National news coverage this month has been dominated by the exposure of the extramarital affair of Gen. David Petraeus, former director of the CIA. But a more intense spotlight has focused not on Petraeus but on his mistress, Paula Broadwell. And it’s been ugly.
Since the affair was uncovered, reporter after reporter has written vivid descriptions — or arguably indictments — of Broadwell’s professional résumé, body, and clothing choices. Is Broadwell a kind-hearted philanthropist or a conniving social climber, they ask. A soccer mom or seductress? Broadwell’s name has been smeared across the front page of every major newspaper, dirtied in what can only be described as scarlet lettering. But as Broadwell’s personal and professional character is ripped apart, Petraeus’ public image remains comparatively intact. These stories expose not her guilt but rather the intensely unequal scrutiny and castigation women receive in response to sexual transgressions.
How did the director of the CIA make such a colossal mistake? When the press tells the story, the answer is clear: He was seduced. For example, Broadwell flaunted her “toned arms” and wore “tight shirts and pants” while working with Petraeus in Afghanistan. By painting a picture of Broadwell’s appealing physique, youth, and confidence, the media tells us that Petraeus was helpless: He simply couldn’t resist cheating on his wife, jeopardizing his career, and endangering the nation.
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for the media to draw inferences about a woman’s behavior from the way she looks or what she wears. There has been no suggestion that the Petraeus-Broadwell affair was anything but consensual, but the media echoes many of the same narratives that incriminate women on the basis of the amount of makeup they wear or the shortness of their skirts.
On the other hand, the media’s attitude toward Petraeus has been mostly neutral, even sympathetic. As Jezebel’s Lindy West points out, Petraeus is frequently depicted as an “illustrious military man who made a natural, unfortunate but anomalous ‘screw-up.’” According to Col. Peter Mansoor, who served as a top aide to Petraeus, “He had a good relationship with the president and national security team, and he threw that all away … due to a personal failing. He is very, very down right now.” There is no mention of the unequal power dynamic between Petraeus and his mentee and no scrutiny of his looks or his body — although the same cannot be said of his wife. And while many speculate that Petraeus’ career is recoverable, Broadwell’s has been described as nothing short of “toast.”
Though the Petraeus affair has underscored the deep-seated sexism present in contemporary public life, the ensuing media coverage has obscured a more serious issue: the U.S. military’s horrific rape epidemic.On Wednesday, the military will release a report on a sexual abuse scandal that has been called one of the worst in its history. Nearly 50 female recruits have made allegations of sexual misconduct at the Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. The Lackland scandal marks the latest chapter in a long-standing history of sexual abuse. Reports indicate that 1 in 3 military women have been sexually assaulted, including some 19,000 cases in fiscal year 2010 alone.
Yet the discussion of Lackland has been pushed aside in favor of Broadwell’s tight-fitting blouses, and the devastating harm caused by the sexual abuse of military women is left woefully underreported. Ultimately, coverage of the Petraeus affair reveals a trend of the media shaming women rather than supporting them, and it must be stopped.
This post was written by AAUW Media Relations Intern Renee Davidson.