Fealty, Fortune, and the Wives of #MeToo

Suzanne Leonard looks at how “House of Cards”’s last season frames our conflicting cultural expectations that surround the figure of the political wife.

Fealty, Fortune, and the Wives of #MeToo

WHEN CLAIRE UNDERWOOD (Robin Wright) returned as the president of the United States in November’s premiere of the final season of House of Cards, she was conspicuously without her first man, actor Kevin Spacey, who was ousted after a series of allegations of sexual misconduct. Admittedly, the series had long been moving in the direction of suggesting that Claire’s political ambitions would eclipse those of her embattled husband. This reality was eerily portended in the finale of the penultimate season, when, in an action heretofore reserved for her husband, she broke through the fourth wall to proclaim, “My turn.” The literal erasure of Spacey and the rise of a steely, professional wife who instrumentalizes her marriage to ascend to the presidency is nevertheless an alluring fiction and simultaneously an erroneous reality. The real wives of #MeToo rarely fare so well.

As a movement, #MeToo has brought unprecedented attention to the abuses perpetrated by men who dominate entire industries: filmmaking, politics, stand-up comedy, and television networks, to name a few. Attention has rightly been paid not only to these men’s myriad violations but also to the women whose lives were left a shambles in the wake of these incidents. Left largely on the outskirts of this national conversation, however, have been their wives, women who in many cases had both personal and professional identities inextricably tethered to their husbands’. I ask here that we wrench these women from a lexical order that frames their position in emotional terms (shamed, betrayed, humiliated) and reframe them as business people and politicians in their own right. Investigating the professional gains and losses that accrue to the wives of #MeToo reveals that marriage in these cases frequently follows the logics of a mutually beneficial arrangement. Until, that is, the deal goes south.

As it concerns the position of the betrayed wife, much speculative ink has been spilled over the question of what these women knew about their husband’s misdeeds, be they criminal or merely embarrassing. The face that has launched a thousand narrative ships in the 21st century, indeed, is that of the wife standing by her husband at his conciliatory mid-scandal press conference. The Good Wife’s very first scene intentionally patterned itself on the misery plainly evident on the face of Silda Wall Spitzer as she appeared alongside Eliot Spitzer, the supposedly famously disciplined New York governor who was caught frequenting brothels in a sting operation that ultimately cost him his political career. The difference now is an issue of both power and visibility. #MeToo wives are increasingly part of the political machinery on which their marital brand centers, and may have as much to lose.

Robin Wright’s ascension in both personal and professional terms brings this tension between fictional wives and literal ones into sharp relief. In a Today show interview that attempted conflation of Wright’s televised role as Spacey’s wife and her professional life as his co-worker, Wright handily dispensed with the implied slippage. Decisively situating her relationship with Spacey in the register of waged labor, Wright contended, “We were coworkers, really […] I didn’t know the man.”

Wright is absolutely entitled to this discursive separation of intimacy and work. It is nevertheless crucial to state: Spacey’s real-life disgrace paid dividends for Wright both onscreen and off. Though the entire final season of the series had been scripted and two episodes shot when allegations about Spacey emerged, House of Cards ceased production and fired Spacey. According to a recent Variety article, Wright led the charge to save the show. She is now the star of the final season, and directed a number of sequences (as Spacey had done in the past), including the series finale.

As a feminist media scholar who specializes in American popular culture and the study of marriage, I cheer for Wright. I even agree with Wright’s perhaps controversial assertion that Claire “was a really good wife. She took it on the chin until she felt she was going to be annihilated. Then she would retaliate. She really was such a utilitarian for the betterment of her and Francis.” Yet, how many of us cheer for ambitious wives who use their marriage in any way to further their own interests? Are we willing to elect them president? Are we celebrating or cringing at the thought that Hillary Clinton might run in 2020, yet again? There is, I concede, something particularly unpalatable about the specter of the real-world, clear-eyed, political wife, particularly one who stays with a partner whose extramarital assignations likely violated the boundaries of consent.

Hillary and Bill Clinton are, of course, ground zero for this topic. The suspicion that the Clintons’ marriage is merely a mutually beneficial business arrangement has long been reason for scorn, disbelief, and dismissal. I take a different view, believing that Hillary Clinton’s marriage is both her biggest asset and her greatest weakness, and that the two are not mutually exclusive. Hillary would not have come as close to being president had she not been married to Bill, and without him, she actually might have won.

The Clintons’ witches brew of pragmatism, mutual self-aggrandizement, affection, and opportunism is a mixture that quite frankly, often smells bad. Though I do not want to overstate the significance of one incident, perhaps the most impactful development in this regard was the FBI’s reopening of the investigation of her emails just days before the 2016 election. That moment helped the country to remember the Clintons’ habit of dissembling, stretching the truth, or claiming their own victimhood in the course being caught in one ethical/business/sexual violation or another.

The renewed FBI probe was prompted by the federal investigation of notorious sexter Anthony Weiner, husband of Clinton’s top aide Huma Abedin (more on them later). Thanks to this incident, the assumed ethical shortcuts taken by Bill and Hillary were once again on display to the American public, a shimmering reminder of all the compromises, violations, and backdoor deals the couple has made, and yet repeatedly denied. Hillary’s emails were a minuscule but metonymic indication of the couple’s mutual penchant for secrecy and self-preservation, a shared coat of ethical relativity that she has worn less comfortably than her smooth-talking husband, and yet as a result of which has fared far worse.

For a long time, I felt sorry for Hillary Clinton. I cast her decision to remain with Bill as an exemplar of personal masochism in service of professional gain, a sacrifice of love and dignity in exchange for influence. Here she was, year after year, supporting the life and career of a relentless philanderer who had affairs with women who seemed to be very much the antithesis of her, his serious, cerebral, wonky wife. It was a study in the personal costs wrought by extreme opportunism, or so I believed.

Now I think differently. What if, for her, that was always the bargain? What if having a lover, friend, and political fixer who would wholeheartedly support her own political aspirations was all Hillary ever asked of Bill? What if, god forbid, the political springboard her marriage promised to assure her was the point all along? And what if that idea does not define just this one rarified marriage, but many of them?

The idea that marriage is premised on professional pragmatism is slowly saturating the cultural fabric of the 21st century. Consider the recent film The Wife, adapted from a 2003 Meg Wolitzer novel. For the entirety of their marriage, Joan Castleman ghostwrote her husband’s novels, producing an oeuvre copious and prestigious enough to earn him the Nobel Prize. In the film’s deft adaptation, the shattering revelation that concludes the narrative is not that she sacrificed for him and never got the public recognition she deserved, but instead, the insinuation that she stayed married to him precisely so that she could write under his name.

As the young Joan knows, female authors were rarely taken seriously or published by mainstream outlets during the 1960s and 1970s. She looks to her marriage, ironically, to provide her beard, so to speak, her wifedom providing perfectly plausible cover for her professional ambitions. In the terms in which wifedom has long been understood — as helpmate, nurturer, and caregiver — Joan had a wife, and the wife was her husband. In a plea to save their marriage during the film’s climatic argument, Joe reminds her of his labor on behalf of her career: “What about all the years that I’ve been rubbing your back, bringing you tea, cooking you dinner, taking care of the kids so that you could work without distraction?” This is a remarkable line solely because it comes out of a husband’s mouth.

The revelation that Joan is using Joe as much as he is using her recasts the image of the long-suffering wife, a trope that is, in 2019, long past its shelf life. Assuming women have so little agency vis-à-vis their emotional entanglements is to seriously underestimate them, especially since many wives, like Joan, presumably have the education and skills of self-advocacy to leave if they so choose.

Marriage is also, increasingly, a mutual beneficial arrangement that is increasingly credited with consolidating wealth and power in America’s elite. Hence, to assume any relationship is exempt from some sort of economic or personal calculations premised on the goal of self-betterment is to adopt a mindset that is benignly anachronistic at best. The truth is, we live in highly neoliberal times, meaning that personal responsibility, free choice, and self-interest are the reigning ideologies of the day. One of neoliberalism’s hallmarks is the “casting [of] every human endeavor and activity in entrepreneurial terms,” argues scholar Wendy Brown. Neoliberal models allow, and even implore, us to financialize even those transactions that seem the least likely to abide by their logics.

As I argue in my recent book, Wife, Inc., in the 21st century, marriage is a business, a personal, economic, and political calculus undertaken for individual gain. Marriage confers emotional, status, and financial advantage, and this is a cold, if unpleasant reality. And there is the rub about Hillary Clinton and the rest of the #MeToo wives: in addition to everything else that is truly awful about what their husbands have done, these wives’ unions are now bad investments, miscalculations manifested in their having yoked their futures to unprofitable prospects.

To return to the Clintons one last time, Bill’s multiple affairs are being appraised in a very different moment in 2018 than they were in 1992, 1998, or even 2016. Today, Hillary Clinton’s tacit complicity with Bill Clinton’s sexual violations newly taints her own political standing. Thanks to the public’s growing awareness of the differentials of power that can lead to situations wherein consent is not fully possible, Bill Clinton’s affair with then-intern Monica Lewinsky, by most accounts a star-struck 22-year-old, has come under reenergized scrutiny. Hillary Clinton has in turn been excoriated for her recent comment that her husband’s actions did not constitute an abuse of power because Lewinsky “was an adult.” This latest gaffe reveals real-life wives are no longer afforded the luxury of separating their intimate relations from business — nor, perhaps, should they be.

Bill, interestingly, found himself largely excommunicated from the campaign circuit for the 2018 midterm election, wherein would-be politicians were wary of appearing with a man who seemed so resolutely unwilling to reckon with past sexual misdeeds. The Clintons, however, remained undaunted. In December, they began a roadshow of their marriage, a series of for-pay events billed as “An Evening with the Clintons” with tickets ranging from $70 to $700.

To talk about the wives of #MeToo is not, in any way, meant to deflect attention from the multitudes of women who have suffered at the hands of sexual offenders. If anything, I am calling for more accountability on the part of everyone involved in these abuses of power, including wives who may have turned their heads the other way not so much to protect their marriages (as we might assume) but to preserve their careers.

And with that, I think, we must discuss Huma Abedin, the woman who stood almost as much to gain from Hillary Clinton’s election as did Hillary herself. Without rehashing the Weiner saga in toto, suffice it to say that Abedin continued to campaign with her husband long past the time when his brand value had plummeted, including publicly supporting Weiner’s ultimately disastrous 2013 bid to become the mayor of New York City.

Three years later, in August 2016, Abedin was the subject of a glowing Vogue profile meant to serve as run-up to the presidential election, where it was widely expected that Clinton would win and Abedin would become her chief of staff. In a portion of the article dedicated to Abedin’s juggling act as a working mother, Abedin gives Weiner considerable credit for managing the domestic front in the midst of a frenetic election season: “Many working moms feel this way — there is a lot of guilt […] I don’t think I could do it if I didn’t have the support system I have, if Anthony wasn’t willing to be, essentially, a full-time dad.” We could read this, of course, as a statement of profound naïveté. A mere two weeks later, Weiner sent a scantily clad photo of himself perched near his sleeping son to a woman with whom he had been corresponding, and the scandal that ensued prompted Abedin to announce the couple was divorcing, and the FBI to reopen the email investigation. I read Abedin’s laudatory words, however, as an articulation of commonsensical fact. Like the fictional Joan Castleman, the real Huma Abedin needed a husband-cum-wife so that she could work.

Similar to the other wives I have chronicled here, Abedin is likely not the victim, or the dupe, that it is easy to paint her as. In a hall of mirrors fashion, she even made a cameo in the gauzy pictorial, “Georgina Chapman on Life after Harvey Weinstein,” in the May 2018 issue of Vogue. In the midst of a Citizen Kane–esque effort to use interviews to piece together the epistemological jigsaw puzzle of how Chapman could have been married to Weinstein without knowledge of his history as a serial rapist and sexual abuser, Huma Abedin suddenly speaks. Referencing a friendship with Chapman which began months before the Weinstein story broke, Abedin claims, “This particular club ironically, it’s not such a small one: women who have had to endure it in such a public way, women like Georgina and me. People don’t feel sorry for us. You don’t get that empathy.”

At the risk of rebuking Abedin, I wonder, do Abedin and Chapman really need our empathy? With little previous experience in the industry, Chapman built a multi-million-dollar fashion empire, Marchesa, which Weinstein apparently strong-armed stars into wearing on the red carpet. The Vogue article on Chapman is accompanied by a glowing letter from famed editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, who writes, “I am firmly convinced that Georgina had no idea about her husband’s behavior; blaming her for any of it, as too many have in our gladiatorial digital age, is wrong.”

I do not mean we should blame the wives. But I think we should, and we must, understand the political and economic gains that women like Clinton and Chapman receive, whether they stay married to these men or not. We must name the attraction that women have to powerful men, men who help these women’s careers at the same time that they are helping their own.

In most cases, in fact, #MeToo wives tend to leave their husbands only after staying together becomes professionally untenable. The one notable exception is Julie Chen, who quit her anchor position on the daytime show The Talk after her husband, CBS chairman Les Moonves, resigned from the network amid multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. Yet, she stayed on as the host of the network show Big Brother, and has begun signing of that series by referring to herself as Julie Chen-Moonves, a name she did not use previously. Chen-Mooves’s choice of appellation testifies to her commitment to use her own professional integrity to rehabilitate his, a seeming total reversal of power whereby the wife invests her personal and professional capital in bolstering her husband’s.

Now, finally, what to make of the women who seem to have no professional brand, either to trade on, or to salvage? No self-respecting essay on the wives of #MeToo can fail to grapple with the likes of Ashley Estes Kavanaugh (wife of now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh) or Melania Trump (multiply cheated on, stone-faced wife of the incautious president), women who quietly stood beside men whose behavior unleashed seemingly boundless wraths of public fury. Kavanaugh and Trump’s recalcitrance is so pronounced that body language has become the only semiotics by which to read them. Did Melania swat Donald’s hand away when he reached for it? What did Ashley Kavanaugh’s awkward body position at her husband’s swearing-in ceremony mean? I of course do not pretend to know these women’s hearts. But I do know that their husband’s have, despite tremendous controversy, reached the highest offices in their respective branches of government. No matter what you believe about these men and their behaviors, they are unquestionably two of the most powerful men in this country. They are, frankly, not (yet) a bad business deal.

What we, the public, often want from wives of misbehaving husbands is more wailing, more indignation, and more retributive justice. It is one of the only times that we desire, and even expect, women to be publicly angry. The refusal to do so is, in turn, assumed to represent a weakness of will, or even a failure of morality. But what if, instead, it is a triumph of pragmatism? A vow not to another, but to the self? Asked in October 2018 about whether the allegations of her husband’s affair with Stormy Daniels put a strain on her marriage, Melania said, in clipped sentences, “It is not concern and focus of mine. I’m a mother and a first lady, and I have much more important things to think about and to do.” Evasion though it might be, if we assume that she is actually answering the question, Melania essentially admits that her marriage is not a focus, not a concern. And with that small statement, she confirms a fascinating larger truth: the wives of #MeToo may be unfairly judged as carrying the blame for behaviors that were not theirs. But they also, in many cases, shared, and continue to share, the power. And they want it that way.


Suzanne Leonard is associate professor of English at Simmons University in Boston. She is the author of two books, Wife, Inc.: The Business of Marriage in the Twenty-First Century and Fatal Attraction(Wiley-Blackwell Studies in Film and Television). She is also the co-editor of Fifty Hollywood Directors.

LARB Contributor

Suzanne Leonard is associate professor of English at Simmons University in Boston. She has written extensively on the topics of marriage and adultery in American popular culture and is the author of two books, Wife, Inc.: The Business of Marriage in the Twenty-First Century and Fatal Attraction (Wiley-Blackwell Studies in Film and Television). She is also the co-editor of Fifty Hollywood Directors.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!