Celebrity stigma and its consequences
We have now arrived at the pivotal concern of this study, the experience and consequences of being discredited and disgraced, labelled as a ‘doper’, ‘cheat’, ‘liar’ and ‘criminal’. In order to understand this phenomenon and its impact upon the social self of the sports celebrity, we must first examine the problem of stigma.
The term stigma originates in Greek, where it refers to a mark or puncture of the skin, particularly one made by a sharp pointed instrument. Such a mark may have been deliberately applied to identify those who are in some sense disgraced, diminished and morally problematic, and should be avoided or treated as inferior (for example, the criminal, the sinner, the traitor). As Goffman (1968: 11) puts it:
The Greeks ... originated the term stigma to refer to bodily signs designed to expose something unusual and bad about the moral status of the signi- fier ... Today the term is widely used in something like the original literal sense, but is applied more to the disgrace itself than to the bodily evidence of it.
In a broader sense, we can see stigmatisation (the association of particular identifiable features with a failure to conform to dominant social norms and codes) as a device that all societies utilise to demarcate the ‘normal’ from the ‘abnormal’, the ‘acceptable’ from the ‘unacceptable’, the ‘moral’ from the ‘immoral’, the ‘clean’ from the ‘contaminated’, the ‘safe’ from the ‘dangerous’ and so on. As such, this process helps establish and sustain the boundaries of society as a normative order, one bound by rules and distinctions that regulate social behaviour (Durkheim, 1982). In this vein, Stafford and Scott (1986: 80) view stigma as ‘a characteristic of persons that is contrary to the norms of a social unit’. This normative consensus about what is and is not a problematic characteristic is central to the possibility of stigmatisation - without a commonly agreed sense that a particular trait is morally unacceptable, it is impossible to effectively demarcate persons as disgraced. As Goffman notes, ‘shifts have occurred in the kinds of disgrace that arouse concern’ (1968: 11) - what, in one time and place, may be considered a characteristic that invites disgrace may in another be considered largely unremarkable and of no significant moral consequence. A clear illustration of this changeability is apparent when we consider the range of stigma that Goffman himself analyses. Amongst them he counts what were perceived as the ‘unnatural passions’ of homosexuality. This makes perfect sense in the social and cultural context of the early 1960s USA, where homosexuality was widely perceived not only as ‘unnatural’, as a ‘perversion’ and as a ‘sin’, but was also formally sanctioned in criminal laws against ‘sodomy’. Fifty years on, this normative consensus has unravelled - sodomy laws have been invalidated by the US Supreme Court, the ban on homosexuals serving in the military has been lifted, same-sex marriage has been recognised in a growing number of States, and discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation is prohibited under Federal hate crime laws. While a significant (though shrinking) proportion of the population may remain committed to viewing homosexuality as a moral problem and source of disgrace, the ability to stigmatise individuals on the basis of this characteristic is undermined by its cumulative normalisation in American culture. However, regarding the kinds of stigma explored in this study, we may reasonably claim that there is both a growing public awareness about doping internationally, and that public views converge upon a consensus that it is morally objectionable (Mignon, 2003; Gilberg et al., 2006; Stamm et al., 2008); this consensus is undoubtedly shaped by media representations and ‘moral entrepreneurship’ on the part of investigative journalists (Johansson, 1987; Kidd et al., 2001; Goode, 2011; Engelberg et al., 2012). Moreover, the terms habitually used to describe those tarnished with doping (liar, cheat, crook, fraud) give ample testimony about how those associated with such activities are socially perceived and labelled.
Goffman’s innovation in the analysis of stigma is its incorporation within his broader sociological framework that conceptualises social life as a dramaturgical process of interaction involving self-presentation and impression management. We have already noted how social actors use a variety of techniques to create desirable impressions that are appropriate to the context of various social encounters. The success of a performance is threatened by cues and information that could undermine the persona that is being projected. Hence for Goffman (1968: 13) stigma is: ‘an attribute that is deeply discrediting’ and one that is ‘incongruous with our stereotype of what a given type of individual should be’. The stigma is a discrediting attribute that an individual ‘could in fact be proved to possess’ and which, if known to others, would render the ‘virtual social identity’ projected by the individual unsustainable (12). Goffman makes an important distinction between the ‘discreditable’ and the ‘discredited’. The former is the individual whose ‘discrediting information about the self’ remains undisclosed (58), and the person concerned may go to considerable lengths to conceal this discrediting fact from others, in an attempt to sustain the desired social identity. When concealment fails and the discrediting trait becomes known to the audience, the person makes the transition from discreditable to discredited - someone who is changed ‘from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one’ (12). The disgraced sports stars examined in this study all make this pivotal transition - they typically spend many years concealing the discrediting facts about their use of PEDs (for example, by confining these activities to what Goffman would call the ‘backstage’ to which the wider public audience has no access, and so the behaviour taking place there remains socially invisible). Once that information become visible upon the ‘frontstage’ where the self is performed, the concealment has failed and that person becomes tainted and rendered deviant in the eyes of others.
The significance of stigma for the self and its social standing warrants some further reflection. Denzin (1980) argues that an important flaw in symbolic interactionism’s theorisation of social life is its ‘cognitive bias’ - it reduces social action and experience to a process of framing, classification, sorting, nomination, designation, ordering and so on. What the tradition overlooks is the centrality of emotions in social life. Thomas Scheff (2006) suggests that while explicit analysis of the emotions is largely absent from Goffman’s work, emotions nevertheless saturate his writings (most especially stigma). Indeed, without the presence of emotions, the presentation of self, the performance of identity, and the stakes involved in avoiding failure, become incomprehensible. People feel compelled to engineer and maintain a socially acceptable self-definition because to do otherwise would involve suffering powerful negative emotions as a result of public discrediting. For Scheff and
Retzinger (1997), the most powerful of these emotions is that of shame. They define shame as
a large family of emotions and affects [that] includes ... embarrassment, humiliation, shyness, modesty, and feelings of discomfort, awkwardness, inadequacy, rejection, insecurity and lack of confidence.
Without shame as its consequence, the experience of stigmatisation would be inconsequential or of limited impact. A stigmatic label is not just one possible social classification or judgement alongside many others - it is in a sense the most powerful as it activates the ‘master emotion’ of shame. We can grasp a sense of the impact that feeling shamed has upon the self if we reflect on how we commonly describe the experience. For example, we may confess to ‘feeling mortified’ when we do or say something that activates a sense of shame under the gaze of others. Mortification, in its most literal sense, refers to the death or decay of a part of the living body. In a social sense, to suffer shame is to suffer a kind of death, to become damaged and incomplete as a result of one’s own actions. To experience stigma is to undergo such a mortification of the self - this is why we try desperately to hold it at bay, and suffer anguish if it cannot be escaped. The emotions associated with being publicly discredited are captured eloquently by George Eliot in the novel Middlemarch:
He was in danger ... of seeing disclosed to the judgement of his neighbours ... certain facts of his past life which would render him an object of scorn and opprobrium ... The terror of being judged sharpens the memory: it sends an inevitable glare over that long-unvisited past which has been habitually recalled only in general phrases . .. a man’s past is not simply a dead history, an outworn preparation of the present: it is not a repented error shaken loose from the life: it is a still quivering part of himself, bringing shudders and bitter flavours and the tinglings of a merited shame. (Eliot, 2000: 506)
For the disgraced stars of this study, the experience of shame permeates their self-narratives, and drives their attempts to narratively respond to the stigma that has contaminated their social existence and selfconception.
Goffman distinguishes between three main types of stigma. First, there is what he calls ‘abominations of the body - the various physical deformities’. Second, there are the ‘tribal stigmas of race, nation and religion, these being stigma that can be transmitted through lineage and equally contaminate all members of a family. Third, and of central relevance for our study, are the ‘blemishes of individual character perceived as weak will, domineering or unnatural passions, treacherous and rigid beliefs, and dishonesty’ (Goffman, 1968: 14). A feature of these ‘blemishes of individual character’ is that, in comparison to the other types of stigma, they are most easily concealed due to the fact that they are not immediately visible to others. For those attempting to avoid being discredited, managing social information such that these blemishes do not become visible is of paramount importance. They may be selective or evasive about biographical details so as to cover facts that threaten the integrity of self; an example would be the former convict who explains an employment gap in his resume by alluding to a period of ‘ill health’ or ‘travel’ rather than admit a history of incarceration. Third parties may be complicit in facilitating such ‘covering’ - for example, when a physician certifies a mentally ill person as unable to work, but does so using a socially acceptable euphemism such as ‘stress’.
Even when the discrediting information does become known to some, the discredited individual may seek to manage the ensuing stigma through a number of strategies. For example, he may dissociate himself from the social circle that is aware of the discrediting information, and seek out an alternative milieu where his ‘character blemish’ is unknown - in extremis, such an individual may move to another city (or even country), or change his name so as to create a rupture with the identity that has been contaminated (what Rogers and Buffalo, 1974: 108 call ‘flight’). For sporting celebrities, neither covering nor flight is a viable option - after all, the very definition of a celebrity is that they are publicly known and identifiable. Hence the discrediting information, once in the public domain, will likely be known in advance by those they encounter, and will have already served to establish their ‘spoiled identity’ in the eyes of others. Such individuals are more likely to use their established access to mass media channels in an attempt to shape and define how the discrediting facts are perceived - what King (2008: 115) calls the process of ‘para-confession’, ‘a controlled process of revelation . .. a commercial rendition of repentance designed to display the star or celebrity’s persona from a position of persuasive authority. Lance Armstrong’s 2013 television interview with Oprah Winfrey is a prime example of such a strategy in the face of discrediting. In the course of the para-confession, the star may resort to a variety of rhetorical stigma-management techniques in order to deflect, displace, ameliorate or transcend the deviant label they have acquired. However, there is no assurance that such performance will succeed in reshaping public definition of the self away from stigmatisation; Armstrong’s para-confession was widely judged a failure, with viewers describing it variously as ‘robotic, ‘insincere, ‘lacking in empathy, ‘self-serving, ‘snivelling, and ‘disingenuous’ (Loumena, 2013; Schrotenboer, 2013; Clark, 2013). Irrespective of the ultimate success or failure of the performance, my interest here is in better understanding how disgraced stars go about rendering their self-presentation in the face of stigma - what I call their ‘exculpatory self-narratives’. In the next section, I will introduce some of the pivotal stigma-management techniques that configure such narratives.