The Champ and the Jezebel

ELLEN GOODMAN

February 14, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Few of the reporters could resist the boxing metaphors. Mike Tyson, conqueror of so many men, had been brought down by a teen-age woman. Iron Mike, who had fought his way to the heavyweight championship, lost the biggest decision of his life, 12-0, to a beauty queen.

Even after the Indianapolis jury had labeled these two clearly as The Rapist and The Victim, there was an undertone to this story that would forever describe them in another way. The Champ and the Woman Who Brought Him Down.

It has been that sort of year. Not just a year of sexual politics, but a year in which the one female power on display -- or in the ring if you must -- is the power to bring a man down. The judge and the professor. The Kennedy and the nobody. The candidate and the cabaret singer. The champ and the beauty queen. Right or wrong, innocent or guilty, the stories are all different, but the public sex roles have remained constant. In each one there is a man on top and a woman who tries to topple him.

Even the hit movie of the month seems to imitate life. ''The Hand that Rocks the Cradle'' is a horror story about a nanny from hell but there is another subtle scare tactic. The good mother, after all, sets into motion the terrible events that almost destroy her own family when she accuses a doctor of sexual assault.

Plots of male and female power have a special resonance when they are played out in the black community. When Anita Hill spoke up last fall, opponents focused their rage on the idea that she was out to sully Clarence Thomas' success. The judge rode into that nomination on an African-American tale of triumph. His was a story of rags to robes. Ms. Hill dipped the hems of those robes in sleaze.

Just this month, one woman wrote to Glamour magazine, ''If Anita Hill is a Woman of the Year, then an appropriate Man of the Year might be Charles Manson. Both are known for destroying lives.''

In turn, when Clarence Thomas talked about a ''high-tech lynching'' he wasn't just accusing the Senate committee of imitating a Ku Klux Klan meeting. He was painting Anita Hill white. By virtue of testifying against a black man, he implied she had become a traitor to her race.

Similar themes of race and gender infused the Tyson story. During the trial the crowds cheered the champ. There were more than a few in public, though not on the jury, who saw him as a star and her as the villain. At a black church rally for the boxer, one woman preached, ''We're here tonight because a brother is in the fight for his life.'' What of the 18-year-old woman? Was she drummed out of the sisterhood because she accused a brother?

After the verdict, a rumble of remarks about racism were heard. Some people pointed to a jury of ten whites and two blacks. Others said this case promoted stereotypes of black rapists. At its extreme, there was the hint that the accuser had fed the fans pTC of racism, not the rapist.

Such issues run deep in the black community, which shares a long history and a concern about the future of young men. There are few male role models and none to waste. Tied into this complicated knot is the notion that if only black women were more supportive -- less independent -- black men might be stronger. A black woman standing up for herself is easily charged with bringing a black man down.

The Tyson trial made the news because of the fighter's life story, not the victim's. Tyson was a fatherless child with an alcoholic mother. He was an orphaned teen-age thug ''saved'' from the violence of the streets and trained for the violence of the ring. He became the champ. Only the success story was never that pretty. Mike Tyson was an assault waiting to happen. Without boxing, he once said, he would have been ''in jail -- or dead. One of those.'' In the end boxing was just a detour on his way to jail.

But this was not a woman out to pull down a man, to wipe stardust off his gloves. She was a victim of violence, a victim of sexual assault. Only the saddest twist of roles, the strangest rewrite of Samson and Delilah, can read her as a woman out to beat the big guy. Spare me the metaphors about boxing rings and KO punches and female contenders. In the end she was a young woman with courage. The real kind.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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