The David Petraeus affair: Why the media's coverage is sexist
Paula Broadwell has predictably been cast as a femme fatale, revealing enduring prejudices against women
Is Paula Broadwell an ambitious, intelligent, and hard-working mother of two who simply made a terrible mistake in having an affair with David Petraeus? Or is she a man-eating, family-busting, long-clawed temptress who brought down the finest military mind of his generation? Many say the media's coverage of the scandal surrounding Petraeus' resignation from the CIA has too often pushed the latter narrative, revealing deep strains of prejudice that have colored the public's perception of the still-unfolding controversy. And with the introduction of another woman, Jill Kelley, the media's portrayal of the episode has only devolved further into a Real Housewives-like burlesque of petty cat-fights and hysterics.
First of all, there's the notion that the affair is somehow Broadwell's fault. How could Petraeus resist? Broadwell with her "form-fitting" clothes, "tight skirts," and "toned arms" — in other words, "a shameless self-promoting prom queen" and a "slut" to boot — apparently "got her claws" into him. "The anecdotes and chatter that implicitly or explicitly wonder at the spidery wiles she must have used to throw the mighty man off his path are laughably ignorant of history," says Frank Bruni at The New York Times, "which suggests that mighty men are all too ready to tumble, loins first." And it's further evidence that women are "unfairly assigned the role of gatekeepers of sexual morality," says Alison Yarrow at The Daily Beast, "a designation that makes them easy to blame when men fall short."
Then came the idea that Broadwell used sex to climb the ladder. Her biography of Petraeus is titled All In, an inadvertent double entendre that "set the tone for Broadwell's introduction to the world," says Jessica Testa at BuzzFeed. (Indeed, a local ABC affiliate has gotten into trouble for mistakenly broadcasting an image plucked from the internet that had changed the title to All Up In My Snatch.) Broadwell was instantly cast as the "type who'd used a powerful man to get ahead, indifferent to those she'd hurt in the process," says Testa. She's been routinely described as an amateur journalist, unfit to write the biography of an American hero, the implication being she didn't get the job on merit. Never mind that she was her high school valedictorian, thrived at West Point, earned a master's degree from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and served as a military intelligence officer.
The media has, in general, also placed a predictable focus on what Broadwell and Kelley wear, like obsessing over the sleeveless dress Broadwell wore during an interview with Jon Stewart. And this is a typical example of the coverage dedicated to Kelley: "Say what you want about Jill Kelley, but home girl is really working this canary yellow sheath complete with little keyhole and skinny belt... Talk about dressing the part." The attention to their clothes reflects "how we cover our highest-ranked, most powerful women leaders," Jennifer Pozner, founder of Women in Media and News, tells The Daily Beast. "Of course that trickles down to how media cover any woman."
Of course, there may be grains of truth in the depictions of Broadwell and Kelley. Broadwell did reportedly send Kelley emails that had a "touch of Glenn Close's Fatal Attraction crazy," says Testa. Kelley probably would've passed a Real Housewives casting call with flying colors. However, when their interaction is described as "kind of cat-fight stuff," and footage of Kelley is slowed down to "sexy speed," it suggests that the public isn't getting a rounded picture of either woman. In Broadwell's case, there is little discussion of the "soccer mom, married to a radiologist, who serves her family dinner by candlelight and walks her two boys to the bus stop every morning before school," says Sheryl Gay Stolberg at The New York Times. To her neighbors, "she is the nice woman in the two-story brick house who wore a costume to hand out candy on Halloween."