Pillory Talk – Sexism Or Equal Opportunity Ridicule In Petraeus Case?

Meme created by Lorraine Devon Wilke

In a move that was inevitable, some in the media have begun the predictable exercise of “false equivalency” in the matter of Petraeus, et al; raising a “feminist flag” in protest of Paula Broadwell’s expansive, and certainly panting, media coverage. The implication – or more accurately, outright assertion – is that she’s receiving a specifically female-centric level of pillory simply because of her gender, not the facts of the case.

I disagree.

In the Daily Beast article, A Scarlet Letter—the Monica Lewinsky-ing of Paula Broadwell, writer Allison Yarrow makes the leap:

As with Lewinsky, much of the coverage of Broadwell has focused on her exchange with another women. Even an intelligence community source described emails Broadwell sent to Petraeus family friend Jill Kelley (who’s also the woman whom General Allen reportedly had “inappropriate communications” with over email) as “kind of cat-fight stuff.”

Women have long been unfairly assigned the role of gatekeepers of sexuality morality, a designation that makes them easy to blame when men fall short, said Occidental College professor of politics Caroline Heldman. “The onus should be on Petraeus,” she said. “He has a lot more to lose and he’s a lot more to blame in that breach.”

Instead, said Heldman, media coverage give “the impression that Broadwell’s the bad woman, the slut, manipulative and conniving, a climber.”


I have not only read many of the media reports on this story, I have written a couple (Sex And The General – Petraeus’ Fatal Attraction and ‘Takers’ Come In All Ranks: Military Men Or Moms On Minimum Wage), and the “wronged woman” angle is not only inapplicable, it’s that kind of knee-jerk assignation that diminishes the very real inequities women deal with every single day in both their personal and professional lives. While I have not done a controlled, scientific comparison of the media coverage of this tawdry affair, from newspapers, websites and blogs, to comics, talk shows, and cable news, it has been my observation that Generals Petraeus and Allen, both highly decorated men, have been as pilloried, ridiculed and scorned – if not more – than Paula Broadwell or Jill Kelly (the other “scarlet woman” in this mess).

To harken back to the Lewinsky/Clinton affair is also disingenuous. A very different time, with very different media resources, that story was about a naïve young intern, the sitting President, a Javert-like prosecutor, and a slathering Right Wing looking for blood. The trauma to Lewinsky was horrific and pervasive, but there was no less vitriol or venom extended to the man in the middle. Additionally, to compare either Broadwell or Kelly – both grown, married women and, in regards to Broadwell, a successful professional at the top of her game – to a young, powerless Lewinsky, is patently ludicrous. Both women in the Petraeus case were pursuing their own personal agendas and both, in the matter of “the emails,” seemed to derail their own good-standing with their sophomoric and fatuous behavior. That, more than their sexual peccadilloes, is at the heart of the ridicule being heaped upon them, a blood-feast that’s been directed at far too many men involved in similar shenanigans to holler sexism. Need a refresher?:

  1. The Elliot Spitzer prostitution scandal – Coverage was relentless and jeering, an embarrassment to Spitzer’s well-respected wife and a major contributor to his decision to resign as Governor of New York.
  2. The Gavin Newsom affair: The fashion-forward Mayor of San Francisco was having an affair with his aide, the wife of a family friend, and while the impact on his political career was ultimately negligible, the media coverage stayed sharply focused on his misguided behavior with little to say about the woman involved, who largely remained out of the spotlight.
  3. The Anthony Weiner sexting scandal: How could we forget him? If there has ever been a man more lampooned and humiliated, please leave a note in the comments. After inexplicably texting pictures of his body parts to women he didn’t know, he not only lost his stellar reputation as a hard worker for his constituents, he lost his Congressional seat after resigning in June of 2011. While he did manage to hold his marriage together (his wife was pregnant with their first child at the time), his complete and total public immolation was stunning.
  4. John Edwards/Rielle Hunter scandal – No man has ever fallen from grace as deeply and darkly as this man. With a wife dying of cancer, a tragic family loss (his son, Wade, was killed in a car accident), and a run for the Presidency on repeated bucket lists, Edwards was outed by tabloid media and the onslaught that followed was as fierce as any I’ve ever seen. Now, in this case, the woman involved, Rielle Hunter, seemed as interested in courting publicity as Edwards was not (she posed in sexy garb for Esquire and has, in fact, written a book about the affair), and the media was happy to oblige. The tsunami of coverage was fierce on both participants, with no shortage of jeering and vitriol for either.

There are many more who could be added to this list – in fact, if you’re so inclined, enjoy this report of America’s 50 Most Scandalous Political Scandals – but I want to move on to another aspect of this gender argument.

In the Daily Beast article, the tone of “wounded women” was evident on several points:

But Broadwell’s poise and leadership abilities impressed classmate Morra Aarons-Mele, founder of the digital marketing agency Women Online who attended graduate school at Harvard with her.

“She was so accomplished and beautiful, the kind of person you’d look at as a woman leader. I thought, Wow, that’s what I want to be like,” said Aarons-Mele, who added that the attacks on Broadwell—who in addition to being Petraeus’s biographer is a triathlete and a Harvard and West Point graduate—are “comfortable for us as a society,” a way of forgiving the general his sins

“Two obviously tangoed. Women are still not really allowed to be ambitious. We’re always looking to punish that,” said Aarons-Mele.

Again, deflection from the facts, mixed with a little whine of victimization. Do we really think Broadwell is being pilloried for being “ambitious”??

If you want to talk equality, ponder this: women, like men, have the power to create or destroy their own “story.” Despite Aarons-Mele’s petulant statement, a woman not only can be ambitious, many are and many are rewarded for their ambitions. Paula Broadwell’s ambition was not only “allowed,” it was clearly rewarded with a high profile writing assignment, unusual access, and a subsequently successful book. Rewarded enough to garner TV appearances, speaking events, and the attention and admiration of many.

And her personal life? Her power there? If a woman such as this chooses to have an affair with an even higher-profile man, if she’s as intelligent and aware as Broadwell is reported to be, then she makes that choice knowing the potential for havoc should the affair be detected. No moral judgment here, just logic. And if that strong, powerful woman makes that choice despite the moral issues related to both her and the man’s marital and family status, as well as the obvious professional impropriety involved, it is she who is making that conscious choice to break the rules. As he is. Equal partners in the decision. No sexism there.

But, these women cry, she’s being pilloried for being “the bad woman, the slut, manipulative and conniving, a climber.”

NO SHE’S NOT! She’s being pilloried for acting like a “psycho ex-girlfriend” who went all bat-shit crazy with threatening emails sent anonymously to another (potentially also crazy) woman, and in all that “Heather Locklear Melrose Place” insanity, ended up blowing the lid off an affair with a man she purportedly loved and admired to her detriment and that of everyone else involved. Crazy chick stuff. THAT’S what the media is slobbering over, not the fact that two adults had an affair and she’s a slut.

I wrote a piece about women behaving like their churlish male counterparts in the media (Sisterhood Of The Unraveling Pants, Or What Has Politics Done To Women?) and a few readers took me to task, questioning, “are you saying women should be held to a different standard than men?” No, I wasn’t then and I’m not now. Either gender can behave badly – we’ve come a long way, baby, to have that right. But when they do, if they get caught, they can both expect pummeling by the media. It’s the days we live in. There may be different slants based on gender or personal story – Broadwell may be getting pinched for her buffed arms and googly-eyed adoration of her paramour, but Petraeus is taking hits for dishonorable behavior and a clear obtuseness about the women he fell for. I don’t see him taking less heat because he’s a man. Different heat, maybe, but not less. Maybe more. And certainly he had a lot more to lose.

We can’t have it both ways, ladies; we can’t demand the “right to party” along with the boys then expect to be treated with kid gloves when we’re caught with our pants down too, any more than Clinton, Weiner, Spitzer or Petraeus could. Broadwell is no Monica Lewinsky (whose anonymity was stolen by a bitchy “friend” who outed her to the media). Rather Broadwell, maybe unwittingly, but certainly unadvisedly, created her own firestorm and, so far, hasn’t stepped up to claim it or attempt to mitigate the damage in any way. Perhaps that’s yet to come.

But let’s not aggrandize her plight with false martyrdom and cries of feminist outrage. Best to reserve those for situations in which it authentically applies. It doesn’t here. Broadwell is likely everything her defenders assert: strong, smart, ambitious, and successful; clearly, then, she is also the master of her own destiny. And she did what many strong, smart women – and men – have done before her: unraveled for reasons of love, lust, anguish, desire, and burned her own house down. She wrote that chapter…the media is just running with story.

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