I'm as tired as anyone of talking about John Edwards' admitted affair, but an Op-Ed in today's San Francisco Chronicle on the topic cannot go unmentioned -- and unchallenged -- here. Jeremy Snitkin, a marriage and family therapist, paints John Edwards as a victim and Elizabeth Edwards as a hero to family values.
Let me attempt to explain his argument: John Edwards' affair is only the most recent of innumerable examples of "a relatively powerful, successful middle-age man succumbing to the temptations of a younger woman." We are uncomfortable with the idea that such a powerful man can be "so easily manipulated by a mere girl," Snitkin argues, so, in such cases, we "identify the women involved (often both cuckold and concubine) as victims (seduced and/or abandoned) and the men as perpetrators (seducer/abandoner)." He references, um, Billy Crystal in "When Harry Met Sally" and then makes the following point: "Women are judged by their youth and beauty; men are judged by their ability to attract women of youth and beauty."
I might put it another way: Women are judged by their ability (i.e., youthfulness and beauty) to attract powerful men; men are judged by their ability (i.e., power and success) to attract youthful and beautiful women. (I would prefer to not put it either way, though, as both are awfully reductive.)
To his credit, Snitkin points out that both men and women are harmed by strict constructions of gender: "The American cultural imperative that pressures women to look young and men to need to sleep with those women is oppressive to all involved." Except, as the saying goes, it takes two to tango -- and to have sex. If you're inclined to look at it in such terms, which I am not, you have to acknowledge that there is a mutual conquering going on. It might be argued -- again, in painfully reductive terms -- that sleeping with a powerful man validates a woman, while sleeping with a beautiful woman validates a man.
Even if you accept Snitkin's argument that John Edwards is a victim of the "cultural imperative" to sleep with younger women, then isn't his wife equally a victim of that social pressure? Not according to Snitkin; she's isn't the victim here, remember. In fact, he argues that women who have stuck by their man -- after he stuck it elsewhere -- are "heroes." He writes: "The feminist movement, while essentially progressive and sexually liberating, has also often emphasized the victim nature of womanhood and served to strengthen a double standard that, in this case, demonizes masculinity in general, and powerful men in particular."
How is it, exactly, that it's wrong to blame Edwards for his own behavior and yet his wife is a hero for forgiving that very behavior? If the behavior isn't worth criticizing, how is putting up with it heroic? Snitkin seems to expect women to have the cultural insight to forgive infidelity, and yet doesn't expect men to have the same awareness -- so that they might, you know, avoid "succumbing" to these cultural pressures. He paints women as mothers not only to their children but also to their often-erring husbands. The good wife, the heroic wife, will patronizingly pat an unfaithful husband on the head and smirk knowingly: Stupid boy, he just couldn't help himself!
What a derogatory view of dudes.
I do agree that women -- be they the "cuckold" or the "concubine" -- are not always the victim when it comes to infidelity; that alleged feminist construction should indeed be demolished. But Snitkin doesn't do that. He simply lifts the structure, fully intact, and upends it, reimagining powerful men as the victims and young, attractive women as the perpetrators. It's the same construction, only -- look! -- doesn't the basement look so much better up top? To be fair, Snitkin does offer an additional female role: that of the "enlightened" and heroically forgiving wife, à la Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Edwards.
Gosh, why does this all sound so familiar? Oh, right. It's that familiar wife-whore dichotomy.