Another day, another scandal involving a politician’s crotch. So much to say! And what I’d like to talk about first is this: the phrase “good wife,” and why it must be retired forever. Like yesterday.
In the disgraced politician script, the “good wife” is the one who stands by her man. The one who doesn’t comment and doesn’t leave. Her husband, a public figure, impregnated the “household staffer”, tried to solicit sex in a public restroom, or tweeted his weiner to strangers, and was discovered. In the throes of public (not to mention private) humiliation, the good wife must be not angry, not sad… not anything, really. Invisible is good. Stoic. Properly dressed. And then? Well, we generally rake her over the coals anyway. Shouldn’t she have left? What’s the matter with her? When did she know? What did she know? Did they have some sort of kinky arrangement? Was she just in it for the money, the Governor’s mansion, the vicarious power?
None of the above is good.
(And hey, just for fun, let’s imagine the situation were reversed. Let’s say Hillary Clinton was caught tweeting crotch shots to random young blackjack dealers and porn stars, or getting oral from an intern… Do you think anyone would be waxing philosophical over whether Bill was or was not behaving as a “good husband”?)
And the guy? I guess it’s clear these husbands are not, as husbands go, good. And yet, generally, the caught men are not really subject to the same sort of judgment. We laugh (comedy writers must surely thank the heavens for the gift of Weiner’s name), we roll our eyes and say, “another one?” or “boys will be boys.” Or, as Maureen Dowd wrote:
We’ve moved from the pre-feminist mantra about the sexual peccadilloes of married men–Boys will be boys–to post-feminist resignation: Men are dogs.
Humiliation (and press conference) behind us, we happily move on to dissect the debate. The conversation goes meta: why is who saying what about who, who’s allowed to or supposed to take what side, and doesn’t saying this in this instance when you said that in that instance make you a hypocrite?
And we greedily digest the salacious details. They’re pretty entertaining, after all. (Seriously, Weiner… your chest? Ladies: informal poll! Would receiving such a tweet be… exciting for you?) But really: it’s none of our business. And is it really news? We can feign outrage all we want, but the truth, it seems to me, is this: sex sells.
Alas, sexism does not. As Susanna Schrobsdorff wrote for Time magazine,
Sure, we get a lot of mileage out of publicly humiliating (and occasionally indicting) famous men who’ve committed sexual transgressions, both legal and illegal. But in the U.S., the gender war is often more show than substance. It’s a spectator sport in which we designate national villains, good wives and so-called sluts…
Condemning Weiner and Strauss-Kahn (and former Senator John Edwards) sure does make us feel as if women get a better deal in the U.S. than in France. The problem is that the numbers show that all the fuss over philandering men doesn’t do most American women any good at all. Certainly not when it comes to wage equality. As it turns out, the gender gap in median pay for full-time work is slightly worse in the U.S. than it is in France, according to a 2010 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
And it’s pretty certain that all the salacious details emerging from Weiner’s Twitter account won’t help the millions of American women who don’t have even one paid sick day to take care of a child or themselves. For many of the women who clean hotels and serve food, taking a day off means losing a big chunk of a week’s pay. That’s something that French women would surely not tolerate. (In the U.S., only 41% of low-wage service-industry jobs, which are dominated by women, allow paid sick days.) And how about maternity leave? America is one of only two industrialized nations, along with Australia, that do not guarantee paid maternity leave, and only 11% of U.S. civilian workers get paid family leave.
Will hotel maids be any more secure in the long run thanks to the attention brought to their occupational risks by the Strauss-Kahn case? In a month or two, when the spotlight moves elsewhere, it’s unlikely that they will feel less fearful that they’ll either lose their jobs or their reputations or be deported if they complain about a customer. After all, even women at elite institutions can’t be too optimistic that their allegations of harassment will be taken seriously. This spring, Yale University was embroiled in a federal investigation on charges that it ignored complaints by women about a number of egregious incidents, including one in which frat guys stood outside a freshman dorm shouting, “No means yes, yes means anal,” and another in which men rated women on the basis of how many drinks they’d have to consume before having sex with them.
So, yes, Americans will lambast anyone from the President to Weiner if we suspect they’ve violated our code of sexual conduct. But we won’t pay a whole lot of attention to more tedious but important issues like that ongoing legal action against Walmart by female employees who are suing the retailer for back pay in the largest private gender-bias case in U.S. history.
Still reading? Good reader. I wonder. If this were the sort of country where the women of Yale and Walmart were given as much play as Weiner’s weiner, where corporate pay–and maternity–policy demonstrated that women were valued, well, I wonder if powerful men–and the women they sext–would behave any differently. And I wonder this, too: What’s it going to take, to make substance as sexy as scandal?