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Spectator: Sexism Rules, OK?

brunch Updated: Nov 26, 2012 16:16 IST
Seema Goswami
Seema Goswami
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story


It didn’t take very long for the media coverage of the General David Petraeus affair to veer off into the well-trodden realm of misogyny, did it? There was the initial dismay about how another idol turned out to have feet of clay. There was some tut-tutting about how men will be men. There was much shock and horror expressed about how a former four-star general and director of the CIA could be stupid enough to be caught with his pants down.

David Petraeus

And then, with a certain inevitability, the attention turned to the women caught up in this sorry mess. There was Holly Petraeus, the wronged wife, said to be incandescent with fury but still standing by her man. There was Paula Broadwell, biographer-turned-mistress, the temptress who had brought the Great Man down from the heights of heroism with her feminine wiles. And then there was Jill Kelley, the other Other Woman, who had unwittingly set off the controversy by complaining to the FBI about some threatening mails that Broadwell – who believed Kelley was getting too close to Petraeus – had sent her. (Phew! You really couldn’t make this stuff up.)

To illustrate this little morality play, we were provided helpful colour pictures of all the protagonists in this sordid drama. Holly Petraeus, the weary, unglamorous spouse, looking every one of her near-60 years. Paula Broadwell, all toned arms and perfect figure, showcased in clothes so tight that they could well have cut off her circulation if she wasn’t such a champion athlete. And Jill Kelley, smoky-eyed and sultry in designer togs that showed off her enviable legs and tiny waist.

The sub-text was clear. What chance did poor old Petraeus have against the combined charms of Broadwell and Kelley? How could he possibly resist their blandishments – especially given what his poor, old, greying wife looked like? And just get a load of how these sirens are dressed, drawing all eyes to their pert derrieres and perky breasts! Which man could possibly stay chaste and faithful to his marital vows in the face of such an assault on his defences?

It’s familiar territory, really. It’s the same song whenever a powerful man is caught doing someone who isn’t his wife. He gets off as someone who gave in to temptation; the Other Woman is stigmatised as the one who lured him away from the straight and narrow. Clearly, the narrative hasn’t changed very much since the Original Sin. The apple never falls far from Adam and Eve, and that age-old tale of women luring men to their downfall.

Life after the infamy: After the White House scandal, Monica Lewinsky became a byword for sexual incontinence while Clinton has re-emerged as a President-maker at Obama rallies

And in keeping with these misogynistic double standards, while the men are rehabilitated in public life after a decent interval, the Scarlet Women who ‘tempted’ them are consigned to the shadows to live out the rest of their lives in disgrace. Just compare how Bill Clinton came off after the White House scandal to how Monica Lewinsky fared. Her life was ruined with her name becoming a byword for sexual incontinence while Clinton has re-emerged as a President-maker, milking the applause at Democratic election rallies for Barack Obama.

Back home in India, while our leaders manage to keep their sexual shenanigans out of the media, their deep-rooted misogyny is played out in full public view. When Congress leader Digvijay Singh wants to poke fun at Arvind Kejriwal for his daily ‘exposes’ he doesn’t compare him to, say, Salman Khan, who has a propensity to rip his shirt off at the slightest provocation. No, he says Kejriwal is like Rakhi Sawant, who also ‘exposes’ but has no ‘substance’.

Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav patronisingly explains to rural women that they will not benefit from the Women’s Reservation Bill because they are not attractive enough (unlike women from affluent families). BJP chief minister of Chhatisgarh Raman Singh holds forth on how good-looking women are contributory factors in causing road accidents (“If there is a good motorcycle, a good mobile and a good girlfriend, then accidents are bound to happen.”). Congress minister Sri Prakash Jaiswal tells us that as a wife gets old with time, she loses her charm.

Charm Offensive: Jill Kelley set off the controversy by complaining to the FBI

Women in public life are routinely subject to misogynistic attacks and jibes. While Mamata Banerjee is derided for her crumpled saris and Hawaii chappals, Mayawati has to face jibes about her penchant for pink and designer handbags (damned if you don’t; and damned if you do). But then, what can you expect from a world in which even Indira Gandhi was dubbed the “the only man in her Cabinet”, as if it were a compliment of the highest order when it was anything but.

The sad truth is that misogyny is so deep-seated in our society that it has even passed into the language. Sexist remarks have become such a part of our daily vocabulary that we trot them out without even registering how offensive they are. When we want our sons to toughen up, we say, “Don’t be such a girl.” When we think someone isn’t facing up to a situation with sufficient grit, we ask him or her to ‘man up’.

And then there’s that old chestnut: “Oh for God’s sake, grow a pair!” Honestly, it’s enough to make you want to aim a

well-directed kick at them instead.

Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami

From HT Brunch, November 25

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