In the fall of 2005, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie met while filming “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” an action movie full of gunfire and violence. Apparently, fireworks were shooting off camera too, for within a year Pitt’s wife, Jennifer Aniston, got a divorce, and “Brangelina” became a Hollywood power couple.
During that time, the American public’s sympathy was on the side of Jennifer Aniston. Both the popularity of Pitt and Jolie fell, while that of America’s sweetheart with the Rachel haircut soared. T-shirts saying “Team Anniston” outsold “Team Jolies” four to one. It took Brangelina many years and millions of dollars in charitable donations and activities to regain public favor.
There was nothing new in the story. Over and over again, when a man cheats on his wife, people, especially women, tend to identify and root for the wife. The reason may be simple. Over 90% of Americans say they do not approve of marital infidelity and they tend to champion the idea that families should stay together. Since men cheat at double the rates of women, there are twice as many women who have endured similar traumas. Finally, women tend to pay more attention to these kinds of stories than men and poll very highly on the side of the wives.
Feminists were dismayed during the Clinton era, because every time Hillary Clinton asserted herself as an independent woman with ambitions of her own, her ratings would fall in the polls. For example, when she famously said, “I could’ve stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession,” the percent who disapproved of her increased from 26% to 40%. When she took over planning the national healthcare program, 54% of the public said they did not approve of her. However, when the public learned that her husband was cheating on her with a 21-year-old intern, her approval rating went to 67%. The more she defended him, the more people liked her.
Since the Clintons left the White House, Americans had gone through one after another similar scandal. Among politicians, the reaction of the “wronged wife” becomes crucial to the man’s career.
“If the wife is there, voters are more accepting. It matters if the wife says they are pulling together. If she looks injured, they will turn against you,” said Celina Lake, a pollster for the Democratic Party.
Michelle Sanford was the first to break out of this pattern after her husband, the governor of North Carolina, ran away to Argentina to visit his mistress. Ms. Sanford refused to stand by him at press conferences or to blame herself in any way. Instead, she told Barbara Walters, “His actions reflect poorly on him. They don’t take away from my own self-esteem.” Several years later, Huma Abedin, wife of U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, and Maria Shriver, wife of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, acted in similar ways.
As Ruth Mandel of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University put it, “The rulebook has been thrown out. These other women started to look less like supportive wives and more like victims. People began to ask, “Why does she have to do that?'”
What does this mean to the average woman who finds out her husband or partner is cheating on her –online or otherwise? She can realize that she has choices and is not as powerless she might feel. She can file for divorce, like Jennifer Anniston. She can insist that they use professional counselors or even that her partner enters a sexual rehabilitation program, the way Hillary Clinton and Huma Abedin did. Or like Michelle Sanford, she can come to the realization that it is her partner’s behavior not hers, that brought them to this place. And finally, she can use her power in the sense that she will probably have the sympathy of the majority of the friends, family members, and others in their circle.
“Hillary Clinton’s Career of Comebacks,” The Pew Research Center, December 21, 2012, seehttp://www.people-press.org/2012/12/21/hillary-clintons-career-of-comebacks/
Drexler, Peggy (PhD). “Hillary Clinton, Finally the Cool Kid,” Psychology Today, December 7, 2012.
General Social Survey, The University of Chicago, see http://www3.norc.org/gss+website/
“Jennifer Aniston – Biography, Films,” The New York Times, Times Topics.
Montopoli, Brian. “Hillary Clinton: From Divisive to (Mostly) Beloved,” CBS News, May 8, 2012.
Seelye, Katharine. “A New Twist to Wives’ Playbook for Sex Scandal,” The New York Times, June 18, 2011.