Years ago I wanted to write a book, Another Woman: From Cleopatra to Marla, but now that seems to take us only halfway through the evolution of the mistress.
After Marla Maples, who secretly dated Donald Trump for two years in the ’80s while he was still married to Ivana (before becoming Marla Maples Trump for what seems now like a quick media second but long enough to produce another Trump treasure, Tiffany, seemingly a well-adjusted scholar-athlete), there have been much more controversial other women. Camilla, Monica, Rielle and, of course the latest, Paula, all have made their big historical marks.
But whereas yesterday’s mistress was labeled “sleazy” both behind closed doors and above the fold and would have had to go into damage-control mode, today mankind (and womankind, for that matter) has finally changed enough that although both parties are ultimately judged—like brands—for the company they keep, the man is the one in need of rebranding after he has been scrutinized for his lust interests.
Mistresses seem to have more, to be more. (Think of the legendary Pamela Harriman: She got her men and their wealth, and she achieved great stature in Washington, D.C., a mistress turned hostess with the mostest.)
Today, we wouldn’t have a Monica Lewinsky (who admittedly was more victim than “mistress”), a woman who tried a New York fashion career and got a degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science but still doesn’t have much to show for her adult years except the scars of a stained Gap dress and the wounds inflicted upon her by her “friend” Linda Tripp.
What we are seeing is French President François Hollande having to defend his credentials and his image because of a love triangle that Vanity Fair recently called a “twisted 20-year psychodrama.” While his former partner Ségolène Royal and current girlfriend Valérie Trierweiler take their public battle to Twitter and beyond (and while former French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, no stranger to relationship drama, fearlessly opines on how the new French first girlfriend should manage her personal life), the spotlight has actually turned on Hollande. How will he assure the French that they chose the right man for the job in their time of need? Or as Marine Le Pen, the National Front party leader, was quoted in Vanity Fair as saying, “How can he have any authority over his country while he has absolutely none with his ex-girlfriend or his current girlfriend?”
What exactly does the rehabilitation and rebranding of a powerful man who has been smeared—or has smeared himself—with dirt look like? French powerbrokers such as Nicolas Sarkozy (who had an affair with his second wife while married to his first) and Hollande—even DSK, to some extent—can get away with a lot, but the American puritanical streak makes it harder here, and the chattering class’s constant scrutiny makes it harder still. (See The Atlantic’s recent post about how three of the five principals in the “Love Pentagon saga” have “hired high-powered fancy lawyers to help them emerge from the smoldering scandalous ruins.”) At least that’s true for political figures. When we go outside that realm, the first example that comes to mind is David Letterman; who knew he’d become a trendsetter?
The David Petraeus–Paula Broadwell—and we ought to factor in General Allen—scandal is big. Even as some are asking whether an affair really requires a leader who has distinguished himself professionally to step down, the coverage has been breathless. Everyone from The New Yorkerto VICE has jumped into the “analysis” of Petraeus and his extracurricular love interest. Sexual waterboarding? It’s a comedic comment in VICE that reads seriously, because who can believe that the men leading the most serious organizations in the world are bogged down with teenage hormones?
On the other hand, it’s not making top headlines anymore. Why? Petraeus knows that it’s more clear than ever what the secret to rebranding after an affair is: accepting that a complete transformation is no longer possible in this everything-noticed, everything-tracked (and -tweeted), everything-archived-online age and acknowledging that a better strategy might be to simply own your transgressions and get on with it. Bill Clinton and Tiger Woods and John Edwards went old-school and into denial; Letterman and Petraeus are leading the way to the future. The Los Angeles Times reported this week that the general has been fielding “offers to teach from at least four universities and had conversations about seats on corporate boards. He’s thinking about giving speeches, writing a book on leadership or even becoming a talking head on television.”
A brave new world of sexual politics has gotten us to this point. There is no brand fallout for being the other woman, the other man or even the married aggressor. That’s a big change. Next up, increased desensitivity around the consensual hookups of relative equals.