Search This Blog

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

And they were both naked, but only the woman was ashamed.

So, now and again (by which I mean all the time), I post something here at the blog to keep myself from posting it on Facebook. The intention is usually to avoid starting a comment war on someone's wall, in a situation where I can tell that actual discussion will be difficult, if not impossible (which is to say, most of the time on Facebook). Today, that situation is the comment section on a link shared by J. The link is to this article, on gender and coverage of the Petraeus affair, and J. quoted the following passage, by way of introduction:

There are questions of real consequence, such as why the F.B.I. got so thoroughly involved in what has been vaguely described as a case of e-mail harassment, whether the bureau waited too long to tell lawmakers and White House officials about the investigation, and how much classified information Broadwell, by dint of her relationship with Petraeus, was privy to. The answers matter. Her 'expressive green eyes' (The Daily Beast) and “tight shirts” and 'form-fitting clothes' (The Washington Post) don’t . . . . [but] it’s the women in these situations who are often subjected to a more vigorous public shaming — and assigned greater responsibility.
I won't go into the details of the thread, because it's not my thread. It suffices to say that someone called into question the importance of the gender conversation, while basically doing exactly the (gender-based) things the article, and J, were critiquing -- that is, focusing almost exclusively on whether Broadwell was dressed properly, and what kind of assumptions we can make about her based on her appearance. So, rather than starting a comment war over on Facebook, I'm going on a rant here at in medias res.

I think you raise good points, [redacted], about how our clothing portrays us to the world. I can't speak for [redacted], but I suspect that you and I, at least, disagree concerning whether or not the specifically gendered ways in which that happens are a) real, b) acceptable, and c) something we should talk about, with an eye to changing it. Regardless of what we do with that set of ideas, I'm not sure why her appearance (or her age, which has also come up a lot) would be relevant to this incident, and I'm certainly not clear on why it would be offered as in any way relevant to Petraeus' professional (not to mention personal) failures, which included making good choices about who to associate with, and how.

And, I think that [redacted] and others (like me) think it's interesting and important to talk about how our gender dynamics (illustrated in things like discussing what men and women should and shouldn't  wear) create and "reinforce ideas of women, men, and power," and exactly because of situations like this.

The article linked is pointing out that the coverage of these events spends an inordinate amount of time paying attention to what Broadwell looks like -- her eyes, her clothes, her body fat (or lack thereof) -- then makes various statements and insinuations about her behavior, her motives, and her character, based largely on those physical attributes. Yet, in most of the coverage, there is no discussion of even the things you mention in your comment -- whether Petraeus is a "horndog" or how he sent her signals, or what sorts of chances were worth it for him to take. If behavior, motives, and character are important, then surely these things that reflect on his are worth discussing, no? The article points out that the coverage has focused on how her clothing plays up her physical assest in a sexualized way. You insist that men and women are equally scrutinized on the basis of what they wear. Where, then, is the discussion of what Petraeus was wearing? We've been told about her short skirts, as if they were snares, set to trap an unsuspecting Petraeus. But, surely, if women's clothing and feminine wiles are important, then men's clothing and masculine wiles are too, right? Was that uniform worn just-so, knowing what a tempting figure a distinguished man of power is to some women? How could he have dressed in such an enticing way, if he wanted to be taken seriously professionally? Such questions only seem more ridiculous than their female-directed parallels, because "masculine wiles" are not a thing, or at least not a thing we've spent centuries blaming things on. The truth is that it's ridiculous in both directions, but is only entrenched in the culture in one.

Speaking of which, if she wore clothing that played up her desirability more than it played up her intelligence (already a problematic statement, because why would those two be at odds, if not for some long-standing societal patterns that it would probably be important to talk about), what of it? Do we really think that "she was tempting" is a line of argument that does Petraeus any favors? In addition to the fact that he's a grown-ass man, shouldn't we reasonably expect the director of the CIA to resist all sorts of temptation, making it moot how appealing her toned arms were? As above, if gender and its shaping of discourse are unimportant, why do we care that she was a temptation to Petraeus, but not whether Petraeus was a temptation to her? Perhaps more importantly, in the wake of this election season, do we really want to trot out the "she was dressed like she wanted it" chestnut so soon?

But I digress.

Much of the coverage is uninterested in whether Petraeus dressed, spoke, or acted in ways that encouraged this relationship, but it is very interested in analyzing Broadwell in terms of her clothing and what some think it tells them about her personality and her intentions, and it focuses on those things to an extent that makes it seem as if her choice of attire somehow outweighed his choice of actions. This is a problem. But, of course, the answer is not to make ridiculous claims about how what Petraeus was wearing determined Broadwell's behavior. And, of course, Broadwell's perceived attractiveness or her choice of clothing should not deflect discussion of Petraeus' agency in both cheating on his wife and, in the process, tanking his professional credibility.

It seems to me that the story should be about whether Petraeus chose to act like someone who valued himself as an individual who makes intelligent choices, and whether he made choices that showed supported or undermined that claim that he was competent and well-suited to carrying out the responsibilities with which he had been entrusted. We should care more that someone whose responsibilities included supervising those who sneak around on behalf of the nation showed himself to be bad at sneaking around than we do about the eye color of the woman he was sneaking around with. We really should focus on the fact that someone whose job title meant he had been trusted to show good judgment about very important things showed himself to be untrustworthy. To derail the conversation, as many have, with claims (whether explicit or implicit) about what Broadwell's clothes and exercise habits are supposed to tell us about her agency, personality, intelligence, judgment, competence, or moral rectitude shifts the conversation from what should be under discussion -- what Petraeus' actions tell us about his agency, personality, intelligence, judgment, competence, or moral rectitude, and specifically because those things were relevant to his job.

PS - In reference to the original article, there is not a single thing in the text that suggests that Eve was "pushy with the apple." Just sayin'.


  1. Great piece. Relatedly, do you know any good scholarly (published) pieces explicitly analyzing slut-shaming, preferably with as much high-falutin theory as possible? I need some citations. :)

  2. You know, I actually don't know of good scholarly pieces on slut-shaming -- it's not one of the areas I'm well-versed in, at least in scholarly terms. If you find anything good, leave me a comment on here and let me know!