A Scarlet Letter—the Monica Lewinsky-ing of Paula Broadwell

When powerful men stray, the press continues to ogle, and shame, the women they do it with, writes Allison Yarrow.

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The more things change: one of the world’s most powerful men stepped out on his marriage, yet much of the public attention and opprobrium has focused on the far-less-powerful woman who was drawn to him, media critics and other observers charged Tuesday—with several comparing the coverage of CIA Director David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell to that of President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

Almost none of the coverage of the scandal involving both Petraeus—the retired four-star general who commanded the U.S. and coalition forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan—and Marine Four-Star General John Allen, who’s presently leading the forces in Afghanistan, has connected the behavior of two of the military’s most decorated leaders with the wave of sexual assault and harassment scandals that has plagued the U.S. military.

Instead, much of the coverage has focused on Broadwell’s fashion sense, and the tone of her arms.

“She favored sleeveless outfits that showed off toned, muscular arms,” reported her hometown Charlotte Observer. Unnamed Petraeus aides called her “immune to the notion of modesty” in Afghanistan, when she spent time with Petraeus there while writing his biography, and recalled her “tight shirts and pants” that “made a lasting impression.”

“That’s how we cover our highest-ranked, most powerful women leaders. Of course that trickles down to how media cover any woman,” said Women in Media and News founder and critic Jennifer Pozner.

“We’re Lewinsky-ing Paula Broadwell,” said Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a filmmaker who produced Miss Representation, a documentary dissecting biased media portrayals of women and girls. “I’d liken it to a witch hunt. Women are still second-class citizens in this country,” scapegoated for the failings of powerful men, added Newsom, the wife of California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

As with Lewinsky, much of the coverage of Broadwell has focused on her exchange with another women. Even an intelligence community source described emails Broadwell sent to Petraeus family friend Jill Kelley (who’s also the woman whom General Allen reportedly had “inappropriate communications” with over email) as “kind of cat-fight stuff.”

Women have long been unfairly assigned the role of gatekeepers of sexuality morality, a designation that makes them easy to blame when men fall short, said Occidental College professor of politics Caroline Heldman. “The onus should be on Petraeus,” she said. “He has a lot more to lose and he’s a lot more to blame in that breach.”

Instead, said Heldman, media coverage give “the impression that Broadwell’s the bad woman, the slut, manipulative and conniving, a climber.”

But Broadwell’s poise and leadership abilities impressed classmate Morra Aarons-Mele, founder of the digital marketing agency Women Online who attended graduate school at Harvard with her.

“She was so accomplished and beautiful, the kind of person you’d look at as a woman leader. I thought, Wow, that’s what I want to be like,” said Aarons-Mele, who added that the attacks on Broadwell—who in addition to being Petraeus’s biographer is a triathlete and a Harvard and West Point graduate—are “comfortable for us as a society,” a way of forgiving the general his sins.

“Two obviously tangoed. Women are still not really allowed to be ambitious. We’re always looking to punish that,” said Aarons-Mele.

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The affair helps steer attention away from larger issues, like the 9/11 anniversary attack in Benghazi, that could embarrass the president, said Roger Aronoff, editor of the conservative watchdog group Accuracy in the Media.

The mainstream media, he speculated, could be using sex to distract the public from much bigger issues of national intelligence and public safety that could damage the Democratic president, much as it did with Clinton in his view when Lewinsky helped shift public attention away from the Whitewater investigation many on the right hoped would bring his administration down.

But Clinton of course had a long public career before his sex scandal, while Lewinsky is still known for that alone. Though she recently signed a $12 million book deal to write her memoir, she’s mostly kept out of the public eye and, of course, there is really just one experience in her life that warranted a book deal, let alone one with such a huge advance.

Lewinsky “is shamed to this day. The affair changed the trajectory of her life, made her notorious and limited her life in many ways,” said Heldman. And Broadwell likewise will “wear a scarlet letter on her chest,” Heldman predicted.

Nearly 15 years later, two recent speakers at Lewinsky’s alma mater, Lewis & Clarke College, told the Beast that they were warned not to mention the former White House intern in their remarks.

“We care more about who General Petraeus is shagging than who he’s droning,” said Pozner, adding that “you don’t need coverage of a sex scandal to show we haven’t gotten further than the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal: just look at Michelle Obama’s arms. Even half the serious pieces on her mention her guns."