Caitlin Flanagan is back, defending marriage against all those who would destroy it. The villains this time: John Edwards's "minx" Rielle Hunter, and onetime Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown.
In an essay of epic and varied nastiness in the new Atlantic, Flanagan argues that Brown was no champion of working-class women — she was a champion for home-wreckers. Flanagan quotes Jennifer Scanlon, author of Brown bio Bad Girls Go Everywhere, saying,
As Scanlon aptly notes, Brown "appointed not predatory or non-committal men but married women as the sorry counterpoint to her sexy girls." For the reader with moral qualms? "I'm afraid I have a cavalier attitude about wives," Brown announced from the outset of her public life. To Scanlon-whose besotted encomium may constitute Brown's final caress in this vale of tears-the attitude amounts to "she who keeps the man happy keeps the man," a point of view the biographer hails, several times, as being fundamentally "libertarian." By this, she means that when two women bid for a man, no advantage shall be given to the one who might have children with him, or an economic dependency built upon their marriage. There is only the marketplace of feminine wiles, in which a concubine's feigned interest in a man's workday trumps a wife's quiet plea for help around the house, in which young is better than old and new is more exciting than familiar.
Here Flanagan takes the worst kind of antifeminist rhetoric — the kind that speaks of women in terms of quasi-monetary sexual "value" — and makes it run both ways. Now women are "bidding" on men, using their riches — the "concubine" (!?) her youth and "wiles," the wife her children and "economic dependency." Both men and women are reduced here — men, for a change, are commodities, but women are merely sexual pocketbooks competing in an auction. And wiles win out, but not for long.
Flanagan jumps from Brown to John Edwards's paramour Rielle Hunter, a loose woman perhaps influenced by Brown's celebration of single sluttiness (because, of course, adultery was invented in 1962). Flanagan has some incandescently insulting things to say about Hunter, including this:
Hers is not an intelligence or an ambition difficult to plumb, and her dream is almost certainly to have Elizabeth shuffle off the mortal coil so that she can instate herself in the North Carolina pleasure dome and become the fun, hip, "Being Is Free," bleached-blond, super open-minded, videographing, Power of Now stepmom, a prospect so hideous that it makes Elizabeth Edwards's last-chance book tour look like what it is: a desperate attempt to protect her sweet, sad children from the influence of this erstwhile cokehead and present-day weasel after she has died.
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Flanagan (who, as the tabloids say, does not treat Rielle Hunter) knows exactly what Hunter wants, down to the intellectually lightweight cultural references. And she knows she's not going to get it:
Deep within Rielle-this little minx of pleasure and profit-guess what there is? A heart that aches like a woman's but breaks just like a little girl's. [...] I don't imagine that Rielle's decision to have her baby (whoever the father) came from a strongly pro-life position, or from a plan to jack some cash out of the ambulance chaser. It came, surely, from the powerful emotions that accompany all pregnancies, but especially those that occur in women who probably thought they would never get to have a baby, and who find out, at the 11th hour, that the dream might come true after all, and they might have a home and a child, and (please, God) a husband and father to go with that child.
So, to recap, Helen Gurley Brown made it sound like it was okay to steal someone else's man, but it really isn't, not only because marital commitment should override "wiles," but also because a married man will never leave his wife for you. The wages of sin are ... still being single, a prospect Flanagan seems to abhor. She writes of "the desperate, Blanche DuBois tinsel of [Brown's] new creation-the single girl" and "the possible pitfalls and sorrows of life as a sexually liberated, 'all the time in the world' unmarried woman" in such a way as to leave no doubt that she views Hunter as the ultimate loser in the affair — and to imply that unmarried women in general are really kind of sad.
But it's men who fare the worst in Flanagan's moral reckoning. Amy Benfer of Broadsheet offers a smart roundup of Flanagan's many insults (Brown was "pee-on-the-side-of-the-road white trash;" the "ladies of the steno pool" include "Bertha in Accounting, with the hair on her chin;" anyone who hasn't had a kid is "just guessing about love, gesturing toward it, assuming it's the right name for a feeling you've had"), but she doesn't mention Flanagan's implicit denial of male autonomy. Flanagan makes much of Rielle Hunter's pickup line to John Edwards: "you are so hot." She writes,
"You are so hot," Rielle Hunter said to John Edwards 10 years after he and his wife buried their first boy, and after they had started a new family, and after they had given their all to a presidential campaign-with the personal losses and long separations that come with it-and after Elizabeth had been diagnosed with cancer and undergone a disfiguring surgery and chemotherapy and lost her hair and been handed a recalculated set of odds about her life expectancy with two very small children who needed their mother. "You are so hot," Rielle Hunter said, because she turned out to be another woman with a cavalier attitude toward wives.
Interestingly, these words were also the subject of an article in last month's Cosmo, about how to keep your man from cheating. Both Brown's former magazine and her modern-day critic act like Hunter made Edwards sleep with her using these simple words. But Rielle Hunter didn't break John Edwards's vows. She didn't cheat on his wife in her hour of need. He did.
Ultimately, Flanagan and Brown make the same mistake: assuming that women can control men. Sex and the Single Girl wasn't all that far off of the seduction manuals George Sodini read, in that both taught readers that fulfilling relationships with the opposite sex could be had through manipulation. Flanagan might not agree with the "fulfilling" part, but like Brown, she seems to see an adulterous affair not as a choice made by both a man and a woman, but as a competition between wife and "concubine." The man is just the prize.
Of course, they're both wrong. Rielle Hunter may not be a good role model, but ultimately the blame for Elizabeth Edwards's pain rests with her husband. Because women — single or married — can't actually control men. Luckily, it's not our responsibility — it's theirs.
Sex And The Married Man [The Atlantic]
Relate: Who You Calling White Trash? [Broadsheet]