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Marital Infidelity and the Public/Private Divide

Posted by Hadar Aviram on Tue Aug 26 2014

I’ve just read this U.S. News editorial suggesting that the American public has come full circle in its approach toward infidelity of public figures. It echoes some thoughts I had after watching a few episodes of ScandalHouse of Cards, and The Good Wife. All three shows are deeply invested in exploring the public/private divide, and in particular, the connection between sexual infidelity and public political performance. But each of the shows does it a bit differently.

If the editorial is right, then we’ve seen the rise and fall of American concern with infidelity—from the indifference toward Kennedy’s extramarital affairs to today’s indifference to Vance McAllister’s kiss. During its heyday, it seems that the combined message from the Clinton, Wiener, Spitzer, Petreaus et al. affairs is that evidence of marital infidelity has some bearing on one’s function as a public citizen.

To try and understand why, let me borrow a seemingly-unrelated exaple: the Paul Ryan sub-3 marathon lie. While the fib itself was ridiculous—as an endurance athlete, I find the idea that Ryan wouldn’t remember if he ran a 3-hour or a 4-hour marathon utterly ludicrous. (I remember my time in big races down to the seconds and so does everyone else I know.) It did, however, make me wonder what possible reason a vice-president-hopeful would have to brag, truthfully or falsely, about an athletic achievement. Presumably, the ability to effectively run the affairs of the state doesn’t depend on one’s physical endurance. Except for the following:

1) Our gendered perception of leadership means that a male politician’s performance is a reflection of his masculine prowess, which includes impressive athleticism.

2) Running a marathon, especially in an impressive time, is a task that requires dedication, discipline, self-deprivation—all qualities that fit our somewhat Calvinist idea of good leadership.

3) We look for something admirable and cool in people we vote for. We want to like them as people. Any trivia about their personal life that makes them look good is acceptable, and vice versa.

Similarly, it would seem that, if marriage infidelity is a problem for people holding public office, it’s because it tells us something about their ability to lead. Let’s see if the Paul Ryan rationales I thought about hold up:

1) How we treat infidelity is closely related to our construction of masculinity. Is a “real man” one who holds “decent family values,” which include sexual fidelity, or one who possesses sexual prowess and is attractive? The media might’ve had something to do with the difference in which Kennedy and Clinton were treated for their respective indiscretions, but it’s also about changing times and changing perceptions of masculinity.

2) As far as what we can learn from people’s private behavior about their public performance, consider this interesting poll. Apparently, in the aftermath of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair, “the American public has substantially changed its view of Clinton as an individual but barely readjusted its perception of President Clinton as a political leader.” If public opinion changed later, it was because of the concerted top-down effort made by Ken Starr to blemish Clinton and push for an impeachment hearing.

Think, on the other hand, about Petraeus, whose professional capability and talent was never in question (he’s doing fairly well in academia and consulting).

3) Take a look at this anti-Harold Ford ad:

Yes, there’s some effort to tie his sexual indiscretions to his political performance, but you know what? It’s mostly about communicating the message that he’s simply sketchy, unpleasant, and unlikeable.

What can we learn from fictional infidelity in contemporary pop culture? In three shows that make political infidelity the focus of the plot, it’s treated in three dramatically different ways:

The Good Wife plays a lot with, but does not fully problematize, the political double standard. It’s fairly clear that the protagonist’s husband, a politician caught in a prostitute scandal, has committed an original sin, and the show consistently portrays him in an unsympathetic light. By contrast, his separated-but-not-yet-divorced wife, who is clearly attracted to her boss but does not consummate this attraction, is portrayed very positively. Lots of gender double standard here, and lots of equating people’s private behavior and public performance.

Scandal hammers a self-contradictory message in on each episode: Cheating is the ultimate original sin; nothing is worse; while murder, political corruption, and a million other pecadillos can be “fixed”, sexual infidelity is the ultimate dealbreaker, understood implicitly as a valid and legitimate reason to end a marriage. At the same time, virtually every episode offers an example of sexual indiscretion, highlighting the message that this is prevalent, natural, and inevitable behavior—common and unavoidable, while simultaneously being condemned and unforgivable. This is a particularly interesting message in a show that attempts to portray a mild Republican presidency in a post-racist, post-homophobic world (the Chief of Staff is openly gay, married to his partner, and has adopted a baby; a powerful wheeler-and-dealer is a black woman). We’ve presumably done away with race and sexual orientation, but sexual hypocrisy is alive and well.

Finally, House of Cards has a Macbeth-like instrumental approach to politicians and sexual indiscretions. For the reigning couple, if they use their indiscretions wisely and adopt a “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” approach about them at home, it’s all part of their general political ruthlessness. The extramarital sex in itself is not a moral failing; it’s merely another expression of the corruption, selfishness and ruthless ambition.

What to make of all this? Has television made us more indifferent to marital infidelity, or were we always pretty indifferent, and just swayed by top-down smear campaigns? I’m not sure. I also haven’t done a Democrat-versus-Republican scandal analysis, and I also don’t know if the media’s tendency to smear some people and to ignore others’ infidelities has to do with other markers of class and charisma. You tell me. But I find this an interesting case study of how indicia of personality—if marital infidelity provides such indicia—are used in contradictory and complex ways to construct people’s public image.

Hadar Aviram is a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law and a member of Life of the Law’s Advisory Panel.