Vamps, Prom Queens and Sluts: Covering the Women of the Petraeus Scandal

by | November 14, 2012
filed under Feminism, Politics, Pop Culture

jarrah hodge paula broadwell ctvby Jarrah Hodge

Earlier today I joined Mother Jones writer Kate Sheppard on CTV News Channel to talk about the way that some news media and blogs have been portraying the women involved in the recent scandal around David Petraeus. I can’t embed the video clip but you can watch it online here if you’re interested.

I wanted to pull out some lowlights of the media portrayals, in case there are any readers who haven’t seen how widespread the sexist stereotyping was. Here are some of the most common ways the main players have been portrayed, along with responses from writers like Sheppard.

Hollister (Holly) Petraeus, a.k.a. The Woman Who Let Herself Go and Had it Coming

Perhaps the most oversimplified woman in this situation is Holly Petraeus, the David Petraeus’ wife of 37 years. As pointed out at the Daily Beast: “Holly took the traditional notion of an Army wife to a new level, building a legacy and reputation of her own even as her husband oversaw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and rose to lead the CIA.” In addition to being Petraeus’ wife, she has an important job at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau helping protect military members and their family from financial fraud. She has an interesting history as a tough, smart, caring “Army wife” who has always been there for the troops. But god forbid that should get in the way of a salacious story. It’s much easier to reduce her individual achievements and identity to one easy story: that she “let herself go” in the looks department and was thus partially to blame for her husband’s cheating.

One particularly disgusting example is a photo essay at Camera Lucida called “How Women Contribute to Straying Husbands”. The woman who wrote the post includes pictures of Paula Broadwell in a halter top (more on Broadwell later) and follows it up with insulting and blaming Holly Petraeus, reducing her to a caricature based on age and looks:

Says the author:

The sad thing is that Holly Petraeus was attractive and pretty as a young woman. I understand the changes that come with age, but her current hairstyle in a “young” bob looks old and unkempt, full of strands of grey. I also understand that weight gain that comes with age, but why not wear more complementary clothes, rather than the ubiquitous pants that middle aged women seem to think complement their expanding figures? Especially those women who invariably gain all the pounds exactly where the pants accentuate them. I think it is the aggressive feminist ideology that makes women deny their womanhood, and blame everything but themselves when things go astray. Older doesn’t have to mean worse.

Fishbowl suggests Holly Petraeus' "doppelgangers"Betsy Rothstein at Fishbowl DC actually goes so far as to suggest doppelgangers for Holly Petraeus, including Newt Gingrich, the Quaker Oats guy, and Thomas Jefferson. Please tell me how this does anyone credit.

But what if you don’t feel comfortable placing the blame for the affair on the guy’s wife, who didn’t actually do any sleeping around herself? Well, you could take a step back and look at Petraeus as at least partially responsible. After all, he and Broadwell are both multi-faceted adult human beings who can make their own decisions.

Ha ha, don’t worry! I’m just kidding. This is all Broadwell’s fault.

Paula Broadwell, a.k.a the “Shameless, Self-Promoting Prom Queen”, a.k.a The Woman Who “Got Her Claws Into [Petraeus]“

Some media critics are comparing the coverage of the scandal with the coverage of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, with Broadwell cast as the new Lewinsky. In a different Daily Beast article, Allison Yarrow shares coverage of Broadwell, which has been disproportionately focused on her looks:

“She favored sleeveless outfits that showed off toned, muscular arms,” reported her hometown Charlotte Observer.Unnamed Petraeus aides called her “immune to the notion of modesty” in Afghanistan, when she spent time with Petraeus there while writing his biography, and recalled her “tight shirts and pants” that “made a lasting impression.”

To put it simply, it’s slut-shaming, implying that her dress calls into question her character and is directly linked to her infidelity. Frank Bruni at the New York Times mocked the attention to Broadwell’s toned arms and manner of dress:

“Broadwell has just 13 percent body fat, according to a recent measurement. Did you know that? Did you need to? It came up nonetheless. And like so much else about her — her long-ago coronation as homecoming queen, her six-minute mile — it was presented not merely as a matter of accomplishment, but as something a bit titillating, perhaps a part of the trap she laid.”

Of course someone that ambitious would lay a trap, according to some of these reports. Let’s not forget how ambitious she was! The Daily Mail felt it necessary to quote an “unidentified source” who described Broadwell as “obsessed with using the 60-year-old war-hero to further her own career” and called a “shamless self-promoting prom queen.”

(just a reminder that Broadwell,  in addition to being Petraeus’ “sex under the desk mistress” (thanks again, Daily Mail!) is an Army reserve officer and doctoral student who participates in triathlons and charity work and has a husband and two young children.)

Seriously, New York Daily News? Seriously?

Jill Kelley, a.k.a. The Other Other Woman, a.k.a. Kardashian Twin

It says something when a news outlet doesn’t think twice before comparing a real person to someone from reality TV. Since the scandal broke, Jill Kelley has been likened to a “real housewife” and a Kardashian Twin. One article at Radar Online said:

Jill was photographed outside her $1.3 million Tampa home on Monday looking like a Real Housewife dressed to the nines in a yellow sleeveless dress, nude pumps with her long dark hair around her shoulders and sporting a huge ring on her left hand.

David Petraeus, a.k.a. The Great Man Brought Down by Temptation

Consider this Daily Scotsman headline: “Sex Scandal that Brought Down CIA Chief General David Petraeus Now Threatens Another All-American Hero”. The tone implies that both Petraeus and General John Allen are unimpeachable men dragged down by conniving, ambitious seductresses.

Then there’s the argument that, well, they just couldn’t help it because these women were so darned attractive. And if I was a guy this would really piss me off. I can’t believe that people really buy as an excuse the argument that men are subject to an evolutionary drive that overrides free will and decision-making ability. But yet, we get this at “Scientific” American:

Even so, men can become blind to risk at the sight of an attractive woman, and from an evolutionary perspective, cheating can be a positive mechanism for ensuring gene survival, regardless of risk, scientists say.

Echidne does a good job of tackling those evolutionary excuses head-on and asking why it tends to still only be applied to excuse men cheating (both Kelley and Broadwell are also married but no one argued they were blinded by the evolutionary need to reproduce).

Kate Sheppard: “The Internet Gets Its Slut-Shaming Kicks Over Paula Broadwell” sums up the problem as “good, old-fashioned misogyny—because we all know it was the woman’s fault for having a vagina in the presence of a powerful man, right?”

The Big Picture

Two of the broader effects of the media portrayal really concern me. The first is the way it reinforces the problems that keep women out of politics and public life. As I said on CTV, you don’t have to do something wrong to be characterized like the women in this story have. All you have to do is be a woman in politics and public life and chances are you’ll experience that same focus on your looks, that same pigeonholing into convenient categories that can’t possibly capture your background, identity, accomplishments, or potential.

The other casualty of this discussion is the way it’s drawn what little mainstream media attention there was away from looking at the continuing impacts of Petraeus’ policies, particularly in Afghanistan. As Jennifer Pozner said in Yarrow’s Daily Beast article:

“We care more about who General Petraeus is shagging than who he’s droning,” said Pozner, adding that “you don’t need coverage of a sex scandal to show we haven’t gotten further than the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal: just look at Michelle Obama’s arms. Even half the serious pieces on her mention her guns.”

There are real, serious concerns about the ramifications of Petraeus’ actions for national security. There are also still military members and civilians risking and sometimes losing their lives as a result of Petraeus’ policies, but the media is spending more time talking about Holly’s hair and Paula’s shirts.

(photos are screen captures from the cited blogs as well as CTV News Channel)


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  • Patrick M.

    I can’t help but think of this story more as rich people losing touch with morality (as a group, not singling out gender). It’s almost more of a class issue in my mind than it is a gender issue.

    However, you’re right, the media response has been absolutely denigrating to the women involved. Curiously, no where near the same level of attention has gone to the FBI agent who emailed shirtless pictures of himself and instigated the whole investigation under dubious pretenses.

    • jarrahpenguin

      Good point – I definitely saw some of that too and there’s even some overlap I’d say, particularly in the talk about Jill Kelley and her sister as being like “Real Housewives”. Also good point about the FBI agent – I saw him mentioned a few times but strangely given the overall discussion, never as more than a footnote.