Petraeus Affair Stereotypes: The General, The Flirt And The Harlot

The stylistic archetypes whirling around the players in the Petraeus affair are as old as time, says Robin Givhan--and deeply unfair to women.

AP Photo ; Consolidated News Photos / Corbis ; ZUMA Press / Corbis

In the unfolding story about the affair between retired general David Petraeus and biographer Paula Broadwell, the characters involved represent an array of stereotypes—modern in their aesthetics, as old as the ages, as dangerous as ever. They are especially cruel to women.

Petraeus is almost invariably pictured in his dazzling military uniform, his chest ablaze with medals. He is the perfect picture of the heroic warrior with his dignified posture and graceful body confidence.

In an admiring Washington, Petraeus is the wise man of deep integrity who was brought low by the weakness of the flesh and the corrupting attentions of a woman who was not his wife. Those who profess to know him well, display dismay that he could have such an extraordinary lapse in discipline and control.

Broadwell is his partner in adultery. She too is married and has children and was once in the military. In appearance, Broadwell comes across as nothing like the stereotypical other woman—the one so often portrayed in Hollywood films or in torrid romances. She does not appear to be the damaged soul who needs to be rescued. While she is pretty, she does not dress the part of the temptress. And by all accounts, she was not the naïf being led by an older and more powerful man.

In photographs, she wears a sturdy tweed jacket, a practical black suit or efficient casual attire. Broadwell has the swagger of a wholly self-sufficient and capable woman—a woman who made her way through West Point and has navigated the machismo of the military. Even when she is dressed in cocktail attire, in the few pictures that have become so familiar, her preferred style is one in which her muscular arms are bared, but not her cleavage. The choice suggests a woman with a modern definition of femininity, one in which power, swagger and prettiness easily coexist. Sex appeal is redefined.

It’s hard to see Broadwell and Petraeus as anything other than equals—and equally culpable—in this civilian relationship, with their six-minute miles and push-up competitions. And yet, the responses to them have been wholly different.

People are mourning the damage to Petraeus’s reputation. Even President Barack Obama expressed his hope during a news conference that this stumble does not ultimately define Petraeus in the history books. But who mourns Broadwell’s reputation? Will the damage be irreparable?

If history offers no other lesson, it is that smart men do stupid things. Powerful men risk it all for reasons that defy logic. A deeply-held belief in moral integrity does not inoculate one from mistakes, weakness and failure. Our culture might hold its military professionals, its presidents, its congressmen to a higher standard than the average cubicle worker, but they do not always live up to it.

This reality finally seems to be sinking in. And we are slowly calling into question our cultural prudishness about sex. In this case, there is sympathetic talk of a great--but human--man whose private indiscretions should have remained that way. Some folks in positions of power have publicly mused that perhaps Petraeus’s resignation was too hasty.

Petraeus is being given the benefit of the doubt. He is not crassly referred to as a cheater, a scoundrel or a liar. He remains “the general.”

But Broadwell, despite all of the modernity she represents, has been declared the mistress--an old-fashioned word that suggests she is some sort of kept harlot--or the “other woman," as if women, in general, are interchangeable. Isn’t Petraeus, arguably, the “other man”? One almost wishes that Broadwell would dig up an old picture of herself in a military uniform and let the public get a glimpse of it. Perhaps she’d have a fighting chance in the war of appearances. What does it take for Broadwell not to be perceived as some sort of conniving floozy?

But at least she has not been derided in the manner of Jill Kelley, the alleged recipient of anonymous and threatening e-mails that the FBI apparently traced to Broadwell and which in turn led to the unspooling of the whole affair. Kelley’s only crime appears to be an awful lot of debt, which she shares with her husband. Aside from that, she has been a stay-at-home mother and an unofficial welcome wagon to the high-ranking military personnel in Tampa. She appears to be the perfectly pleasant, party-planning, sociable do-gooder.

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Knowing how to throw a party and keep the conversation lively were once celebrated assets back in the days of debutantes, engraved dinner invitations and hand-written thank you notes. Indeed, it wasn’t so long ago that in Washington, the art of socializing was considered a powerful skill among the establishment doyennes.

But Kelley has been dismissed as little more than a social-climbing airhead. Why? She is an attractive woman with raven hair and a curvaceous figure that she knows how to flatter with body-friendly dresses in cheerful colors. She would be the “after” in any makeover story.

Is there something today about being pretty and pulled together that inspires suspicions and transforms “working in one’s community” into being a “nice, bored, rich socialite”—as one anonymous U.S. official condescendingly described her? Would her ministrations to the military be taken differently if she was older, grayer and a little less shapely? Probably.

Kelley has been aggressively fighting the stereotype of the social gadfly and temptress. Her brother has been telling reporters that his sister is, above all else, a mother and wife. She strode before the cameras in the course of kiddie car pooling. And she has been spotted wearing nothing but the most discrete, tailored sheath dresses. It all seems perfectly choreographed to quash the assumption that she is no more than a little flirt.

Because this is a culture that equates fashion, makeup and personal adornment with narcissism and selfishness, Holly Petraeus’s refusal of such things--her asceticism--gives her a kind of glancing moral legitimacy. Quite simply, in our aesthetic language, Mrs. Petraeus looks selfless.

She appears to be a woman who has opted not to chase glamour, to kow-tow to fashion or to wrestle with the constant pressures on women to reflect a Hollywood ideal. With her efficient bob, her practical spectacles and her matronly wardrobe, Mrs. Petraeus is a reassuring presence rather than a competitive one.

She has been described as kind, intelligent, loyal, wise, dogged, compassionate and a host of other adjectives that elevate her to near sainthood. But in the secular world, style is a way of announcing one’s presence and staying relevant in social contracts. To simply ignore it means risking invisibility.

In the early days of any scandal, the unwilling stars struggle to control and shape public perception without uttering a word. For some, it is a matter of reinforcing what the public already believes. The flawed hero resigns out of a sense of duty. The selfless wife carries on. For others, they must engage in a feverish battle against the stereotypes that would define them. Style serves as both weapon and shield.