If nothing else, this year’s series of marriage-fracturing scandals has given us a definitive portrait of the 21st-century mistress. Historically, the creature has been understood as a kind of obligation-free sweetheart one installs in a convenient apartment after fondness for a wife has evaporated. Not so her modern counterpart. Instead of a peignoir-clad understudy who frees up the chief spouse’s time for redecorating and serving on charitable committees, 2009’s Other Woman is the pathetic extra who hangs around the craft services table, hoping to catch a glimpse of the star. One communicates with her by text, if at all, meeting only in the duty-free zones of strip clubs and hotel suites. One knows nothing about her real life. As the cheater in the new film Up in the Air, a classic tale of infidelity, neatly puts it to a sexting buddy, “My family, that’s my real life. You’re an escape, a break from the norm.”
But there’s a catch. Although Up in the Air is the familiar story of a smitten innocent duped by a married (who knew?) lover, those words aren’t spoken by a husband. The lover in question is a wife—and mother. And though the definition of mistress has changed over time, it’s a sure bet no one ever thought it would include George Clooney.
But stepping out, it seems, has been suffering from a kind of glass ceiling—beginning with the basic question of who does it in the first place.
One of the more tedious aspects of the recent spate of alpha males behaving badly has been the experts who’ve covered, like faint mold, every scandal with their hoary theories about Why Men Cheat. For every skank on speed-dial, it seems, there is a shelf of studies explaining why some primo husband has bent to her appeal. Outsized ego, insecurity, hubris, and a complete disconnection from reality are big—if diametrically opposed—contenders. But the most popular theories take us back to the savannah, where troglodytes in the know sought out the dewiest, most puffy-lipped cave ladies to carry on their line. The widely held conclusion: Powerful men aren’t weak, they’re savvy. And cheating isn’t endemic—it’s evolutionary.
Wives, on the other hand, don’t cheat. They are dissatisfied. The housewife not-so-subtly flashing Frank the plumber is not driven by her primal urge to, say, increase her pool of providers by bearing yet another man’s child. In fact, she’s likely been rejected by her husband, probably for not being puffy-lipped enough. Her urge to stray is reactionary, not evolutionary—an obscure desire that has more to do with wanting to prove someone wants to have sex with her than wanting to have sex. And if Frank the plumber did rouse himself enough to take on the job, you get the sense the husband might merely call to thank him for the favor.
• Rebecca Dana: Why Women Don’t Have Sex ScandalsThis is captivating stuff, except it describes approximately .004 percent of infidelity as it is practiced in the known world. Because, as the recent wave of men embracing paternity testing could tell you, women, married and otherwise, cheat plenty. They just don’t get any credit for it.
At first blush, Up in the Air, in which famously marriage-phobic George Clooney plays a man much like himself, seems ill-equipped to right this historical wrong. When we meet Ryan Bingham, the only intimacy he cherishes is in the act of firing someone, and his greatest commitment is to upping his frequent flier mileage balance. Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) seems a brilliant match—equally willing to banter about rental car companies, conduct romantic interludes in hub cities, and think no further than their next layover. Assuring Ryan of her complete lack of devotion, she instructs him, “Think of me as you with a vagina.”
If sexual liberation plus reality TV created a very downsized mistress—one without love or a love nest, apparently—sexual liberation plus a paycheck can also create an army of Don Drapers in heels.
We’re now familiar with this type of emotional faceoff, in which two hookup artists slowly learn the benefits of being more than a booty call to each other. (Romantic comedies keep resistance to true love—like sex scenes—mercifully brief.) But Up in the Air takes a sharp detour from this happy ending. While Ryan is falling in love, Alex, unbeknownst to him, is happily conducting her married life in Chicago. When he chases her down, When Harry Met Sally-like, to begin the rest of their life together, he’s struck dumb by the incontestably domestic sight of her children barreling up the stairs and her husband’s voice gently inquiring about the identity of the caller. As Alex’s furious eyes make clear, Ryan’s just broken the only vow they’ll ever have to each other: not to take their relationship seriously.
Alex certainly isn’t the first character to step out on her husband—from Madame Bovary to Main Street to Terms of Endearment to Urban Cowboy to Diary of a Mad Housewife, literature and film are littered with women who match—or exceed—their husband’s indiscretions. (Heck, Vera Farmiga herself already cuckolded Matt Damon in The Departed.) But those women—and men—had the decency to struggle with their emotions versus their code of conduct. Whether they stayed in their marriage or ultimately left for a lover, you knew they at least had the good sense to know whom they loved.
Not so with today’s cheaters, who indulge in such a flurry of backtracking, confession, denial, and self-recrimination it can be difficult to keep track of which paramour ranks highest on any given day. (Alert: Jon Gosselin apparently wants Kate back.) Was the act of cheating a simple fling? A break from a loveless marriage? A surefire sign of sex addiction? A moment of weakness? If you don’t like one answer, wait a minute—today’s cheaters are sooner settled with a single woman than a single answer. That’s because there isn’t one. From Sanford to Spitzer to Woods, they’re all opportunists of love, milking both the state of matrimony and a stable of cocktail cuties for everything they’ve got.
And Alex’s blatant compartmentalization—her ability to warmly cuddle a lover while apparently still enjoying the company of her husband—seems to nudge her far closer to Elliot Spitzer than Emma Bovary. And she’s not alone. From chirpy chef Julie Powell, whose Julie & Julia follow-up, Cleaving, finds her turning to butchery to stay out of another man’s bedroom, to The Atlantic’s Sandra Tsing Loh, who detailed, in a recent series of columns, the act of leaving her husband for a lover, to the upcoming It’s Complicated, in which Meryl Streep juggles an affair with her ex-husband and a new boyfriend, women everywhere are starting to bring home the bacon and burn down the house. If sexual liberation plus reality TV created a very downsized mistress—one without love or a love nest, apparently—sexual liberation plus a paycheck can also create an army of Don Drapers in heels, women with both the time and power to question seriously if the life and love they’ve chosen is the one they really want.
Let’s hope they can stick with one answer.
Lizzie Skurnick is the author of Shelf Discovery, a memoir of teen reading. She lives in Jersey City.