Celebrity, Masculinity, and the Soccerati

214 Cashmore and Parker
One David Beckham?
Celebrity, Masculinity, and the Soccerati
Ellis Cashmore
Staffordshire University UK
Andrew Parker
University of Warwick, UK
Sporting celebrities are not regularly discussed within the broader realms of sociological
debate. Yet that is not to say that their identities cannot offer insight into wider patterns of
cultural change. Indeed, it is our contention within this paper that the reverse is true: that
analyses of the autobiographical details of contemporary sports figures represent key sites
through which cultural change can be viewed. To this end, we take one sporting icon of the
present time, soccer star David Beckham, and assess his popular cultural image in terms of
its contribution to debates surrounding identity, consumption, and the social construction of
masculinities. Our central thesis is that while Beckham affords all the hallmarks of celebrity
status, his identity remains both fluid and negotiable in accordance with the role and audience he seeks to address and the ends he seeks to achieve.
Les célébrités sportives ne sont pas régulièrement l’objet de discussion au sein des débats
sociologiques plus larges, ce qui ne veut pas dire que leurs identités ne peuvent pas offrir
des pistes pour la compréhension du changement culturel. En effet, nous suggérons dans cet
article que le contraire est vrai: les analyses des détails autobiographiques des personnalités
sportives contemporaines représentent des sites cruciaux qui permettent de voir le changement
culturel. À cette fin, nous prenons une star actuelle, le joueur de soccer David Beckham, et
nous évaluons son image populaire en termes de contribution aux débats entourant l’identité,
la consommation et la construction sociale de la masculinité. Notre thèse centrale est la
suivante: quoique Beckham soit marqué de tous les éléments qui lui confèrent un statut de
célébrité, il a une identité qui reste fluide et négociable selon le rôle et l’audience qu’il veut
toucher et les fins auxquelles il veut arriver.
Over recent years it has not been unusual for Manchester United fans to
chant “One David Beckham. There’s only one David Beckham” (to the tune of
Guantanamera). But, in fact, there is more than “one” David Beckham, there are
several: the flesh-and-blood father-of-two; the working-class-boy-made-good with
a fondness for fashion and cars; the David Beckham on whom, for men and women
of all ages, fantasies are spun; the David Beckham whose footballing skills command the admiration and affection of so many soccer devotees; the David Beckham
A. Parker is with the Department of Sociology, University of Warwick, Coventry,
UK; E. Cashmore is with the School of Health, Staffordshire University, Stafford, UK.
Sociology of Sport Journal, 2003, 20, 214-231
© 2003 Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.
One David Beckham? 215
who exists independent of time and space and resides in the fertile imaginations of
countless acolytes. He appears on the covers of any number of different magazines
at any particular point in time (Whannel, 2001, 2002a, 2002b). He is often seen
prowling the savannas of movie premieres and nightclub launches. His appeal is
In this paper, we are concerned less with the corporeal Beckham, so to speak,
and more with the global celebrity that, we will argue, embodies cultural change
that has transpired over the past three decades. In particular we are concerned with
Beckham’s popular cultural influence as a leading member of the newly moneyed
soccerati and the multi-faceted masculinity, which his existence personifies. These
changes represent shifts in the status and operations of contemporary culture,
changes in perceptions and understandings of masculine construction and family
life, changes which have been underpinned by commodification—the seemingly
irresistible process in which everything appears subject to the intensity of modernday capitalism. The visible and invisible forces through which David Beckham the
celebrity has been built have contrived to mobilize desires for commodities in
ways typically representative of twenty-first century consumer society.
As the focus of this paper is not so much Beckham the soccer player but
Beckham the commodified celebrity, our questions revolve around how he has
been mediated. As such, our method is discursive and our evidence representational, simply because representations of Beckham (and not Beckham himself) are
the products available for consumption.
Soccer, Celebrity and Global Culture
Celebrity is a slippery concept that has eluded any real sense of academic
definition to date. This has not deterred various commentators from attempting to
locate and define its seemingly amorphous boundaries.2 Inherent in the melee of
explanatory and analytical offerings on the subject is a conflation of terms and
descriptors that are commonly rendered synonymous—“stars,” “superstars,” “heroines”/“heroes,” “icons”—and yet in many ways present their own specific differences and idiosyncrasies (Andrews & Jackson, 2001). Characterized by notions of
fame, notoriety, charisma, and exception, celebrityhood is a commodification of
the human form, the epitome of economic fetishism. It is the process by which
people are turned into “things,” things to be adored, respected, worshipped, idolized, but perhaps more importantly, things which are themselves produced and
By necessity all those exposed to celebrity existence are consumers of that
commodification. As Andrews and Jackson (2001) note, because the mass media
saturates and bombards us with information and visual images of celebrity figures
it is perhaps not surprising that some people develop a deep sense of familiarity,
intrigue, and even obsession with them. This despite the fact that the celebrity is
someone we are never likely to know in any personal sense, or indeed, someone
whose lifestyle circumstances we are never likely to attain. Like a range of other
goods, celebrities are manufactured: they are produced to be consumed.
Enter Beckham. Emerging master, global phenomenon, chosen-one, sporting messiah, corporate and commercial standard bearer. Calm, considered, slight
yet strong, tattooed for the cause, quintessential sporting icon. What shapes this
identity? Fame, fortune, fatherhood, fashion: all of these and much more. In Britain
216 Cashmore and Parker
at least, there has never been an athlete quite like David Beckham. Elsewhere,
others have pushed at the boundaries between sport and show business. Tiger Woods,
Dennis Rodman, and Michael Jordan, in particular, have forayed into the world of
“entertainment,” attracting the attention of film-makers and even academics (see
Andrews, 1996a, 1996b; Cole & Andrews, 2001; Dunbar, 2000; Lefrance & Rail,
2001). In the twentieth century, sportsmen like Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, and
Pelé all enjoyed notoriety and a status comparable with the Hollywood “greats.”
While we might reflect on these sporting notables as stars of a previous age, what
we must also acknowledge is that they operated largely before the advent of the
multimedia and, in this sense, their stardom should be viewed as both partial and
limited in modern-day terms. These individuals were certainly famous and may
well have been icons of sport, but they were not celebrities in the contemporary
sense of the word.
There may be a case for arguing that some athletes deserve individual recognition, but today’s celebrity athletes are different, known as much (if not more) for
their popular image than their sporting prowess.3 David Beckham is a hybrid, at
once an athlete and entertainer, who has appropriated a fashion career and allowed
his marriage to be framed as a public spectacle (Whannel, 2002a, 2002b).4 While
at times he courts media attention, at others he vehemently resists it. Irrespective,
he is pursued with a tenacity once reserved only for royalty, whose status, some
believe, he and his family have attained.5
At another point in history, David Beckham might simply have been recognized as a technically proficient athlete. But only at the hinge of twentieth and
twenty-first centuries would he have been likely to become a global celebrity.6
Cultural change has facilitated an integration of sport, business, and celebrity status. As the most celebrated member of one of the world’s richest sports franchises
(Manchester United Football Club), Beckham’s image and identity complemented
that of his employers. That is not to diminish the position of the club itself. While
the cultural order of global relations has changed in recent years, so too have the
political and economic landscapes against which these sit. From a broadly geographical perspective, Harvey (1989) and Soja (1989), for example, have described
the re-organization of the global political economy with an emphasis on its spatial
attributes. Sports business and sports media are emerging as key components of
the new global political economy (see Appadurai, 1990; Bernstein & Blain, 2003;
Boyle & Haynes, 1999; Maguire, 1999). Soccer is at the forefront of this process.
The English Premier League (currently labeled the Barclaycard Premiership, after
its sponsor), the Japanese J-League, the Spanish Primera Liga, and the Italian
Serie A are all global commodities in terms of their media profile, as are the players and clubs which constitute their existence.
That televised soccer comprises a central component of global communication demonstrates the scale of change it has recently undergone and how far it has
come since its inception in the nineteenth century. In essence, these changes have
largely represented the way soccer has modified its relationship with the spectator,
having progressed from being primarily concerned with providing entertainment
to being more attuned to economic exploitation (Wenner, 1998). It is a product that
has changed because it has become more aware of its potential to generate capital.
While, like the development of the game itself, associations between professional
soccer and the media and business worlds are historically grounded (e.g., Mason,
1980; Whannel, 1992), the emergence of an intensified (and altogether more
One David Beckham? 217
inclusive) sport-business-media nexus has created an enlarged and globalizing soccer-space economy. The ability of professional soccer to become spatially fluid by
allying itself to the mass media has allowed it to operate more dynamically within
global contexts. In sum, the media have given the soccer-space economy a new
spatio-economic fluidity in the way it operates.
The English Premiership has changed the scale of its space economy as a
direct result of switching from a regional/national remit to producing itself via
more globally organized forms of communication (i.e., terrestrial, satellite, and/or
pay-per-view arrangements; see Boyle and Haynes, 1999; Williams, 1994).7 There
are a great many areas for consideration within the context of such change. But
perhaps the most obvious one for the purposes of the present discussion is that
which concerns the players and the clubs themselves. Like David Beckham,
Manchester United generated a new identity around this more intensified sportsmedia-business relationship, fully embracing its potential and economic spin-offs
to strategically re-cast itself into a multi-million pound enterprise. By creating a
genuinely global brand via new commercial ventures and outlets (most recently in
the far east) and trading as a limited company at the higher echelons of the international transfer market, Manchester United elevated itself to the position of the
most wealthy soccer club in the world (see Boyle and Haynes, 2003; Hayes &
Himmelsbach, 2002). In this sense, the club provided the perfect backdrop for
David Beckham’s meteoric rise, while at the same time benefiting from it.
Beckham was part of these assets both as a player (in terms of his footballing
ability) and as a media figure (in terms of his popular cultural kudos). Indeed, he
has become a franchise in his own right. His portfolio of endorsement contracts
includes UK high-street favorites Marks & Spencer, the sports giant adidas, the
soft drinks manufacturer Pepsi, and a range of other products. Signing lucrative
deals with brand names such as these can propel individuals to fame both on and
off the field. Nor does it stop there. Marrying pop singer, Victoria Adams (“Posh
Spice” of Spice Girls fame) in July 1999 (four months after Adams had given birth
to their first child, Brooklyn) only seems to have increased Beckham’s cultural
Few countries in the world failed to carry news of the marriage, which
Whannel (2002a, 2002b) argues, catapulted the pair to the plinth of majesty via a
blaze of conspicuous consumption. Balancing the dual image of “the couple next
door and the new royalty,” the Beckhams, Whannel (2002a) goes on, “are not
simply part of a wealthy elite but also part of an ordinary lifestyle [via which] they
represent aspiration, not to marital happiness, but to the acquisition of commodity
trappings” (p. 3). From the start, the “Posh and Becks” affair possessed a certain
synergy. While each was (and is) a celebrity in their own right (he as footballer and
fashion icon, she as girl-band “babe” and celebrity socialite), the marriage conferred upon them distinction typically reserved for the rich and famous. Their liaisons did not come to the attention of the world fully formed, but reached fruition in
the public gaze. Their lives are a reflection not so much of the life of others, but of
the life others aspire to, wish for, or just dream about.
The Beckhams are young, affluent, glamorous, wealthy, and culturally authoritative, though they rarely make pronouncements on anything other than their
host domains, football, music and fashion. The tabloid media’s obsession with
their every move is both the cause and effect of their celebrity status. It has
commodified them in such a way as to obliterate the genesis of their emergence
218 Cashmore and Parker
(their performative talent) and left them subject to what Whannel (2002a, 2002b)
describes as the “vortextuality” of mass media communications: a consequence
and condition (albeit temporary) of celebrity life in the modern age.
Yet, it would be naïve to underplay the significance of the “Posh and Becks”
alliance when considering David Beckham’s rise to popular cultural eminence. At
the time of the wedding, Adams’ fame far outweighed that of her partner due to the
global status of the pop band to which she belonged—the Spice Girls. He, by
contrast, was what might be considered a promising soccer player and rising star,
though not yet one of international recognition. Teaming-up with Adams instantly
propelled Beckham into celebrity culture. Accordingly, his identity changed, largely,
many would argue, as a consequence of his wife’s influence. He developed a new
social network, an altogether more public lifestyle, and an extravagant and exotic
dress sense (most famously sporting a sarong on one occasion) and an alleged
penchant for wearing his wife’s underwear.
For sure, there were other sporting figures flirting with stardom and notoriety—Mike Tyson, Michael Schumacher, and Ronaldo to name but a few. Yet none
of these had reached pop or movie star status.8 By becoming part of (and party to)
the cultural capital which Victoria Adams possessed, David Beckham transcended
the boundaries of his own occupational locale and was thrust into a much broader
consumptive sphere: one not typically reserved for athletes.
Sport, Media and Beckhamania
As far as modern-day capitalism is concerned, commodification is all-inclusive, nothing and no one is beyond its scope (Featherstone, 1991). The culture of
which celebrity status is such an integral and considerable part is one in which
images of people are coveted and traded. Endless images of Beckham circulate on
posters, in publications, in television commercials, and on talk shows. Celebrity,
Rojek (2001) argues, “is an essential tool of commodification since it embodies
desire” (p. 187). Consumerism encourages and nurtures desire, which is protean,
or “abstract” in the sense that it changes in response to brand innovation and the
introduction of new commodities. Devotees of David Beckham, it seems, desire
the consumption of his image, looks, fame, talent, wealth, and popularity. The
types of attachment and identification in play here are altogether more intense and
perhaps more compulsive than those that tie consumers to inanimate objects such
as cars, clothes, or the latest digital gadgetry.9
Beckham is the embodiment of vicarious achievement and the epitome of
conspicuous consumption. His admirers do not seem frustrated by their own comparative lack of material success but displace their longing onto him, bowing to
the desirability of his lifestyle. Celebrities, like global brands and fictional figures,
permeate every thread of the social fabric. Within all of this there are vestiges of
Guy Debord’s (1968) influential thesis on the Society of the Spectacle. For Debord,
the celebrity plays a specific role amid the banal surroundings of modern society
where the influence of consumption and commodification dictate the fragmentation of everyday life:
The celebrity, the spectacular representation of a living human being, embodies this banality by embodying the image of a possible role. Being a star
means specializing in the seemingly lived; the star is the object of identification
One David Beckham? 219
with the shallow seeming life that has to compensate for the fragmented
productive specializations which are actually lived. Celebrities exist to act
out various styles of living and viewing society—unfettered, free to express
themselves globally. They embody the inaccessible result of social labor by
dramatizing its by-products magically projected above it as its goal: power
and vacations, decision and consumption. (Debord, 1968, para. 60)
To talk of consumption is necessarily pertinent to the present discussion.
There is an entire industry dedicated to creating images and likenesses of David
Beckham. But what Debord (1968) reminds us is that consumption is only one
part of a broader social relation in capitalism, a key feature of which is production.
Without production there is no consumption. In fact, a common characteristic of
contemporary sociological debate is the de-centering of the labor process in favor
of a leaning toward the importance of consumption as a point of reference. Without question, such maneuvers have a tendency to focus perhaps too readily on
particular schools of thought at the expense of certain others. Indeed, to deny the
importance of production is to deny the very logic of our existence (see Dinerstein
& Neary, 2002). As the defining principle of capitalist society, labor underpins all
that is produced and, therefore, all that is consumed. In this sense, consumption is
just one “moment” in the social relations of production when (and where) labor
has particular (exchange) value. That “moment” is the manifestation of the labor
For Beckham, production and consumption combine—the former grounded
in the waged-labor he fulfils, the latter representing the mainstay of his celebrity
existence. In this sense, we can see that Beckham’s identity is more complex and
more condensed than Debord’s (1968) analysis infers. His commodified persona
represents a range of diverse elements collectively promoting specific conceptions
of gender, sexuality, identification, and style. In turn, Beckham is revered not simply as a consequence of his manufactured image(s) but also as a result of his work,
his labor, his productivity, and his value. Without hard physical work (the mundane nature of which has historically typified the life of British soccer players),
Beckham would not have perfected the talents he has and emerged as the worldclass soccer player he undoubtedly is. Indeed, a certain kind of work has played a
central role in his emergence, work which resonates well with the critiques put
forward by Brohm (1978) and Rigaeur (1981) in their analyses of the relationship
between sporting performance, taylorism, and mass production.10
As a soccer player, David Beckham has outstanding flair and originality but,
in essence, he is a product of the repetitious process of becoming a successful
athlete whereby a relentless pursuit of one’s dream comes only via a series of
predictable and heavily prescribed workplace behaviors. Moreover, without unabated pursuit of such practices it could be argued that Beckham would no longer
maintain his celebrity status. That said, while production is important in terms of
his popular cultural identity, consumption is tantamount to the maintenance of this
position. Without work he has no value. Without value, he ceases to exist as a
consumable item. As it is, and at the present time, his performative talent remains,
as does his ability to replicate the fruits of his labors at the appropriate “moment.”
That he finely hones and deploys this talent with great care and precision is partly
due to his acute awareness that one day his ability to do such things (to a particular
standard) will inevitably cease. Perhaps somewhat understandably, his media image
220 Cashmore and Parker
is managed with the same amount of care and precision. For, it is this, and not his
sporting prowess, which plays the greatest part in his identity formation and increasingly serves as the touchstone of his celebrity existence.
Masculinity, Sexuality and Celebrity Culture
David Beckham exemplifies indulgence in the consumer market. His image
has become the dominant icon of sport representation, yet it is a strangely
elusive and anchorless image—a floating signifier which can become attached to a range of discursive elements with equal plausibility. (Whannel,
2002b, p. 202)
This extract from Whannel’s (2002b) case-study analysis of David Beckham
as a contemporary sports icon epitomizes what we have set out to say so far.
Beckham’s image has vast popular cultural leverage. There are several reasons for
this. One is that, for the most part, he personifies media and cultural norms with
regard to his potential as a positive role model for young people. Second, he is the
beneficiary of good looks, unquestionable footballing talent, and what appear to
be idyllic familial surroundings. Third (and as we have already noted), he has
appeal outside of his occupational sphere. Beckham has come to the fore at exactly
the right moment in time, representing all the qualities and characteristics that the
commodification process needs. But his persona is not fixed within this footballercum-fashion-icon nexus. On the contrary, there are a host of ways in which he
transcends and transgresses the norms and expectations in play.
In the aftermath of the 1998 World Cup, for example, Beckham was heavily
castigated by the UK’s popular sporting press on account of his sending-off during
a game against Argentina, which England eventually lost on penalties.11 In turn, he
commands a diverse reaction from different elements of society. For some soccer
fans, his appearance, marital relationship, and occupational allegiances bring a
considerable loathing. Moreover, media (and particularly television) representations often depict him as dull-witted, socially inept, and emasculated by his allegedly dominant (ex-Spice “Girl-powered”) spouse. More recently, it has emerged
that he has significant kudos as a gay icon, an “accolade” never before placed
upon an English soccer hero. Thus, while his talent and aura on the field make him
something of a sporting “legend,”12 there are aspects of his personality (or representations of it) that appear to question his masculinity and, in turn, attract resentment and criticism from football fans and social commentators alike (see Burchill,
Let us pause for a minute to consider two examples of such representations.
First a quintessential moment from the Beckham portfolio. The scene: the Beckhams
(David and Victoria) appear on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) Comic
Relief television show (an annual event in the UK aimed at raising money for
various charities) in early 2001 in session with master of ceremonies, comedian
“Ali G” (a.k.a. Sacha Baron Cohen). Brought together primarily for their fund
raising value, what transpired among the three was a graphic demonstration of
how David Beckham (the footballing artisan) manages and maneuvers his way
through the minefield of celebrity life and all that comes with it.
The script: host, Ali G (humorist, satirist, vulgarist extraordinaire) targets
“Posh,” Mrs. Beckham, and, more specifically, the way in which she manages to
One David Beckham? 221
withstand public goadings from her husband’s most endearing fans (the Manchester United “faithful”) with regard to their pronouncements about her sexual exploits, in particular, her alleged affinity for anal sex (Burchill, 2001; Whannel,
2002a, 2002b). Cue Ali G: “Me ’eard there is an insultin’ song that they sing about
ya’,” he suggests to English soccer’s First Lady. “They say, Posh Spice takes it up
the arse,” Victoria acknowledges with some disdain. “But that ain’t insultin’, that’s
the biggest compliment yous can pay to a woman,” jokes Ali. “No, but seriously,”
our host goes on (amid the prevailing conviviality), “Does you take it up the butty?”
“No, I certainly don’t,” retorts the startled (if somewhat amused) Victoria. At which
point Ali turns his attentions to husband David. “Beckham, you tellin’ me you ain’t
never been caught offside?” (inferring the pursuit of anal sex). A lengthy pause
ensues. But amid the ubiquitous laughter of the baying crowd, a wry smile from
Beckham is shortly followed by a decidedly straight-faced and straight-laced “No.”
The “humor” continues, first with insinuations about David’s lack of intellect,
then with inferences about Victoria’s shortcomings as a singer. The sexism is relentless and the personal castigation breathtaking. Yet, despite all of this, David
(loyal husband and father) says little, choosing instead to comfort his wife with
proximate and affectionate transparency and a level of ease which belies the staged
nature of the whole affair.
The second example concerns Beckham’s relationship with Manchester
United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. In February 2000, Beckham failed to report
for training a few days before the club was due to play one of their fiercest league
rivals, Leeds United. He was in London and his baby son Brooklyn had been taken
ill with gastro-enteritis. After a fitful night, Beckham left for Manchester at 6:00
a.m. (approximately a 4-hour drive) but within half an hour had decided to return
home to look after the child. Such circumstances constitute an acceptable enough
reason to be absent from work, one might have thought, especially as it was the
first time in nine years that Beckham had missed training through anything other
than injury. The next day, he drove to Manchester to find his manager mightily
displeased. Ferguson may have let this incident pass had he not heard that Victoria
Beckham was at a reception for the London Fashion Week at the time of his star
player’s absence. Unthinkable as it was for Ferguson to “drop” Beckham from his
team, he did. This incident revealed a conflict of cultures, values, and interests—
twenty-first century “new man” (Beckham) versus “old/traditional (football) man”
(Ferguson).13 The disharmony between the two has never been fully resolved. Indeed, Ferguson maintained a deep skepticism at the attention afforded his prodigy;
his “showbiz” lifestyle, his commercial ventures, and the influence of his wife on
his career.14
So how does Beckham react to all of this? How does he cope on the public
stage with these kinds of events? This, for sure, is the crucial question. Here is a
young man who must be all things to all people: soccer star, working-class-boymade-good, professional role model, sex symbol, husband, father, popular cultural
hero, fashion icon, television celebrity—the demands are endless. Of course, the
truth is that David Beckham’s ability to handle such situations is as inexplicable as
his footballing talent or, for that matter, his multi-faceted masculinity. Despite
these pressures and the ongoing attentions of the paparazzi, Beckham holds it together, stoic and loyal, playing popular cultural hero when needs must, while remembering just what and who he is in an altogether more public, responsible, and
class-based way.
222 Cashmore and Parker
Yet at the same time, the masculine aura surrounding Beckham remains problematic precisely because it contradicts and transcends the familiarity of the traditional working class background from which he emanates. His physical appearance off the field gives little hint that he plays soccer for a living. His androgynous
good looks could mislead the unfamiliar into thinking he was an actor or a model.
He possesses a kind of ambivalence that makes him beguiling to a wide audience.
Beckham acknowledges this ambivalence, publicly confirming, for example, his
awareness of the admiration bestowed upon him by the gay community in the UK.
But within the context of English soccer, such masculine transgressions are not so
straightforward. Indeed, in recent years others have succumbed to the sharp-edged
heterosexuality that typifies the game’s harsh occupational culture.
Two individuals stand out in this respect. The first is Southampton’s Graham
Le Saux (ex-Chelsea, Blackburn and one-time England international), articulate,
heterosexual, and married with children. As a consequence of his expressed disdain for the tabloid press and an explicit interest in art and antiques, Le Saux has
acquired a reputation among his occupational colleagues as a homosexual. While
playing for Chelsea against Liverpool in 1999, Le Saux was subject to verbal abuse
from the then Liverpool forward Robbie Fowler, who questioned his sexuality via
repeated slurs of “poof” and “faggot” to which Le Saux reacted violently.15 Subsequent media coverage appeared to reinforce Fowler’s standpoint by legitimating
his behaviors as “part and parcel” of the professional game. As we have seen already in the case of the Beckhams, a widely accepted position here is that professional soccer players (and their associates, friends, and families) necessarily run
the risk of such actions and behaviors simply because of who they are and what
they do, and are expected to withstand and “rise above” personal goadings of this
Following a similar logic, we can see that in a decidedly academic sense,
Graham Le Saux had stepped outside the constraints of soccer’s masculine boundaries by frequenting the orbits of what many British soccer players would regard
as middle class culture. What Fowler did was simply to reinforce the consequences
of Le Saux’s explicit betrayal of soccer’s working-class norms, the manifestations
of which Le Saux should have ignored. In “taking the (suggestive) bait” put forward by Fowler, and in retaliating in the way he did, Le Saux failed this particular
“test” of personal integrity and, in the process, probably did more harm than good
to his (already contested) reputation (Cashmore, 2002; Whannel, 2002).16
An altogether more serious case in point is that of Justin Fashanu who played
for various professional soccer teams during his career, most notably Norwich
City and Nottingham Forest. Fashanu’s existence was littered with controversy.
Rumors concerning his sexuality emerged soon after his arrival at Nottingham
Forest in the early 1980s, but he waited until 1990 before coming out publicly. In
the interim a mixture of injury, ineffective medical treatment, and media gossip
had sent both his playing career and his social life into freefall.17 Fashanu’s public
declarations about his sexuality prompted his brother John (by then a high profile
professional soccer player with Wimbledon Football Club) to repudiate him. Thereafter Justin played for several clubs, including Heart of Midlothian of Edinburgh
where he was dubbed “Queen of Hearts” (on account of his sexuality) and from
which he was dismissed in 1993 for “conduct unbecoming a professional.” The
incident that initiated his dismissal involved Fashanu trying to sell stories of alleged sexual encounters with Conservative Party politicians to the tabloid press.
One David Beckham? 223
Fashanu then moved to the United States where he eventually took up a coaching
post with the minor-league soccer team, Maryland Mania. It was during his employment there that he became involved in a purported offence in which a 17-yearold male alleged that Fashanu had initiated forcible sexual contact. Fashanu voluntarily gave himself up for questioning about the incident while protesting his
innocence but later fled the US. On May 2, 1998, he was found hanged in a garage
in Shoreditch London. A verdict of suicide was recorded (Cashmore, 2002).
Here we have evidence to support the assertion that English professional
soccer is an arena that openly despises any deviation from heterosexual orientation. For just as sport has long been regarded as one of the last bastions of male
domination (see McKay, Messner, & Sabo, 2000a, 2000b; Messner & Sabo, 1990),
English soccer has always been looked upon as a “man’s game.” It could be argued
that, like a host of other modern-day sports, soccer was invented by men for men
with the express purpose of validating masculine norms amid the perceived feminization of a rapidly changing society (Crosset, 1990; Kimmel, 1987). Yet in a
more general sense, the mid nineteenth century was a time (in Britain at least)
when sport was regarded as a trusty training ground for making men from boys, an
idea which emerged from the all-male English Public schools where playing sport
was thought to help develop moral character as well as physical health (e.g., Mangan,
1981). It is widely held that alongside the broader forces of urbanization, this
muscular Christian ideology transformed sports (and those who played them) in
terms of the regulatory structures surrounding their organization and practice. In
turn, sports established their own playing codes and governing organizations.
England’s Football Association was formed in the 1860s, at the same time as the
Rugby Football Union, each body framing the rules, regulations, and procedures
that were to shape these respective sports and give each a distinct identity.
Even today when technology-based gaming consoles and other forms of “electronic play” dictate the leisure time events of the young, the masculine values laid
down so long ago become evident in that male adolescents who show no interest in
physical sports often run the risk of peer-group ridicule and ostracization.18 For
example, there is an extensive literature documenting the relationship between
athletic prowess and masculine construction in schools where an affiliation with
particular sporting forms presents clear benefits to young males within the context
of their educational experiences (e.g., Connell, 1989; Mac an Ghaill, 1994; Martino
& Meyenn, 2001). In this sense the creed of the muscular Christian era lives on. In
turn, English soccer appears to embrace and manifest this aggressive, almost virulent conception of masculinity (Whannel, 1999, 2002b). Despite the global influences that have changed the way soccer has been organized and played-out in
recent years, the essential manly character of the English game remains impervious (Cashmore, 2002).
Clearly, there are aspects of David Beckham’s lifestyle and persona that, in
the eyes of the cursory observer, are the very antithesis of these traditional values.
To this end, Beckham is a contradiction in terms. He is the precise juncture at
which “new man” meets the masculine remnants of a by-gone age, where caring
husband and father meets physical laborer and breadwinner. Moreover, his public
appeal reflects the extent to which he physically and emotionally engages with the
popular cultural “new-laddism” of the present time.19 Granted, he does not openly
exhibit the loutish, “pub-and-porn” narcissism which new-lad culture explicitly
celebrates and which, of course, bears all the hallmarks of “old industrial man” in
224 Cashmore and Parker
its blatant reaction to feminism (see Coward, 1999; Edwards, 1997; Faludi, 1992).20
Nor does Victoria Beckham seemingly allude to the “laddette” lifestyle which often
accompanies and reinforces the “new-lad” project and to which many of her contemporaries are clearly drawn (Beynon, 2002; Whelehan, 2000).21 But in one sense,
there is a laddishness about David Beckham which his cultural position and occupational status demand.
Of course, new-laddism is heavily characterized by a range of features which
comfortably locate it as a present-day representation of what Connell (1987, 1995,
2000) has termed hegemonic masculinity. Utilizing Gramsci’s (1971) concept of
hegemony, Connell has talked of the range of masculinities visible at any given
time and place and how one particular form negotiates dominance within the “gender
order” amid the contestation, struggle, and resistance of others. Through the characterization of this superior interpretation of manliness, the dominant sub-cultural
meaning attributed to masculinity in any setting necessarily relegates and subordinates other masculine constructs as unworthy (see also, Haywood & Mac an Ghaill,
2003). How then might we locate David Beckham’s public image against this backdrop of masculine plurality? We would argue that Beckham’s complex and contradictory identity suggests that there is room for more than one version of masculine
construction within the context of English professional soccer whose dominant
(and traditional) type of masculinity is one that typifies the working class values of
those who frequent its settings.
In this sense, there is little doubt that soccer amplifies all the hallmarks of
new-laddism. This is evident from the plethora of autobiographical accounts of
high-profile English players and ex-players who have lived-out such lifestyles to
their logical and excessive conclusion (see Adams, 1999; Merson, 1998).22 More
recent examples include Dwight Yorke’s (formerly of Manchester United, now of
Blackburn Rovers) fathering of supermodel Jordan’s child; Paul Gascoigne’s (formerly of Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, SS Lazio, and Everton) inappropriate gestures and behaviors on the public stage; Stan Collymore’s (formerly of
Nottingham Forrest, Liverpool, and Leicester City) treatment of “lad-tv babe” Ulrika
Jonsson (see also, Whannel, 2000; 2002b),23 Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer’s
(ex-Leeds United, now Newcastle United) alleged involvement in an affray outside a Leeds night-club in January 2000, and Dennis Wise’s assault on a young
Leicester City teammate which ultimately led to Wise being dismissed in July
2002. These instances chime perfectly with the notion of masculinity enshrined in
English soccer.
Beckham too lives out some of these traits and, as a result, clearly commands a level of personal respect and acceptance from his peers. But he also breaks
with tradition by subverting soccer’s masculine conventions. Nowadays, it seems,
there is nothing wrong with a celebrity such as himself frequenting the pages of
popular magazines or the billboards of the world. After all, by the time Beckham
had asserted his credentials as a celebrity, the masculine environment in and around
English soccer had changed to the extent that it had come to accept style narcissism and male objectification as an established and indicative part of popular cultural expectation (Whannel, 2001). In this sense, Beckham’s ascent appears to
have coincided with (and been legitimized by) a fashion-conscious shift in masculine construction, both within soccer and in the rest of popular culture (see also,
Edwards, 1997; Mort, 1988, 1996; Nixon, 1996).
One David Beckham? 225
To this end Beckham’s inclusive popularity should be seen as a positive step
in terms of the masculine norms which he clearly transcends and the subversive
trends and behaviors he explicitly displays. Indeed, what he is portraying (whether
he knows it or not) is a version of masculinity that contradicts, confuses, and
conflates all in one. He is “new-man” (nurturer, romantic, compassionate partner )
and “new-lad”/“dad-lad” (soccer hero, fashionable father, conspicuous consumer—
some would argue, all round, cosmetically conscientious “metrosexual”) while
still demonstrating vestiges of “old industrial man” (loyal, dedicated, stoic, breadwinning).24 English professional soccer may not modify its masculine profile as a
direct result of David Beckham, but his popular cultural kudos could stimulate
change in terms of the way in which masculine norms and expectations are configured both inside and outside of sporting locales in the years to come.
Conclusion: Soccer, Celebrity and the Gender Order
We set out in this paper to discuss ways in which representations of celebrity
status and individual identity might be seen to reflect wider changes in society. In
order to do this we have taken one sports icon, David Beckham, and analyzed the
various discourses and popular cultural images which have been built up around
him. How might we “read” this textual imagery in terms of contemporary notions
of masculine identity? In what ways might we analyze the hybridity of this multifaceted persona? Is this an altogether more elaborate kind of masculinity in the
making, rolling celebrity status and working-class traditionalism into one, or is it
something different, something more subtle—a staged demonstration of masculine indifference and pro-feminist resistance perhaps?
For all his alleged inarticulation David Beckham, it seems, is nobody’s fool.
His success owes much to the cosseted institutional environment within which it
has been nurtured and the highly protective and paternalistic approach of Manchester
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Aside from this Beckham has one thing most
soccer players do not have. He has confidence enough in his own off-field abilities
to take part in what some might regard as high-risk strategies and ventures. His
portfolio of fashion photography is not made up entirely of the kinds of images the
majority of professional footballers would necessarily want to portray.25 Likewise,
his dress sense has raised eyebrows in various quarters.
But seemingly nothing phases Beckham, not even the powerful occupational
(new-lad) norms and expectations bestowed upon both himself and those around
him. Despite his high profile and the ridicule he risks, Beckham stands resolute,
bucking the “macho” trend, setting his own agenda, showing support for his wife,
playing the perfect father, remaining every mother’s favorite, while at the same
time (on the field) displaying the spirit and patriotism of a national ambassador. In
our view, this is no accident. Although Beckham’s identity is largely constructed
for him amid a melee of managing agents, Public Relations gurus, and mass media
hype, there is a sense in which he, like all celebrities, must manage this identity in
specific ways. Indeed, this is Beckham at his most proficient, courting favor in the
right circles and refining his image to suit his own needs and the needs of those
around him. This is a well managed and carefully crafted identity, one which cares
not for the whims and fancies of popular culture, nor for the so called “rights and
wrongs” of traditional masculine ideals. In terms of the gender order, Beckham
226 Cashmore and Parker
seems to be a law unto himself. And it is this aspect of his identity that, alongside
his popular cultural appeal, has the potential to inform and impact upon a generation of young people both in terms of their sexual politics and the way in which
they formulate their relational behaviors.
Since our completion of this article, David Beckham has signed for Spanish giants
Real Madrid who, like his previous club, are a global brand as well as a soccer
team. While the transfer fee of £25 million ($41 million) is not great by European
standards (soccer clubs trade with money rather than draft picks), it indicates that
Real are prepared to invest not so much in a player—its team is full of elite players—
but in a marketing phenomenon. This is what some have referred to as the
“Beckonomics” of the deal: where Beckham, as athlete and cultural icon, is seen
as a vehicle to accelerate the sale of club merchandise, thereby assisting Real Madrid
in their quest to become the world’s leading sports brand.
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Notes 1
David Beckham has attracted the interest of other writers. Blain (2003), for example, has also noted the multi-faceted nature of the Beckham phenomenon. Whannel (2001,
2002a, 2002b) has focused on the early turbulent phase of his career and his hugely publicized marriage, while Burchill (2001) has lauded over his physical beauty, gentle sensibilities, and tender treatment of his wife. One of the present writers has understood the rise of
Beckham to iconic levels in a global context of commodification (Cashmore, 2002). 2
Academic offerings on the concept of celebrity are nothing new. For more on this
subject see the work of Debord (1968), Boorstin (1971), Marshall (1997), Dyer (1998),
Boyle and Haynes (1999), Evans and Wilson (1999), and Rojek (2001). 3
For more on past and present sporting celebrities see Andrews and Jackson (2001)
and Whannel (2002b). 4
The historical relationship between British soccer stars and the fashion world has
been discussed elsewhere (see Parker, 2001). Designer Giorgio Armani has long standing
associations with professional soccer with past and present customers including the Italian
national team and, from the English Premiership, Chelsea and Newcastle United. In turn,
Armani has also utilized the modeling talents of the British goalkeeper David James and
Ukrainian striker Andrei Shevchenko in his advertising and catwalk campaigns. Other soccer players to have exploited this sphere include French star David Ginola and Brazilian
Ronaldo, who have won lucrative contracts for L’Oreal and Pirelli (P-Zero clothing), respectively. David Beckham’s forays into the world of show business include appearances in
various UK television commercials and his endorsement of Gurinder Chadha’s (2002) film,
Bend it Like Beckham. 5
The popular cultural practice of equating notions of “sporting celebrity” with “royalty” has been noted elsewhere in relation to the career of Canadian ice hockey star Wayne
Gretzky (see Jackson, 1994, 2001). 6
Notwithstanding ongoing debates concerning the distinction between globalization
and internationalization, we adopt the term global here because of the way Beckham’s
image has been constructed almost entirely via the mass media, the development of which,
in our view, is the epitome (and lynchpin) of global expansion. 7
Recent experiences in and around British (and particularly English) soccer have
shown that instabilities within the world of satellite/digital television can make the liaison
between the expansion of entertainment provision and capital accumulation a dangerous
one. As some English and Italian professional soccer clubs have recently found out, ambitious transfer dealings and increases in player wages do not always guarantee sustainable
success (see Blain, 2003; Boyle & Haynes, 2003).
230 Cashmore and Parker
In terms of the apparent failure of sporting celebrities to make the transition from
their various professions to the “silver screen,” one notable (and perhaps rather unpredictable) exception is English soccer “hard-man” Vinny Jones (ex-Wimbledon, Crystal Palace,
and Leeds United), whose ventures into the world of advertising and show business have
earned him significant acclaim for his roles in the 1999 film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking
Barrels and its 2001 follow-up Snatch. 9
For more on the psychology of the star/audience relationship see Dyer (1998) and
Evans and Wilson (1999). 10As Whannel (1999) has noted, over recent years English professional soccer appears to have become more intensified in terms of the levels of discipline and regimen it has
exerted over the lifestyles of its players. In fact, a general lack of player discipline has long
been aired as one of the reasons why English soccer teams have failed to dominate international competition. For more on the historical complexion of labor process in English professional soccer, see Parker (1995). 11These games have particular significance as a consequence of previous political
and sporting unrest between the two nations (see Alabarces, Tomlinson & Young, 2001).
Despite being blamed for the 1998 defeat, Beckham has since returned to the position of
national sporting hero after England’s 1-0 win over Argentina in their second group-qualifying match of the 2002 World Cup, a game in which he not only captained his country but
scored the winning goal from the penalty spot. For further comment on the 1998 World Cup
incident, see Whannel (1999, 2002b). 12This is a term of respect commonly used within English soccer (and more widely in
sporting circles) to denote players with considerable talent. 13For an excellent depiction of the contrasting (“new” versus “old”) values in play
here, see Whannel (2003). 14The most recently publicized rift between Ferguson and Beckham occurred after
Manchester United’s FA Cup defeat at the hands of arch-rivals Arsenal. During the postmatch team-talk, Ferguson appears to have accidentally injured Beckham when, in fury
over the result, he kicked a soccer boot across the Manchester United dressing room, hitting
his captain over the left eye. According to press reports, Beckham openly retaliated to this
incident. 15It is worth noting that on occasion, Fowler and Le Saux have also been members of
the same England international squad. 16The practice of taunting and berating opponents is, of course, a longstanding tradition in a range of both professional and non-professional sports. For example, international
cricket matches between England and Australia are notorious for their bouts of “sledging”
(severe forms of personal castigation and verbal abuse). The idea here is to distract the
opposition in terms of their concentration levels and overall performance, with the ultimate
intention being to generate some form of irrational response—as in the case of Graham Le
Saux. The achievement of such a response seemingly indicates that a psychological battle
has been won (and lost). For more on the Le Saux–Fowler incident see Ridley (1999) and
White (1999). For previous examples of “middle class-ness” amongst English professional
soccer players, see Wagg (1984). 17Justin Fashanu made his first-team debut for Norwich City in 1978 at the age of 18.
During his time at the club his talents were perhaps best illustrated by a goal which he
scored against Liverpool in a televised game in the Autumn of 1980 with which he won the
acclaimed BBC Match of the Day “Goal of the Season” competition. Footage of the goal
went on to become a longstanding feature of the opening sequence of the program. Fashanu
One David Beckham? 231
meanwhile went on to play for a host of professional and non-league teams in countries as
far reaching as Canada, the USA, and New Zealand. For more detailed journalistic accounts
of Fashanu’s career, see Malone (1994), Dodd (1998), and Jones (1998) 18For a well-grounded account of the way in which sporting activity among children
and young people appears to have been challenged in recent years by the development of
technology and the mass media, see Whannel (2002b). 19“New-laddism” (or “Laddism”) is the term given to a popular cultural phenomena
emergent in the UK during the 1990s whereby excessive lifestyle habits came to be celebrated among young men both at the private and public level. These include heavy drinking, drug-taking, riotous behavior, a penchant for pornography, and (hetero)sexual promiscuity (see Beynon, 2002). 20The origins of new-laddism have been traced to the lad-mag and lad-tv ventures of
the 1980s and 90s, in particular, the emergence of Loaded magazine and British television
shows such as Men Behaving Badly, They think It’s All Over, Have I Got News for You,
Shooting Stars, Fantasy Football League, and TFI Friday (see Beynon, 2002; Whannel,
1999, 2000, 2002b; Whelehan, 2000). 21The term laddette refers to a set of female behaviors which both compliment and
reinforce (new)laddism (Whelehan, 2000). 22For more information on the excessive lifestyle antics of stars from the world of
soccer and a range of other sports, see Whannel (2002b). 23Ulrika Jonsson has more recently been implicated in the personal affairs of England national soccer coach Sven-Goran Eriksson. 24Amid rumors in late 2002 that a plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham and her two sons
had been foiled by undercover newspaper reporters, David Beckham demonstrated his vehement allegiance to his wife and young family by publicly speaking out about his role in
protecting them against such possibilities. For more on this incident, see Morris (2002). 25In terms of what might also be considered something of a masculine transgression
within the context of professional soccer, ex-Brazilian star Pelé has recently featured in a
UK television advertisement—endorsed by the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer—encouraging
men to seek medical help for symptoms of impotence.

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