The Real Scandal

Sarah Seltzer

Until Americans, and our media, stop insisting that our male leaders be a manly and upright family fellow with a docile wife who gazes at him adoringly, we shouldn't be surprised when that spouse remains devoted in the face of infidelity.

Last Monday and Tuesday, the endless cable TV and online news buzz took a sharp turn away from the Hillary-Obama "they said what?" back-and-forth. Spitzergate had arrived, gift-wrapped for the media and a rabid public. The proclivities of the now-resigned New York governor held the entire country in their sordid thrall for three full days, and continue to make headlines.

Over the past several years, the public and the press has been unable to latch on to the obvious deceit and corruption going up to the highest levels of the Bush administration, almost as if that kind of scandal, the kind with lives lost in the balance, is too big to grasp. We can't comprehend young men sent into battle without proper equipment. And we can't even fake mass outrage when we learn about a real sex scandal — the unbelievably high instance of sexual assault in the military. Those controversies are too wide-reaching, too depressing for us. But as soon as a politician commits sexual misdeeds, the impact is so measurable, so relatable to our own lives, that we seize on it. His wife! His family! What would I do in the situation?

But besides demonstrating our propensity to glom onto an old-fashioned sex scandal, the revelations about Spitzer have shown how deeply misogynistic currents run through our society, entwined with our conceptions of power. We adore leaders that fit a mold of tough, controlling men, whichever side of the aisle they hang out on — and then are surprised when our "cowboys" or "steamrollers" do hyper-"male" things like bombing civilians or sleeping with a series of prostitutes. Maybe we need to redefine what it means to be a strong leader.

Spitzer's actions were especially painful for feminists and women's advocates. Here was a man beloved by women's groups, even a full-on ally of marriage equality, who wanted to enshrine reproductive rights in the fabric of state law. He was supposed to be our friend. But even if he "got it" intellectually, there was a side to the governor that obviously got off on thinking women were his property (or, given his need to do things that were "un-safe," were somehow sub-human). On the day the scandal broke, he left a conference of excited women's health activists stranded, and then totally devastated by the realization that the man they had counted on had left his integrity at the metaphorical threshold of the Emperor's Club.

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Whatever the armchair psychologists assume was behind Spitzer's behavior — arrogance, a subconscious need to self-destruct, an addictive compulsion — he expressed that id by subjugating women, plain and simple. And he's hardly the first public servant to do so. This is a clear reflection of living in a patriarchy, a society that still equates power with hyper-virility.

Going to prostitutes, even those who masquerade as "high-class," is less about sex than about power over women, and a sense of male entitlement. Clearly, somewhere along the road that led Spitzer through elite institutions and into the upper echelons of government, the notion that all women deserve respect failed to sink in — while the notion of aggressive pursuit of authority sunk in quite well.

The gender divide on TV between men and women reacting to the scandal spoke volumes too — several male pundits declared prostitution a victimless crime, which earned the ire of women commentators, who were focused on the plight of Spitzer's wife. Little was said about the clear victimization of the women who worked at the Emperor's Club beyond the typically sordid and slut-shaming headlines. ("HO, BABY! THE LOVE GOV GAL JERSEY SHORE HARLOT WHO BROUGHT HORNY SPITZER TO HIS KNEES," is one gem.) Regardless of one's stance on the legalization of prostitution, it's impossible to deny that sex workers are one of the most ill-treated segments of society, but the idea of the young "Kristin" as a member of exploited subclass who was further exploited by Spitzer failed to catch on.

Rather, Silda was the victim whose pained face defined the scandal. Many female writers wondered with outrage why Spitzer's wife "stood by her man" — but we've created a political system where a politicians dutiful spouse is as important as his policies. A candidate or officeholder's spouse is expected to drop everything and stand with him or her — and most political families revolve around the patriarch, and will do so as long as men dominate politics. The press hated Dean's physician wife Judith Steinberg and Maureen Dowd enjoys ragging on Michelle Obama, because there's a fear with strong women that their husbands literally can't control them — and they have independent lives that will be difficult to subsume into the first ladyship. Compare that to the free pass given to Laura Bush. Americans appear to demand a spouse who can be reigned in for the sake of the campaign and then express surprise when she remains devoted in the face of infidelity. Silda's response doesn't surprise me at all, since she's poured so much of her own intellectual energy into her husband's career, as the system demands. No wonder she wanted to help him save face, at whatever personal cost.

Until Americans, and our media, stop insisting that our male leaders be a manly and upright family fellow with a docile wife who gazes at him adoringly, we're endorsing an patriarchal power structure. This presidential election, and the renewed focus on gender roles it has brought up, may be a good opportunity for us to reassess the machismo that overwhelms American politics.

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