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Why the Petraeus Scandal Really Hits Home

Posted by Kara Baskin  November 15, 2012 09:30 AM

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Elmo and David Petraeus don’t have much in common except for the fact that they both keep people safe—Petraeus from terrorists and Elmo from the needs of whiny children. And, as we discovered this week, apparently they both have frisky sex lives.

Kevin Clash, the voice of Elmo, supposedly conducted an affair with a teenage boy; the accuser later recanted. Petraeus, of course, cheated on his wife with his foxy, fawning biographer Paula Broadwell, and that affair actually happened. Guess which tryst alarmed me more? Not Elmo's.

There has been plenty of analysis of the Petraeus fiasco, of course, from every perspective possible: People who think affairs are normal, people who think affairs are amoral, security experts, psychologists, feminists, sex writers, “slut-shamers,” people who create handy flow charts festooned with temporary celebrities. But wedged into a lot of this coverage, either overtly or diplomatically, is a certain sighing admission: Holly Petraeus is, well, kinda frumpy. Can you blame the guy? Could she just maybe, you know, tweeze the brows a little bit?

Reading about the affair, it’s hard not to cast my eyes downward, to my hirsute thrush of leg hair, and wonder if maybe, just maybe, I should do more to keep my husband interested. I guess I’m so comfortable after 12-plus years together that I don’t really think about my appearance. I belch. I wear yoga pants that make me look like a linebacker for the Patriots. I chew with my mouth open, thrust my un-groomed hooves in his lap during Jeopardy, and sometimes leave dental floss on the floor. Dear Reader, I confess: I am not exactly Playboy material.

In fairness, Brian isn’t on the fast track to People’s Sexiest Man Alive, either. He’s a nice-looking man, but he has far less hair than he once did, and every morning I wake up to the guttural moans of him clearing phlegm into the bathroom sink.

And so: At what point does physical appearance stop mattering in a marriage? Personally I feel like all bets are off after a man has seen you go into labor and splash a delivery nurse with amniotic fluid while heaving into a plastic bucket. You can put on a Victoria’s Secret ensemble, blow dry your hair, and slap on some makeup, but as far as I know, MAC has yet to make lipstick for the woman who needs to erase from her husband’s memory the sight of a child emerging from her loins.

I think that part of what makes marriage so wonderful is that you don’t have to dress for a first date every single day. You can lope around the house looking like Attila the Hun, and it shouldn’t matter—years of shared memories compensate for the fact that you haven’t plucked your eyebrows since 2010.

That’s what makes this Vixen versus Middle-Aged Mom affair so scandalous and so appealing: Holly Petraeus could be any one of us—from Elizabeth Edwards to Hillary Clinton to you or me—just waiting to be dethroned when a younger woman arrives on the scene with tighter abs and less leg hair and a penchant for, um, ego-stroking. But implicit in this comfort is a lack of care, a sense that you’ve just stopped trying and gotten too safe. In fact, it’s not about looks at all, not really; it’s about availability, a lack of mystique and novelty, the curse of the mundane.

And so, is comfort the death knell of a marriage, or its charm? Katie Roiphe argues in Slate that we care so much about the Petraeus scandal because we’re prudes with an outmoded definition of our marriage: “Our concern is not about military law, or the correct protocol of the CIA. Our concern is an unacknowledged prudishness, a stubbornly old-fashioned sense of family. Petraeus’ resignation is not about actual concerns about his integrity as a leader, or any true concern about blackmail. The resignation is over something much murkier, and ambiguous, something that engages on the deepest level our most fantastical ideals of generals and leaders, of men in positions of power. It taps into a deeply conservative, 1950s picture of family life that has yet to adapt and evolve with the times.”

I happen to disagree with her on the prudishness bit—I think if you’re going to make a promise of fidelity in your marriage vows, you don’t get to change the rules because society evolves. You locked in your bargain. You made a promise not to society but to your spouse; his affair isn’t the upsetting part, the broken promises are. If he wants an open marriage, so be it and who are we to judge—but his wife had better be on the same page. Clearly, she was not.

No, the prudishness isn’t the cause of the backlash. This story resonates so much because we could be her. We could be blindsided, too, somewhere in between the carpools and the laundry and the dental floss lying on the floor. It reminds us of the frailty of our own marriages, the fact that comfort giveth and it taketh away.

Seeing Petraeus resign from the CIA might feel like some kind of victory, a quick come-uppance, but it’s really a cheap substitute: I think what we really want is something far more primal, catty, and gratifying. Petraeus can apologize to the public and to the president all he wants, but really? I think many women would like to see Holly Petraeus hit her husband over the head with a frying pan and then make him give her a foot rub. We want to see comfort win out over temptation. Paula Broadwell personifies our own vulnerabilities, and that's why she's so easy to hate. That and the abs, of course.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Kara Baskin (@kcbaskin) is a Boston-based writer, editor, and mom to Andy. She thinks Sriracha and garlic make everything tastier. She loves Steely Dan and "Murder, She Wrote." Her More »

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