Opinion: Petraeus scandal shows sexism in the media

It’s a narrative fit for a mid-day soap opera. Petraeus, the larger-than-life, mysterious, James Bond-meets-GI Joe man of international intrigue, suffers a fall from grace at the hands of an ambitious, young seductress. Broadwell, to use the term of a senior military official, “sunk her claws into him,” flaunting her sexuality to tempt the general into a career-ending affair. What a horrible shame that a distinguished American hero should be brought down by a jealous, conniving slut.

Or at least that’s what one would glean from the mainstream coverage of the scandal. Here’s a more factual take:  two adults, both of whom have had remarkable (albeit very different) success as soldiers, scholars and activists, engaged in a mutually consensual marital indiscretion, which is the business of them and their families. Both were participants, both are at fault, and both ought to remain respected for their considerable professional accomplishments.

And yet, outlet after outlet has referred to Broadwell as nothing more than “David Petraeus’ mistress,” while Petraeus has largely received a pass. Even evangelical Pat Robertson, usually chief of the morality police, has excused Petraeus; how is a man to control himself when attractive women offer themselves up in a war zone? He’s only a man, after all.

The coverage has been tremendously degrading to Broadwell and women in general. To suggest that Paula Broadwell, a lieutenant colonel in the US Army Reserve, a passionate defender of those who have served our country and a graduate of West Point and Harvard, ought to be identified as a “mistress” is utterly reprehensible. Paula Broadwell should be a role model to young women everywhere, and the Hester Prynne treatment she has faced at the hands of the media should offend anybody who believes that men and women are inherently equal (the rest of you are beyond help).

But as cruel as the media has been to Mrs. Broadwell, young women are the true victims here. The demonization of successful women is nothing new; for too long, male-dominated news organizations have cast powerful women as ambitious and self-serving, labeling them as unfeminine for daring to venture into positions of authority and diminishing them with overly sexual and paternalistic language. For example, while descriptions of General Petraeus have discussed his long and distinguished career, coverage of Mrs. Broadwell has focused on hot-button issues like her toned arms and her outfits, glossing over her Master's degrees, activism and professional history in the intelligence industry.

The message to young women, while implicit, rings loud and clear: Your value, even after years of professional accomplishment, rests in your appearance. Don’t you dare attempt to walk the halls of power alongside men, lest you should be denounced as ambitious, which, though encouraged in males, is anathema to the delicate femininity you must exude.

And even though your power resides in your sexuality, don’t openly display it, because then you will be a slut, even while your male partner’s identical behavior is eagerly accepted. His reputation will recover, because he’s just a man, so what do we expect? Yours, though, will be tarnished forever.

At age 7, an equal number of boys and girls want to be the President of the United States. But research has found that by the age of 15, a huge gender gap emerges, a real consequence of the media’s reprehensible portrayal of powerful and ambitious women. The Paula Broadwell coverage is emblematic of a media that is hideously misogynistic and disturbingly accepted for being so, one that entrenches antiquated gender stereotypes and systematically discourages young women from pursuing positions of power.

Mrs. Broadwell is a tremendously accomplished, intelligent and yes, ambitious (not a bad word) woman, one who should be a role model to anyone, male or female, who aspires to better society.  She has raised awareness of veteran’s issues, she has earned degrees from the world’s finest universities and she has served her country with honor and distinction. Paula Broadwell has been perversely maligned by the media; she deserves our respect, and anybody who disagrees should wake up and take a moment to consider how harmful such views are to the goal of societal gender equality.