"As long as we are not chased from our words we have nothing to fear. As long as our utterances keep their sound we have a voice. As long as our words keep their sense we have a soul." -- Edmond Jabes, from The Book of Yukel, Return to the Book

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Media misogyny and the Petraeus scandal

The end of Gen. David Petraeus both as an important member of any political administration and as a military tactician is not something anyone should mourn. The general was, as Lucian Truscott IV put it in The New York Times, a "phony hero for a phony war."

But we should not revel in the way this whole thing came down -- the uncovering of an affair through the use of the police state and the calling in of personal favors and political animus. The use of the FBI in this way, as numerous commentators have said, leaves us all vulnerable.

What has not been discussed, however, is overt sexism that underpins so much of the coverage and discussion of this tawdry scandal.

Petraeus remains, for many, an honorable but flawed hero. His part in the story is the part played by the hero of so much Greek tragedy, the man brought down by his own hubris.

But the casual -- and seemingly acceptable -- way with which we have denigrated the women involved in the scandal through the use of sexually charged, gender-specific language makes clear that we view them as far more culpible.

Consider this wholly gratuitous phrase from Truscott's otherwise trenchant analysis. Petraues, he says, had his head turned by "a West Point babe in a sleeveless top," as though his behavior was expected and that it was Paula Broadwell -- Petraeus' biographer -- who was asking for it. This language comes pretty close to the kind of blame the victim arguments we've historically heard in rape cases (even though, there are no victims in this one, just men and women being men and women).

Then there is this from Joe Nocera, the otherwise sane and rational columnist for the Times:

Let’s go back to the scene of the so-called crime, to Tampa, Fla., where Kelley, an attractive wannabe socialite, gets some unsettling e-mails from an anonymous sender. If she had any sense, she would block the e-mail address and be done with it. But because she knows that men will bend the rules for her — after all, high-ranking military officers granted her unfettered access to MacDill Air Force Base — she goes to her (male) F.B.I. friend, who advocates with his superiors for an investigation. They agree.
Like Truscott, Nocera gets personal in a way that has the potential to undercut his otherwise powerful argument about FBI overreach. His description, for the most part, is factual. Kelley used her connections to get the FBI involved (though, the apparent decision by an FBI agent with a political animus for the Obama administration and who apparently kept pushing this to the top has been left out of the narrative).

But Kelley is more than someone with access. She's a "wannabe socialite" who lacks "sense," and who "knows that men will bend the rules for her." This apparently makes her more worthy of denigration than, say, the K Street lobbyist who also traffics in access or even someone as preening and desirous of publicity as Petraeus himself.

These are just two examples of what has been a river of gendered criticisms of Broadwell and Kelley. And both ran in The New York Times, the supposed paragon of journalistic virtue. If the Times engages in this kind of nonsense, what does that say about the rest of the media?

None of this is to excuse the questionable behavior of either woman. No one involved -- not the general, not his biographer, not Jill Kelley, not the FBI -- come off very good in this.

But only Broadwell and Kelley have come in for the nasty opprobrium, the gratuitous dismissals and demeaning language. What else are we to make of that, if we are unwilling to call it sexism and misogyny?

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