Is it just me, or does anyone else feel like we’re all in Junior High or High School again with the Petraeus scandal? There is drama at every turn with boundaries crossed and accusations slung across every lunch table there is.
When I was a teenager we didn’t have emails, Facebook , and Twitter (thanks be to God). We passed notes. I remember getting a really mean one scrawled in deliberately messy handwriting to maintain anonymity about how annoying I was to the “populace” (yes I remember that word was in there) because I didn’t wear make up and I thought I was “so smart.”
Just like today’s cyber detectives who figured out Paula Broadwell’s identity from the fingerprints we all leave behind in the online lives we lead, I traced this note back to its source. I did it the old fashioned way—I asked around. Unfortunately I found out it was from a “friend” and teammate of mine. When I went to her house and confronted her she admitted it. Turns out she was envious about a boy. Little did she know at the time that the boy she wished for was abusive and I was living in my own secret hell. I remember thinking to myself “you can have him.” The stakes seemed so high back then—friendships, acceptance, one’s whole sense of self were hopelessly tangled up in tenuous, even dangerous, relationships.
There are always layers to these stories. And you can bet this tangled web of liaisons, sex, affluence, power, and betrayal that ended Petraeus’ stint as the director of the CIA has many layers to it. And we may never know all of what it’s about for each person involved. The “populace” is busy throwing stones and gawking at this titillating train wreck involving the highest levels of our military establishment.
It seems our collective default mode is to put everyone in a category—there’s the man who let power go to his head (and to other regions of his body), there’s the seductress, and then the social climber. And there are people who will do anything to have proximity to powerful people. The Internet, TV, and radio chatter on the scandal is all about these “types” and all the different ways to dissect and discuss them.
The wife in me is disgusted by the story. My husband works in a very male dominated field with similar dynamics to the military—violence and masculinity form and feed the work that he does. Some of his co-workers through the years have had extramarital affairs. And they have done it while their wives are working overtime at home making things work while the men are largely absent. These same women are uprooted from support systems and communities routinely because of the vagaries of things like egos, money, and wins/losses.
The feminist theologian in me wants to go deeper in how we interrogate these hyper-masculinized spaces in American culture. Why is it still such an easy leap to vilify the “seductress”? The assumption that Paula Broadwell was the aggressor easily finds cultural traction. This often replayed dynamic of men in power having moral lapses when it comes to women has been labeled the “Bathsheba Syndrome” after King David’s prideful grab for Bathsheba, another man’s wife. Why not the “David Syndrome”?
Underneath this nomenclature is the assumption that women are the problem; women are the cause of temptation, women make revered men forget their moral values. Women are the Achilles heels of men who are great—like rich food, or good chocolate, or some other delicacy. The feminist in me sees how difficult it is for the broader culture to notice and to ask questions about how profoundly patriarchy in-forms these situations. Indeed, everyone has been imprinted in deeply embodied and unconscious ways by the assumptions and distortions of patriarchy. And male dominated structures like the military and professional football and others we can easily name, form and feed expectations of masculinity that uses and abuses power to get what it wants. No matter what, David Petraeus’ stature renders any encounter he has loaded with opportunities for him to get his way and/or be told what he wants to hear. Patriarchy is built with such scaffolding of masculinized power.
We are all somewhere/somehow captive to these mentalities that make women part of the conquest/contest in male dominated contexts. When women take up more space in these institutions perhaps we hope that simple proximity and competency will usher in changes in our instincts and intuitions. But the habits of mind and body that stitch themselves through male/female relationships are tenacious still even as women may be gaining more power in some of these male dominated contexts. The hard truth is that patriarchy arrests our development when it comes to encountering each other across gendered identities with mutual regard and shared power.
I’ve wondered off and on whether working closely with men who have power in institutions built on male models of power is ever safe for competent and capable women. The competitive ethos that patriarchy encourages seems to make everyone the object of conquest. And when a woman is the object of conquest, sexual conquest may often still be the most direct path to victory. To interrupt the patterns of conquest is the onus on women to desexualize ourselves in the workplace? Or is the answer to sequester ourselves in woman-centered workspaces in order to find the freedom to be collaborative, creative, and professional? It seems to me our questions must go deeper than these strategies take us.
How do we understand relationships in terms of trust and collaboration instead of manipulation and conquest? The kind of transformation we need doesn’t come from regulation or from segregation; it comes from practicing mutuality in spaces where conquest is not the name of the game. And it takes graduating to a whole new level of self-understanding—one that takes us beyond any arrested in those painful Junior High/High School habits of mind where it seems like we have so much to prove and even more to lose.
Marcia Mount Shoop is a theologian and Presbyterian Minister who lives in Chapel Hill, NC. Her book Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ frames much of her work in churches and beyond. She has a PhD in Religious Studies from Emory University and a MDiv from Vanderbilt Divinity School. At www.marciamountshoop.com Marcia blogs on everything from feminism to family to football.
Categories: Abuse of Power