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

Paula Broadwell in the kitchen of her brother's house in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 13: Broadwell's reputation seems to be held hostage by our culture's prejudices.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

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."

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