that too many of us, including many feminists, do not see how sexism and racism intersect in this three-act play to create cultural meanings that reinforce the structures of our subordination. I am worried about the continuing mystifying power of the Master Narrative.
What is the story contained in this trio of sexual assault trials that captured the imagination of America? What is the historical metastory that gives this story context, that transforms it into a morality play? The larger story is a story of stereotypes about race, sex, and class that are deeply embedded in the American psyche.19 It is a story of oversexed black men and wanton black women, of violence motivated and justified by these sexual stereotypes.20 It is a history of black men lynched and castrated in the name of "protecting white womanhood," of black women raped as an expression of male sexual attitudes bred in a culture both racist and patriarchal.21 It is also a story about class, a story where powerful men relegated their wives and daughters to a pedestal of asexual purity and made servant girls their sexual prey.22 Our three-act play is cast with contemporary characters. It is set in a post-civil rights, post-woman’s movement era. The lines have been changed so that the language will not seem archaic, but the story is the same.