The national discourse regarding the cuckolding of Hollywood heartthrob Robert Pattinson by his former girlfriend, 22 year old actress, Kristen Stewart, is problematic not just because she is being held to a higher level of scrutiny than most men in the same situation. The conversation is most disturbing for what it leaves out: the culpability of the older married man she cheated with, Rupert Sanders, and more importantly, the connection between how women are allowed to inhabit their sexuality and the widespread epidemic of violence in our society.
Although rumors constantly swirl about famous men cheating on their actress counterparts, Brad Pitt with Angelina Jolie while he was still with Jennifer Aniston, musician Eric Benet stepping out on Halle Berry, public discourse transfers the shame of these actions onto the women betrayed allowing the image of the men who deceived to remain untarnished. She’s pretty, but there must be something wrong with her, the tabloids intone. She can’t keep her man satisfied.
In situations where women cheat, the scene plays out differently. Othello murdered Desdemona for her alleged unfaithfulness, and hundred of years later progress can be marked by the amount of people crying out for Stewart’s blood. She has already publically apologized, but her penance has not been paid. There is a Facebook page called “I Hate Kristen Stewart” (for strangers who wish to slander her together) where she is repeatedly called a “whore” who “needs to learn her place.” Sadly, but not surprisingly, most of these insults are being hurled by other women. It appears Stewart will have to be crucified at a grander level before the gods of patriarchal control are satisfied.
In the public realm, the damage Stewart inflicted upon Pattinson was not to his heart, which everyone claims to be so concerned about, but to his reputation. The heart, after all, is a resilient organ that mends and forgives over time. We can all rest assured that someday Pattinson’s heart will go on. His reputation on the other hand, is what is truly suffering through this scandal. The real crime committed by Stewart was asserting that her body is her own, and her sexuality exists for her pleasure, and not exclusively that of her boyfriends. In asserting this truth, Stewart takes a modicum of control away from Pattinson. He becomes demasculinized, and just like countless men before him, he will need to take action in order to rectify his image.
The demise of the high profile relationship between Brittney Spears and Justin Timberlake was blamed on her infidelity. The betrayal inspired several songs for his solo debut album Justified. To enact revenge, in the video for “Cry Me A River,” Timberlake breaks into a fictionalized Spears’ house, videotapes himself getting down with another girl on her bed, and then creepily watches Spears while she showers. The popular discourse on cheating justifies his stalking because she is a whore who has wronged him, and as such gives up basic protections provided to women by men, such as privacy and safety. Things end worse for the cheating lover played by Scarlett Johanssen in “What Goes Around.” After driving Timberlake mad with her unprovoked unfaithfulness, the video ends with Johanssen death in a fiery car crash that viewers must concluded was deserved.
The public fall from virgin to whore that Spears suffered began with her split from Timberlake, and is a reminder that women are still expected to fit into the outdated virgin/whore dichotomy. The script has been updated, but the roles remain the same. Even in our modern world, young women are expected to be good girls who’s sexuality is controlled by the men in their lives. If a woman strays from this by having sex with who she wants, when she wants to, she enters into dangerous territory with serious consequences.
In the show with the most disturbing performance of gender roles currently on television, Jersey Shore (rivaled only by the heinous Bad Girls Club), cast member Ron Ortiz-Magro cheated on his girlfriend Sammi Giancola multiple times on season two in Miami. His behavior was protected by “guy code” which stated that no guy in the house should inform Sammi, less he bring his own masculinity into question and be kicked out of the boys club (because being a snitch is the same as being a bitch). Sammi eventually found out, and on the subsequent season in Jersey, the couples fighting escalated into physical violence with Ron taking out his feelings on Sammi’s bedroom furniture.
A few weeks later, while the couple was on a break, Sammi texted another guy to meet her at a club. Although she had not yet done anything physical, this behavior was labeled cheating by the men of the house who immediately alerted Ron. It should come as no surprise that such a double standard exists within a show where the female cast members are disrespected and actively encouraged to degrade themselves, and the men’s only mission, besides the gym-tan-laundry ritual, is finding women at the club who are DTF. Later that same evening, Ron and Sammi got into another violent fight where he screamed in her face and physically prevented her from leaving the room. During all of this, the housemates sat uncomfortably in the living room, listening, and doing nothing.
Over the course of the third season there was only one instance when the men of the house intervened in a fight by holding the couple back from physically hurting each other. At one point Sammi’s mother tells her that what is happening isn’t love, but aside from that commentary no one names the relationship as abusive. The high ratings MTV enjoyed that season for showcasing domestic violence without explanation or analysis of why Sammi chose to stay with Ron indicates that our society is captivated by this type of abuse.
A misogynist bacchanalian lifestyle may work for the cast of Jersey Shore (doubtful), but the rest of us should hold ourselves to a higher standard. The national debate on Stewart’s infidelity should be used to update our social expectations for how women behave sexually, not reaffirm outmoded, sexist ideals. Instead of apologizing, Stewart should had asked the press to respect her privacy, as Tiger Woods did during his public break-up when he issued this statement: “Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn’t have to mean public confessions.”
Since the news broke Robert Pattinson has certainly been hounded by the paparazzi, but when he emerged from hiding a few days ago to promote his new film Cosmopolis on The Daily Show his male privilege allowed him to direct the conversation away from his personal life. It was certainly an awkward interview, John Stewart provided him with ice cream in a parody of two gals gabbing about a breakup, but neither one could go through with the mocking gender performance, and so they politely skirted the issue. In the throes of her messy and public divorce Jennifer Aniston never got off that easy. Pattinson’s privacy is respected not because he is the victim in the situation, but because he is a man.
The only public figure to come out in support of Stewart has been Jodi Foster, who issued a lengthy statement attempting to humanize the young star, and calling attention to the price of fame. What she did not say is that Stewart has only done what countless of men in her position have always done, and the only reason she is being vilified is because she is a woman.
We are still fighting for the right for women to make mistakes in their romantic life without paying for it in blood, but our expectations need to be much higher to move society towards gender equity. It is to Pattinson’s credit that he has chosen not to avenge his reputation through slandering Stewart, but only time will tell how long she will be forced to wear the scarlet letter of adultery as atonement.