The Boxer, the Beauty Queen, and the Rituals of Gender

Michael Awkward

Black women were and continue to be sorely in need of an antirape movement.

—Angela Davis1

To conceive of the study of men to be about liberating men is to have little interest in any area of social analysis that seriously critiques men as men, as part of the problem, not just to women and each other but to society and our continuation as a species.

—Jalna Hanmer2

THE NEW YORK TIMES sports columnist Robert Lipsyte predicted two days after Mike Tyson’s conviction for raping the 1991 Miss Black America pageant contestant Desiree Washington that the former heavyweight boxing champion would become "a symbolic character in various morality plays, a villain-victim of the Gender War, the Race War, the Class War and the Backlash against Celebrity Excess."3 Lip – syte’s analysis was indeed prophetic, as "warrior" respondents ex­pressed strong feelings about the relationship of the Tyson event to these individual "wars." Elements of the trial testimony—particu – larly recollections by defense and prosecution witnesses alike of Tyson’s own words and actions—have fueled some of these discus­sions. For example, according to one pageant contestant, Tyson him­self tied his brazen fondling of several of the pageant entries to his celebrity: "When pageant officials introduced Tyson to the contest­ants during the rehearsal, he said that he wanted to have sex with all of them. ‘I’m a celebrity and we do that sort of thing,’ she recalled Tyson saying."4 This statement indicates that, like many men, Tyson saw female sexual accessibility as an entitlement, as his status-confer­ring droit du signeur. While other issues pertaining to the Tyson event might be similarly bracketed, I believe that a truly cogent analysis of the motivations, broader social consequences, and poten­tial interpretive ramifications of the event must begin with the prem­ise that the wars to which Lipsyte refers are inextricably connected.

Tyson’s legal and media trials have most frequently, in fact, been addressed in athletic or racial terms. This is to suggest not that social manifestations of gender relations do not figure prominently in these analyses but that they are, according to this view, played out here in a manner unique to athletic or racially charged arenas. There is a gen­eral unwillingness on the part of investigators to see the Tyson event as an opportunity to examine the ways in which we as members of this society are deeply implicated in, and struggling with, many of the issues brought to the fore in this case.

Such evasiveness is manifested, for example, in a piece Richard Corliss wrote for Time magazine during Tyson’s trial. According to Corliss, Tyson "seems caged in his chair. . . but in his natural habitat, the boxing ring, Mike is a creature." Clearly, Corliss’s representation of Tyson as an animalistic force has much in common, however un­wittingly, with a history of caucacentric discourse about black ani­mality. He concludes his preconviction analysis with the following claim: "Innocent or guilty, though, Tyson is more to be pitied than feared—not because he may lose his freedom and his livelihood, but because he seems an exemplar of all those sad studs who are prison­ers of manhood."5 Corliss seeks to contain the implications of Tyson’s behavior within androcentric spaces ("prisoners of manhood") that, by and large, the general male population feels it is able to avoid rather easily. For Corliss, Tyson is uninhibited male other, the result of a palpably skewed socialization process.

Afro-American racial warriors, male and female, seem equally unconcerned about examining the sexual implications of the accusa­tions against Tyson, or they see such implications as being at odds with intraracial imperatives. As one newspaper article, which notes the "countless debates" about his conviction, indicates, "While a number of women have been outspoken in their criticism, many oth­ers have accused Miss Washington of helping to destroy a prominent black man. Even if she was raped, these women argue, she should not have made the case public."6 In the case of pro-Tyson female race warriors who believe that Washington might have indeed been raped, group considerations take precedence over other concerns in our never-ending struggle to forge a collective black response to cau – cacentric interests. Certain other Afro-Americans, particularly those whose voices are recorded in black newspapers, seem unable to even entertain the notion that Tyson could have raped his accuser. One of the boxer’s black journalist supporters, for example, argues that "Mike Tyson got jobbed" despite the fact that, as he himself notes, "the evidence, the chain of events, and his less-than-adequate legal team spelled doom for him," and he insists that the "two Black jurors clearly were intimidated" by the "right-wing, ultra-conservative for­mer marine" who "became the leader of the jury in Tyson’s case." An­other black newspaper columnist asserts that black male "leaders" like Tyson, "Clarence Thomas, Marion Barry, [and] Gus Savage" are accused of sexual wrongdoing by "manufactured, manipulated and manicured" Afro-American females who serve as willing pawns of a white patriarchy that seeks at all costs to undermine strong black men. Yet another columnist endorses the proclamations of a black minister who insists, "Here’s another lynching of a Black man. The girl’s story was rehearsed and the Whites backed the girl."7

Such sentiments echo the views of figures such as Al Sharpton, who promises that "no matter what, I won’t turn against" Tyson, whom he thinks "may have been guilty of being very overly aggres­sive with his approach to women, but I do not think that Mike, by any stretch of the imagination, is guilty of rape," and street entrepreneurs who affix Tyson’s visage to T-shirts that proclaim "The bitch set me up."8 Of these responses, perhaps the most startling are the efforts of the Reverend Dr. Theodore Jemison, leader of the National Baptist Convention, who spearheaded a petition drive to collect 100,000 sig­natures in an attempt to "seek a suspended sentence" for Tyson, who is, in Jemison’s estimation, "one of the few ‘modern-day African – American role models.’" According to Jemison, his activities on Tyson’s behalf are justified because the boxer’s legal difficulties are emblematic of the status of "the black male and his ‘general’ plight" in American society.9 These perspectives call to mind, all too vividly, a story Susan Brownmiller tells about an encounter with a black male librarian at the Schomburg Center while researching her seminal study of rape, Against Our Will. The librarian informed her that "to black people, rape has meant the lynching of the black man."10 The li­brarian, a keeper of historical records on Afro-American presence, seems intent on challenging black women’s status as significant suf­ferers in comparison to black men.

Further, those whose work has been as focused on the conse­quences of the gender hierarchy as Queen Latifah and Spike Lee term what they consider his flawed trial the rape of Mike Tyson,11 a fact that speaks volumes about the persistence of views such as those of Brownmiller’s librarian that, given the choice between being atten­tive to allegations of black male victimization and being attentive to claims of black female oppression, the adequately informed investi­gator must choose to be concerned primarily with the plight of Africa’s male descendents. There are profound internal and external pressures not to pursue a course of action viewed by segments of the black population as antithetical to the struggles for social progress, as the beauty pageant sponsor who called Tyson "a serial buttocks fondler" learned when he made plans to sue the fighter. Announcing that he had abandoned the idea, the sponsor said, "I don’t want to be part of an attempt to crucify a black role model."12

Several journalists and, indeed, at least one of the jurors in the case suggested that Tyson’s own testimony and his legal team’s de­fense strategy more generally—"depicting him as a notorious sexual predator in an attempt to persuade the jury that the accuser should have known better than to go out with him and accompany him to his room"—severely hampered his chances for acquittal.13 Nothing Tyson or his lawyers said or failed to say during his trial more clearly indicates that he violated Miss Washington and had no understand­ing of the legal definitions of rape beyond the savage-stranger sce­nario that the legal scholar Susan Estrich identifies as "aggravated rape" than comments made by Tyson himself.14 In proclaiming his in­nocence, he said: "I’m not guilty of this crime; there were no black eyes, no broken ribs. When I’m in the ring, I break their ribs; I break their jaws. To me that’s hurting somebody."15

This concept demonstrates, as clearly as the view that rape is in­consequential next to our need to have inspiring black male heroes in circulation, an inability to acknowledge that nonconsensual sex can have injurious effects on the psyche of rape victims at least on a par with pugilistic beatings and racially motivated acts of injustice. Such comments, the reflection of a mentality that can conceive of sexual "hurt" only in terms of discoloring and bone-fracturing blows, leave little doubt in the minds of any but the boxer’s most rabid supporters about his guilt, if we accept the legal definition of rape as "inter­course with force or coercion and without consent."16 For Tyson, who may believe wholeheartedly that he was merely "very overly aggres­sive" with Washington, rape appears to mean the use of a level of force on a par with that necessary to batter a highly skilled pugilistic opponent into submission.17 Desiring Desiree, and having gained what he may have believed to be her sexual consent by virtue of her willingness to be alone with him in his hotel room, Tyson apparently initiated an episode of sexual contact that, as his accuser described it, is consistent with a pattern of abuse, rumors about which have trailed the boxer since he was a teenager.

Catharine MacKinnon’s discussion of connections between the objectification of the female body and certain masculine notions of sex helps explain factors that could have contributed to Tyson’s be­havior: "To be sexually objectified means having a social meaning im­posed on your being that defines you as to be sexually used, accord­ing to your desired uses, and then using you that way. Doing this is sex in the male system."18 A key to successful objectification of the fe­male body is persuading women of the benefits for them in masculin – ist formulations of women’s erotic utility. The cultural imposition of notions of the appropriateness and inevitability of the female body’s figurations as the site of recreational phallic desire, in other words, depends on the success of phallocentricism’s institutionalizing of its perspectives to the extent that they are unquestioned by large num­bers of receptive female accomplices. Along with financial remunera­tion, which historically has been a major part of our sexual economy, the ability to make her want sex and to be satisfied with being the ob­ject of and the receptacle for male desire—to be deemed physically worthy of inspiring that desire—has been considered by many males and females alike to be appropriate payment for services rendered.

Beauty pageants, in their unabashed reveling in the female form and their practice of rewarding the achievement of a certain measura­ble image of beauty, are among the most lurid sites of the practice of male objectification of women’s bodies in Western societies. As an in­stitution whose raison d’etre is assessment and reward, the beauty pageant codifies and thereby legitimizes evaluative measures that, when encountered by elements of the general population, become the basis of mass vernacular practices of evaluating the female form. Re­cently, beauty pageant officials have sought to appease feminist groups concerned about the individual and social impact of objectifi­cation upon women by bringing to the fore the talent aspect of these undoubtedly entertaining peep shows. Nevertheless, the fact that it would be impossible to imagine a parallel mass cultural male demon­stration of talent—one wherein men would be judged simultaneously on their poise in answering inane questions about the state of the world and on the aesthetic effect of their appearance in crotch-hug­ging bathing trunks and form-flattering evening wear—renders in­escapable the phallocentric dimensions of this social practice. In fact, I would argue that such pageants serve as sites wherein some of the particulars of male hegemony are disseminated and reinforced as as­pects of the eroticizing of male dominance. MacKinnon makes the pertinent distinctions:

Dominance eroticized defines the imperatives of its masculinity, submission eroticized defines its femininity. So many distinctive fea­tures of women’s status is second class—the restriction and con­straint and contortion, the servility and the display, the self-mutila­tion and requisite presentation of self as a beautiful thing, the en­forced passivity, the humiliation—are made into the content of sex for women. Being a thing for sexual use is fundamental to it.19

Whatever redeeming social value beauty pageants can be said to pos­sess, we cannot ignore their role in reinforcing beliefs about women’s inferiority as a consequence of their reduction of the female to the sta­tus of fetishized object. Perhaps the most detrimental aspect of that objectification is its demands for what MacKinnon calls the "requisite presentation of self as a beautiful thing," that is to say, having one’s human value assessed literally in terms of the quality of one’s aes­thetic self-presentation.

I introduce the subject of beauty pageants here because I believe, Tyson’s history of sexual harassment and alleged acts of sexual bru­tality notwithstanding, we must recognize some implications of the fact that the site of the boxer’s initial encounter with Washington (and, in fact, the reason for his and her presence in Indianapolis) was an activity in which such instances of female self-presentation consti­tute normative behavior. According to Tyson’s testimony, beauty pag­eant officials instructed him to respond to the contestants in a visibly enthusiastic manner: "Pageant officials told me to touch, play with, and hug the contestants. I said [to the officials] . . . I like that part."20 If MacKinnon is right in saying that such self-presentation demon­strates female adoption of the social function, "a thing for sexual use," enthusiastic male response such as Tyson’s to females gathered for just such a purpose seems hardly surprising, except perhaps for its remarkable absence of tact.21 While we must censure Tyson’s phal – locentric utilization of pageant contestants during the photo session as will-less playthings, we might also see his behavior during the Black Expo event where he first encountered Washington as a socially conditioned reaction to women who participate so willingly in their own objectification, behavior encouraged, if his testimony is accurate, by pageant officials themselves.

Beauty pageants serve also, I believe, as sites for the projection of many of masculinity’s seemingly contradictory versions of feminine desirability: virginal (or seemingly virginal—hence the emphasis on the contestant’s unmarried status and apparently wholesome na­ture), yet sexually alluring (no more so, perhaps, than during tortur­ous walks across stages in spike-heeled shoes and either bathing suits or form-fitting evening gowns); intelligent (all Miss America contestants, after, are enrolled in a college or university), yet endear­ingly naive (forced to smile constantly while attempting to formulate answers to questions concerning the greenhouse effect or how to achieve lasting world peace); dependent, yet extremely self-pos­sessed. As such, these pageants embody seemingly contradictory as­pects of male desire as well as demonstrate patriarchy’s ability to disguise that desire as mere aesthetic appreciation or altruistic im­pulse.

Washington’s participation in the Miss Black America beauty pageant, her responses to Tyson’s propositions during the photo ses­sion and as a reply to what the female driver of Tyson’s limousine termed his "begging" her to join him (and her eager and excited reac­tion to that proposition), and the rape itself—these are contiguous el­ements in what MacKinnon terms the "systemic context of group sub­jection" called patriarchy.22 Indeed, I will show that the particulars of the female state that to MacKinnon indicate facets of female capitula­tion to male acts of sexual objectification—the "requisite presentation of self as a beautiful thing, the enforced passivity, the humiliation"— can be said to describe Washington’s self-presentation on the occa­sions in question.

On the sashes worn by the Miss Black America pageant contest­ants, there is a silhouette of a woman that represents what some hold to be a distinctly Afro-American ideal of beauty and desirability. Slim, buxom, with a rounded 1960s afro hairstyle, large buttocks, and extremely long legs, this figure stands with her right arm angled and right hand placed (rather defiantly, it appears) on her hip. But if the defiantly placed hand is meant as a visualization of a tendency to­ward noncapitulation, self-confidence, or "attitude" (a sister who don’t take no mess), that effect is undermined to some extent by her uplifted left leg whose foot points downward. At first glance, it is a leg, poised to strike, a lower-bodied equivalent of the self-possessed and obstinately positioned right hand, but, given the context in which the silhouette is offered—as the essence of black female beauty in ob­jectifying self-display—that leg might also be seen as preparing to ex­pose the female sex organs to a perpetual receptivity to masculine de­sire.

At any rate, the image is startling, not merely because of its erotic qualities or cultural encoding of black female bodies but because of the fact that it is just this pose (minus the uplifted leg, but with legs spread suggestively apart) that Washington strikes in published pho­tos that record her participation in the swimsuit portion of the com­petition. In effect, she strives to personify this black masculinist fan­tasy, to reproduce its posture, to be, in other words, a prize-winning, real-life embodiment of this resistant, yet compliant, idealization of black male notions of black beauty. What we must recognize as part of the desirability of this fetishizing of the black woman’s form is its attitudinal ambivalence, its mixed sexual signals, which conform both to what is, with regard to Afro-American females, a historically resonant narrative of untraditionally resistant female behavior—the strong, self-possessed black woman to whom theories of true woman­hood have never adequately applied—and to male desires for erotic access to, and conquest of, this figure.23

While tales of Afro-American women’s psychic and physical strength—myths of black superwomen, in Michelle Wallace’s phrase— are legend, this strength is generally demonstrated not in or as con­quest, not in an ability to control or dominate others, as in the mascu­line ideal, but in a capacity to survive with their sanity intact the so­cioeconomic and sexual domination they suffer in American society. Afro-American female strength, in other words, was and is still often seen as a function of an ability not to conquer oppression but to negoti­ate it successfully. Calvin Hernton presents the plight of the black woman:

Throughout the entire span of her existence on American soil, the black woman has been alone and unprotected, not only socially but psychologically as well. She has had to fend for herself as if she were a man; being black, even more so. I am not implying that the black woman has become frigid or "masculine.” In fact, she is potentially, if not already, the most sexual animal on this planet. It is not frigid­ity that I am describing. It is rigidity. And it has been this quality of austerity in the Negro woman which has enabled her to survive what few other women have ever lived through.24

I do not endorse Hernton’s perspective on black female sexuality, which, like other such generalizations in his study, is virtually impos­sible to verify empirically or by any other means. However, his analy­sis is sufficiently attentive to the socioeconomic and historical facts that accompany the mythologizing of black women’s lives to stand as a representative articulation of the superwoman myth. According to this myth, to be a strong Afro-American woman historically is to par­ticipate in a tradition of endurance, is to have seen and survived hor­rendous troubles that would have permanently debilitated others. Their survival is generally attributed to a resilient sense of faith in God, humanity (particularly black humanity), and self, and a willing­ness to love others (particularly black men) who may have con­tributed significantly to their troubles.

I offer this simplified figuration of the important cultural myth here because it seems to me to explain a good deal about the sympa­thetic Afro-American mass response to Tyson and this episode in his checkered career as an American citizen: the insistence of some of Tyson’s black supporters that Washington should not have reported his crime; the attitudes of some black religious leaders about the alle­gations; and, most especially, the fetishized image of the black female form that adorns the Miss Black America contestants’ sashes and de­clares Washington’s suitability for entrance into this rite of objectifi­cation.25 Because a now celebrated history of black women surviving forms of mistreatment much more brutal and protracted than Tyson’s act has led, in Hernton’s view, to the development of rigidity, as well as a belief that the race war is a much higher priority than compara­tively insignificant intraracial gender skirmishes, many apparently feel that Washington should have seen it as her responsibility to en­dure her pain in order to serve the greater good of the race. According to this view, the racial responsibility to maintain silence is especially relevant in this case because Tyson, a successful black man, gives aid to the struggle against a white hegemony that seeks to deny Afro – American people widely celebrated, unassimilated, inspiringly heroic male examples. Any other response renders Washington vul­nerable to allegations of treason because of a view that Tyson’s incar­ceration serves the interests of white hegemony more than, say, his unchecked phallic presence among the general population. Black warriors whose sensibilities are untouched by feminist politics seem to dismiss the possibility that intraracial sexual violence can occur if Afro-American female victims seek justice for acts alleged to have been perpetrated by prominent black men through a legal system that is demonstrably inequitable in its dealings with blacks generally, and black males in particular.

In their efforts to dictate where and how such mythic black fe­male qualities ought to be displayed, some blacks seem to be suggest­ing either that prominent Afro-American men are, by virtue of their status, incapable of sexual harassment or rape, or that sexual violence is insignificant as an issue compared to racial uplift (unless, of course, it is perpetrated by white men). Thus, black women’s historic strength is best exhibited as an ability to recognize and act in terms of these beliefs. Consequently, people feel justified in speaking of the rape of Mike Tyson, while a young college student sits in fear that members of her race who believe that she has performed a historical wrong against black manhood will seek retribution on her person, on her already victimized body. She is said to fear a Rushdie-like sen­tence, to fear ostracism of the type encountered by Milton Coleman, the Washington Post reporter who published Jesse Jackson’s puta­tively off-the-record "hymietown" remarks and subsequently was deemed a treacherous lackey of white male power.26

A New York Times article outlining the jury’s reasons for convict­ing Tyson cited the following factors, among others, as contributing to the guilty verdict:

There was her invitation to one of the roommates to join her on the date with Mr. Tyson. "She’s going to bring her roommate along to watch while she has sex with him?” Mr. [Greg] Garrison asked in­credulously.

And. . . there was the camera that she said she brought along with her for souvenir pictures of Mr. Tyson and other celebrities she hoped to meet.27

These issues, however important they are in undermining the gold – digger defense strategy employed by Tyson’s team of lawyers, seem infinitely less damaging to his case if considered in the light of MacK­innon’s theorizing about the gender dynamics of American society that influenced the behavior of both the boxer and the beauty queen. If MacKinnon is right in her description of what our society projects generally as the ideal pattern whose object is sexual consummation— "man proposes, woman disposes”—and if women are conditioned generally not to acknowledge sexual desire even to themselves, then Washington’s apparent intentions before confronting Tyson’s erotic urges do not foreclose the possibility that she could have consented to having sex with the boxer. Given the nonmutuality of even the "ideal” of "female control over intercourse,” what we might consider from our interpretive distance her self-evident plans are not necessar­ily accurate measures of her receptivity to Tyson’s sexual moves. Generally, socially acceptable expressions of women’s sexuality are constructed specifically as responsive to "the custom of male initia – five," to articulations of male desire. For, as MacKinnon persuasively argues, "Apart from the disparate consequences of refusal, this model does not envision a situation the woman controls being placed in, or choices she frames."28

Washington’s capitulation to this norm in other respects is demonstrated by her reactions to his expression of interest in her. As she reported in her testimony, she responded with incredulity to Tyson’s inquiry about whether she and her parents "like him" (mean­ing, it appears, admire his pugilistic skills and perhaps his social per­sona, though Tyson seems to acknowledge, as his view of celebrity entitlements indicates, no distinction between genuine affection and a fan’s distanced admiration); she says that her parents "don’t really know you" and that "I don’t really know you either, . . . but from what I’ve seen, you’re okay."29 Nonetheless, she agrees, with admit­ted excitement, to go out with a man she doesn’t really know, checks with him afterwards to make sure that "they were really going out on a date," and capitulates to his late-night "begging" that she change out of what prosecutor Garrison describes strategically as "her jam – mies"30 and accompany him on a date.31 She admits to operating in terms of this standard script of gendered behavior in her response to defense attorney Vincent Fuller’s inquiry about her interest in Tyson: Fuller asked if she had held out any hope, when she joined Tyson in the limousine, of establishing a relationship with the twenty-five – year-old boxer. "There was always the hope," she said. "But I had my camera with me. That’s what I most wanted."32

If a desire to win Tyson’s heart was, for Washington, secondary to the "hope" that he would take her to celebrity parties in order that she might capture on film images of black dignitaries (including, one assumes, Tyson himself), it was nonetheless pressing enough to en­courage her to see him as an appropriate agent for achieving her pri­mary desire. While accounts of the trial I have read do not discuss whether she could have gained entry to those parties simply by virtue of her status as beauty pageant contestant, it is certainly the case that the star-struck teenager’s sense of legitimacy vis-a-vis that group would have been enhanced by her role as the boxer’s date. To my knowledge, there was no evidence presented to suggest that Tyson ever explicitly mentioned such parties as his intended destina­tion; she seems to have projected her desires to attend them onto his purposefully vague invitation, "We can go around Indianapolis, I want to talk to you."33

Tyson’s attractiveness to Washington as an escort, then, was tied specifically to his celebrity status, and that status is conferred upon him literally as a consequence of his masculine power. If MacKinnon is correct that "male power takes the social form of what men as a gender want sexually, which centers on power itself, as socially de – fined,"34 then Tyson’s assumption that female sexual availability was one of the perquisites of his social power was not his villainous phal – locentric invention, or, rather, not his alone. Given characterizations of Tyson as a figure prone to adopting the views, manners of speech, and, indeed, modes of analysis of influential figures in his life, it is not surprising that he would have unself-consciously embraced a masculinist construction that was in many respects so personally ben­eficial. And, while we might see Tyson as a subhuman shadow upon whom we can thrust all of the negative qualities of masculinity in order to purge ourselves of the guilt of our own implication in the hi­erarchical structures of male dominance, what is most essential about the Tyson case for us, I believe, is that we recognize it as an occasion that screams at us to overhaul those constructs we have created, in­herited, and allowed to stand as the natural constitution of gender re­lations.

In her status as an enthusiastic participant in a male-controlled ritual of objectification and as a figure clearly attracted to Tyson’s masculine (and celebrity) power, Washington was implicated in this androcentric script before and after she encountered the boxer, as well as during the act of sexual violence itself. To see her, in pictures taken after her encounter with Tyson, strike the pose of the self-pos­sessed and sexually accessible black beauty queen, the very embodi­ment of black male desire, is to see the result of a social process that considers female objectification an unchallengeable fact of life. Hers is a pose women adopt despite the psychic and physical pain that often attends efforts to serve as fleshly embodiments of male desire. While clearly its intention is not to excuse males who victimize women, feminist theorizing of the virtual inescapability of phallocen – tric rule suggests that behavior such as Tyson’s (and Washington’s) during the 1991 Black Expo is inevitable, given our present cultural condition, and it will remain so until minds more capable of challeng­ing the gendered status quo than his (and hers) devise mechanisms whereby to establish other modes of masculine and feminine being and action as the regulatory imperatives of society. Without question, the outrage of many at Tyson’s behavior is fully warranted. But, un­less we take to heart MacKinnon’s view that "rape is not an isolated event or moral transgression or individual interchange gone wrong but an act of terrorism and torture within a systemic context of group subjection,"35 unless we continue to confront the meanings of these and other manifestations of androcentrism’s dominion, including beauty pageants, dating rituals, and society’s general tolerance of lev­els of sexual coercion, we can never expect that outrage to be trans­lated into preventive social policies.36

Tyson’s actions and postconviction statements conform in some ways to standard scripts of sexually transgressive male behavior that MacKinnon identifies in the following way:

Rape comes to mean a strange (read Black) man who does not know his victim but does know she does not want sex with him going ahead anyway. But men are systematically conditioned not even to notice what women want. . . . Rapists typically believe the woman loved it. "Probably the single most used cry of rapist to victim is ‘You bitch. . . slut. . . you know you want it. You all want it’ and af – terward,’there now, you really enjoyed it, didn’t you?” Women, as a survival strategy, must ignore or devalue or mute desires, particu­larly lack of them, to convey the impression that the man will get what he wants regardless of what they want.37

In many respects, Tyson’s behavior fits this profile of a black rapist so blinded by phallocentric notions of acceptable levels of force that he does not care that he crossed what he might view as a faintly sketched line in his pursuit of sexual satisfaction.38 In her study of convicted rapists, Diana Scully speaks of sexual criminals who pro­claim their innocence of rape charges, despite their use of weapons to subdue and terrify female hitchhikers or women whose homes they had broken into, as "deniers."39 According to Washington, Tyson— certainly the most famous denier in recent history, and a figure whose trained-for-violence body might surely have been seen by Washing­ton to be as threatening a weapon as a knife or gun—added an im – provisational twist to this standard script by asking her not whether she "loved" the sex act itself, not whether his sexual thrustings were adequately pleasurable to nullify her initial resistance and make the event physically gratifying for her also, but whether she loved him for his responsiveness to her expressed fears about getting pregnant. Ul­timately, in response to her tortured pleas—"Please, I have a future ahead of me. . . . Please, I don’t need a baby. . . . Please, I’m going to college"—he "withdrew and ejaculated. ‘I told you I wouldn’t come inside you,’ she quoted Tyson as saying. ‘Don’t you love me now?’"40

If generally "men are systematically conditioned not even to no­tice what women want," then Tyson’s recognition might be deemed in some minor way if not exemplary, then at least atypical. His exer­cise of ejaculatory control, particularly in the light of his unwilling­ness to check his urge to have sex with a woman who came voluntar­ily into his hotel room and onto his bed, demonstrates a modicum of attentiveness to the desires of his victim, a fact that perhaps suggests that he was not aware that he was raping Washington. Perhaps the fact that during his attack, according to Washington, "he started laughing like it was a game" does indeed suggest that Tyson believed that he was engaged in what is often depicted as playful acts of coer­cion, deception, and, finally, the mild or "aggressive" exhibitions of force men learn to employ in order to gain the appearance of con­sent.41


1. Angela Davis, Women, Culture, and Politics (New York: Random House, 1989), 44.

2. Jalna Hamner, "Men, Power and the Exploitation of Women," in Jeff Hearn and David Morgan, eds., Men, Masculinities and Social Theory (London: Unwin Hyman, 1990), 29.

3. Robert Lipsyte, "From Spark to Flame to a Roaring Blaze," New York Times, Feb. 12, 1992, sec. 2, at 13. Lipsyte offers one of the few analyses I have encountered of the ways in which class might be said to be implicated in the Tyson event. According to Lipsyte, "The Class Warriors will add that only in Tyson’s case [as compared with Clarence Thomas’s and William Kennedy Smith’s] was the woman considerably above the male in social standing." If class is involved in the arena, clearly he means not economic class but the possession of a more refined behavioral aesthetics and ethos than he seems ever to display.

4. E. R. Shipp, "Accuser Flirted with Tyson, Witnesses Say," New York Times, Feb. 7, 1992, sec. 2, at 16.

5. Richard Corliss, "In Judgment of Iron Mike," Time, Feb. 10, 1992, 77.

6. E. R. Shipp, "Church Backing of Tyson Splits Baptists," New York Times, March 16, 1992, A8, A10.

7. Howie Evans, "Mike Tyson’s Team of Lawyers Partly to Blame," New York Amsterdam News, Feb. 15, 1992, 46; Ed Davis, "Black Men, Black Sex— Black Destruction, Black History," Pittsburgh Courier, March 7, 1992, quoted in Larry Hardesty, "Jury Finds Tyson Guilty of Rape," New York Amsterdam News, Feb. 15, 1992, 48.

8. E. R. Shipp, "Court Begins Process of Setting Tyson’s Sentence," New York Times, Feb. 12, 1992, sec. 2, p. 9, quoted in Manning Marable, "Mike Tyson Is in Jail, but His Public Trial Continues," Philadelphia Tribune, March 20, 1992, sec. 1, at 7.

9. Shipp, "Church Backing of Tyson Splits Baptists.”

10. Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975), 212.

11. Lena Williams, "Growing Black Debate on Racism: When Is It Real, When an Excuse,” New York Times, Apr. 5, 1992, sec. 1, at 28.

12. Ira Berkow, "The ‘Animal’ in Mike Tyson,” New York Times, Feb. 11, 1992, sec. 2, at 11.

13. William Nack, "A Crushing Verdict,” Sports Illustrated, Feb. 17, 1992.

14. Susan Estrich, Real Rape (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987), 4.

15. Dave Anderson, "10 Years, 10 Years, 10 Years,” New York Times, Mar. 27, 1992, sec. 2, at 7.

16. Catharine A. MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (Cam­bridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), 173.

17. Before his second fight with Donovan "Razor” Ruddock, in fact, Tyson himself saw physical battery as a means of attaining another’s sex­ual submission; using what one of his biographers terms "jailhouse” dis­course, he threatens to beat his opponent so brutally, "I’ll make you my girl­friend. . . . I’ll make you kiss me with those big lips,” in Montieth M. Illing­worth, Mike Tyson: Money, Myth and Betrayal (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1991), 391. Moreover, Washington’s accusations suggest the veracity of a statement that the boxer’s former friend, Jose Torres, attributes to him (a statement Tyson denies having made): "I like to hear them [women] scream with pain, to see them bleed. It gives me pleasure” (quoted in Illingworth, 327).

18. MacKinnon at 140.

19. Id. at 130.

20. In Hardesty, "Jury Finds Tyson Guilty of Rape,” 48.

21. Published reports of Tyson’s relationship with, among other women, the model Naomi Campbell suggest that the boxer had on several occasions employed such a bold tactic, and with marked success. In the case of Camp­bell, his tactics did not prove wholly repugnant because, as reported in People magazine, Feb. 24, 1992, "the two later dated” (40).

22. MacKinnon at 173.

23. For an astute discussion of black women and nineteenth-century the­ories of true womanhood, see Hazel Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Novelist (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 20-61.

24. Calvin Hernton, Sex and Racism in America (New York: Doubleday, 1965), 139-40.

25. This icon’s attitudinal availability could be said to confirm Hernton’s reading of the black woman as "the most sexual animal on this planet” and hence serve to explain black masculinist imperatives to maintain a Miss Black America pageant despite the fact that the more established annual Atlantic City event has expanded its notions of female beauty to embrace what used to be called negroid features. Just as important, perhaps, we might see Hern – ton’s mythologizng and sexualizing of a historically conditioned black fe­male attitudinal "rigidity” as encouraging a male response of erection or pe­nile "rigidity.”

26. For an engaging discussion of this incident, see Elizabeth Colton, The Jackson Phenomenon: The Man, the Power, the Message (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 203-15.

27. E. R. Shipp, "Tyson Found Guilty on 3 Counts as Indianapolis Rape Trial Ends,” New York Times, Feb. 11, 1992, sec. 2, at 15.

28. MacKinnon at 174.

29. Joe Treen and Bill Shaw, "Judgment Day,” People, Feb. 24, 1992, 38.

30. Ibid., at 37, 40.

31. Ibid.

32. Phil Berger, "Tyson’s Driver Says Woman Was Dazed,” New York Times, Feb. 2, 1992, sec. 8, at 1.

33. Treen and Shaw, "Judgment Day,” at 37.

34. MacKinnon at 131.

35. MacKinnon at 172.

36. For popular studies of the consequences of the objectification of the female body, see Susan Brownmiller, Femininity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984); and Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women (New York: Morrow, 1991).

37. MacKinnon at 181.

38. A vulnerable aspect of MacKinnon’s theorizing is her representation of black men’s implication in this gendered script. Warner, for example, views as particularly problematic the following passage from an early ver­sion of one of her essays: "This does not mean all men have male power equally. American Black men, for instance, have substantially less of it. But to the extent that they cannot create the world from their point of view, they find themselves unmanned, castrated, literally and figuratively.” In response, Warner argues,

Black men, placed opposite white male power, are "unmanned,” and therefore not-men, but ones who (in the terms of masculinist psychology) are "castrated,” and thus like "women.” The use of this circular definition of black-men-as-woman to "defend” black men produces its own ironic effects. Black men’s particularity and differ­ence (from white men, from black women, from white women) is re­duced, at the very moment, and with the very conceptual terms (the

idea of their lack of power), mobilized to protect that difference (from white men). (William Beatty Warner, "Treating Me Like an Ob­ject: Reading Catharine MacKinnon’s Feminism,” in Linda Kauff­man, ed., Feminism and Institutions, 117-18)

This problem is not evident in MacKinnon’s book, however, which profited from "the misunderstandings, distortions, and misreadings of a wide reader­ship" that led her to revise parts of her manuscript and to state explicitly, "This book does not try to explain everything" (xi). MacKinnon acknowl­edges that her book "does not pretend to present an even incipiently ade­quate analysis of race and sex, far less of race, sex, and class." Nonetheless, she attempts to "avoid the fetishized abstractions of race and class (and sex) which so commonly appear under the rubric ‘difference’ and to analyze expe­riences and demarcating forces that occupy society concretely and particu – larly—for example, ‘Black women’ instead of ‘racial differences.’" Such fetishizing, in her view, seeks "to evade the challenge women’s reality poses to theory, simply because the theoretical forms those realities demand have yet to be created" (xii). Further, she argues that "[m]ale dominance appears to exist cross-culturally, if in locally particular forms"(130).

Warner is right to critique the facile formulations of black male psychic castration that MacKinnon offers (as do many Afro-Americanists and post­colonialists) as a consequence of the fact that oppressed men are denied ac­cess to the full range of masculinity’s options and objects. He might have been more persuasive, however, had he attempted to deal with the historical and conceptual connections between the denial to black men of hegemonic masculinity and the literal castration of members of this group during the rit­ual of social control called lynching. Further, his critique would have profited from an acknowledgement that MacKinnon’s formulation of black males’ "unmanning" turns on a definition of hegemonic masculinity as possessing the cultural power to "create the world from their point of view," a possibil­ity white male hegemony has in fact worked strenuously to deny black men. Whatever problems exist in MacKinnon’s formulations in this regard, they are no more profound than Warner’s suggestion that acts of "unmanning"— if, for a moment at least, we can limit our study of male difference specifically to lynching’s severing of male genitals—had and have no fundamental im­pact upon black men’s psyches. These racial and gendered rituals were and are profoundly influential, as attested in literary texts otherwise as ideologi­cally disparate as Native Son and Invisible Man. Both of these novels, as well as many others, figure black male sexuality in the context of fears of racially charged castration. See William Beatty Warner, "Treating Me Like an Object: Reading Catharine MacKinnon’s Feminism," in Linda Kauffman, ed., Femi­nism and Institutions, 90-125; Richard Wright, Native Son (1940; reprint, New

York: Perennial, 1966); and Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952; reprint, New York: Vintage, 1972).

39. Diana Scully, Understanding Sexual Violence: A Study of Convicted Rapists (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990), 27.

40. Treen and Shaw, "Judgment Day,” 38-39; the Tyson statement is cited in Corliss, "In Judgment of Iron Mike.”

41. Corliss, "In Judgement of Iron Mike,” at 38.