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The Globe and Mail

David Petraeus and the vengeful Other Woman

The generals-and-mistresses scandal has many antecedents in fiction and popular culture. This could be because the top U.S. generals and spies are voracious consumers of Mad Men and erotic romances, but more likely because trends in popular culture can be explained by what people are currently actually up to.

Great generals have been being punished in fiction for adultery since the Bible. When King David seduced Bathsheba, the wife of one of his allies, he tried to cover it up by sending the husband to his death. David was subsequently tormented by all sorts of disasters, including the death of his son. Interestingly, Bathsheba's husband, Uriah the Hittite, was refusing to have sex with his wife because he was on active duty – a rule that is tacitly followed by armies even today (and prefigures the U.S. military's explicit ban on adultery).

If King David himself had just followed military protocols, the great art museums would have no Old Masters paintings of Bathsheba in her bath.

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The more recent artistic role model for General David Petraeus and his determinedly possessive mistress, Paula Broadwell, is of course Fatal Attraction, the 1987 movie with Michael Douglas and Glenn Close. It depicts a respectable and successful man with a fatal flaw: He cheats. He is severely punished for this moral failing – his mistress is actually the avenging angel of the natural order itself, the violent embodiment of the harm he himself has done to his beautiful homebody wife. The cataclysm also reflects the fear that it is not just sex with women that is dangerous but women themselves. (The murderous jealous man is of course an archetype with a much longer literary history – its apotheosis is Othello.)

The blame, in the Hollywood narrative, doesn't fall on the psychotic woman – she is just a promiscuous female (i.e., the devil) and always was one, as the tragic hero should have seen. In real life, the moral judgments seem to follow the same pattern: Commentators claiming that Petraeus's mistress is "being blamed" simply haven't been paying attention. The sombre condemnation of the general by public figures and mainstream media has been unanimous, his resignation endorsed by the President himself.

The cautionary mistress tale inverts the classic romance-novel formula, in which an older, hypermasculine man wields power over a younger woman until he cedes to her innocent charms, at which point she gains control and they get married. In the bunny-boiler story, he refuses to cede power. Denied the submissive power of wifedom, the Close character attempts to become dominant in an overtly violent way. This is not at all contradictory: Submission and dominance are often portrayed in narratives – both sentimental and cautionary – as sides of the same romantic coin (see Fifty Shades of Grey, in which the apparently guileless female protagonist's efforts to control her headstrong lover are triumphant, leaving him anxiously uxorious by the end of Book One).

Is it a coincidence that we use, nowadays, the word mistress to mean two distinct and opposed things? A mistress may be the secret lover of a married man – a position now thought to be a sad one, a vulnerable one – or a dominatrix, a mistress worshipped by a slave. The assertive and muscular Paula Broadwell looks like a bit of both, as does the faux-ingenuous heroine of Fifty Shades.

The passivity of the first kind of mistress is a topic that is au courant, and not just in the S&M romance genre. On the new Slice TV series Mistresses, the heroines are women being misled by callous men who will never give them the security all women are supposed to want. The format is very much like that of the addiction intervention shows: The stern hostess, herself a recovered mistress who used to specialize in powerful public men, forces them through tough love to gain enough self-esteem to abandon their noncommittal boyfriends.

While the message is that the position of mistress is always a powerless one, the real-life scandals appear to undermine this contention.

There has been speculation in the media about whether all these randy generals reflect a problem in U.S. military "culture." Uh, no, they just reflect a problem in people, an endless confusion about when it's right to have sex with each other, which is why we have so much art and entertainment about adultery.

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