Toned Arms & Tight Shirts: Media Coverage of the Petraeus Affair

National news coverage this month has been dominated by the exposure of the extramarital affair of CIA director David Petraeus. Oddly enough, Petraeus is not the key player in this story – at least as told by the media. Rather, a national spotlight has stalked not Petraeus, but his mistress: Paula Broadwell. And it’s been ugly.

Since the affair was uncovered, reporter after reporter has written vivid descriptions — or arguably indictments — of Broadwell’s professional résumé, body, and clothing choices. Is Broadwell a kind-hearted philanthropist or a conniving social climber, they ask. A soccer mom or seductress? Broadwell’s name has been smeared across the front page of every major newspaper, dirtied in what can only be described as scarlet lettering. But as Broadwell’s personal and professional character is ripped apart, Petraeus’ public image remains comparatively intact. These stories expose not her guilt but rather the intensely unequal scrutiny and castigation women receive in response to sexual transgressions.

How did the director of the CIA make such a colossal mistake? When the press tells the story, the answer is clear: He was seduced. Articles underscore how Broadwell flaunted her “toned arms” and wore “unusually tight shirts and pants” while working with Petraeus in Afghanistan. She had the crowning of high school homecoming queen under her (svelte) belt, and she enticed Petraeus with her impressive 13 percent body fat. By painting a picture of Broadwell’s appealing physique (she can run a six-minute mile), youth (she’s 20-some years Petraeus’s junior) and confidence (“God has given me all of these gifts to use to the best of my ability,” she apparently wrote in a high school yearbook), the media tells us that Petraeus was helpless: he simply couldn’t resist cheating on his wife, jeopardizing his career and endangering the nation.

Unfortunately, it’s not at all uncommon for the media to draw inferences about a woman’s behavior from the way she looks or what she wears. There has been no suggestion that the Petraeus-Broadwell affair was anything but consensual, but the media coverage has echoed many of the same narratives favored by rape apologists, who incriminate women on the basis of the amount of makeup they wear or the shortness of their skirts. Just like the slut-shamed women in these cases, the countless references to Broadwell’s looks and dress tell us that she was “asking for it” – that her toned arms and tight shirts signified that she was sexually available, and that Petraeus had no choice but to act on his impulse – an argument that is itself, ironically, sexist and insulting to men.

Media coverage of the Petraeus affair exemplifies what Freud called the “Madonna/Whore Complex,” or the long-reigning “good girl/bad girl” trope that plays out over and over again in popular culture, from Sandy versus Rizzo to Britney versus Christina. Is Broadwell a “soccer mom or skankzilla,” asks Hanna Rosin of Slate. Whorish or wife-like? The dichotomy illustrates the lack of acceptance of the fact that women can be both nurturing and sexual – that, like the tidbits the press has dug up about Broadwell, a woman can mentor young girls, cook family dinners, raise funds for wounded soldiers, and even succeed in her career while simultaneously giving off sexual appeal and engaging in sexually promiscuous behavior. Society either likes to believe that women are that one-dimensional to be capable of occupying only one role, or it likes to enforce that women must choose between the two.

Indeed, while reporters viciously debate Broadwell’s morality, the attitude toward Petraeus has been mostly neutral, even sympathetic. As Jezebel’s Lindy West points out, Petraeus is frequently depicted as an “illustrious military man who made a natural, unfortunate, but anomalous ‘screw-up.’” According to Col. Peter Mansoor, who served as a top aide to Petraeus, “He had a good relationship with the president and national security team, and he threw that all away … due to a personal failing. He is very, very down right now.” There is no mention of Petraeus’s abuse of power, that he engaged in a sexual relationship with his mentee; no scrutiny of his looks or his body (although the same cannot be said of his wife). And while many speculate that Petraeus’s career is recoverable, Broadwell’s has been described as nothing short of “toast.”

As the Petraeus affair underscores the deep-seated sexism present in mainstream media, its ensuing coverage has also obscured a much more serious issue: the U.S. military’s horrific rape epidemic. On Wednesday, the military will release a report on a sexual abuse scandal that has been called one of the worst in its history. Nearly 50 female recruits have made allegations of sexual misconduct at the Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. The Lackland scandal marks the latest chapter in a long-standing history of sexual abuse. Reports indicate that 1 in 3 military women have been sexually assaulted, including some 19,000 cases in fiscal year 2010 alone.

Yet the discussion of Lackland has been pushed aside in favor of Broadwell’s tight-fitting blouses, and the devastating harm caused by the sexual abuse of military women is left woefully underreported. Ultimately, coverage of the Petraeus affair reveals the media’s trend of shaming women rather than supporting them, and it must be stopped.


Renee Davidson is a feminist writer and activist living in DC. You can follow her on LinkedIn & on Twitter at @reneetheorizes.

Photo credit hectorir via the Creative Commons License.

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