This month, after CBS President Les Moonves was ousted from the network following extensive reporting that revealed his history of alleged sexual harassment, abuse and misuse of power, his wife took a stand. Julie Chen, a long-time news anchor and T.V. presenter on CBS, best known for The Talk and Big Brother, closed out the latest episode of the latter series with the goodbye of, ‘I’m Julie Chen Moonves’. She had never previously referred to herself as such, and given the timing of the sudden declaration of her relationship status, it was tough not to read into the message being sent. At a time when her husband faced immensely serious accusations, Chen did not need to say more on her stance on the matter than the newly public double-barrelled version of her surname. There’s no stronger way to take a side on the issue without having to actually comment on it than by taking his name. Chen later repeated this callout on the following week’s episode, just in case there were those who questioned her loyalties. Trade publications and Big Brother gossip sites are now referring to her as ‘Julie Chen Moonves’. She will remain with the show until 2019 but has stepped down from The Talk.
What surprised me most about this moment, other than the startling callousness of it, was how so many people responded to it with positivity. Sure, they weren’t pro-Les Moonves or anything, but they sure did admire how Julie Chen was taking a stand for her man. She was doing the good wifely duty and sticking by her husband through thick and thin. Not only was she remaining by his side but she was letting the world know through her job at the network who let her husband go in the first place. Wasn’t that admirable? You had to respect how she kept a graceful demeanour throughout, not letting anyone know of her inevitable pain. Good on her, right?
I hate this mentality. I really do.
This bafflingly archaic mindset reminded me of the recent death of Mac Miller and how so much of the media and internet could only process this tragic loss of life through the lens of blaming a woman. Miller’s ex, singer Ariana Grande, had broken up with him earlier in the year and quickly found herself engaged to SNL comedian Pete Davidson. She had already dealt with criticism that she’d ‘moved on too fast’ and sent Miller to a dark place when news broke of a car crash and DUI he’d been charged with shortly after the split. Grande rightly pointed out that it wasn’t her or any woman’s job to be a minder for their spouse, much less one dealing with the scourge of addiction. Yet that didn’t stop the same cries of condemnation she faced upon news of Miller’s death from a suspected overdose. It was all her fault, the crowds said, a narrative pushed by professional woman haters TMZ, whose report on Miller’s death insinuated a direct connection between Miller’s death and Grande leaving him. She exacerbated his addiction by leaving him and moving on too quickly. If she’d stood by her man, none of this would have happened.
These are two obviously different circumstances but similar mindsets remain in place for each stance. The ideal as pushed by sexism remains in place - stand by your man - but the differences highlight how it’s an expectation that can never truly be achieved.
Patriarchy consistently moves the goalposts for what is and is not acceptable behaviour for women, particularly in relation to the misdeeds of men. Ultimately, we are still ridiculously fetishistic of that hallowed image of the obedient wife. She doesn’t have to be pregnant and barefoot anymore but ideally she is silent, an implicit accessory or shield to misogyny. It’s all okay as long as his wife sticks by him, because how can he be sexist when he’s married? Women’s own pain or struggles, especially when dealing with partners who are going through tough times or have committed terrible deeds, are always secondary in this context. Preferably, they shouldn’t complain at all. As Hannah Gadsby noted in Nanette, we prize men’s reputations over women’s lives time and time again.
In this impossible war, women are the root of all problems whether to stand by their men or not. If they leave their husbands or partners, for example, because they’ve been accused of sexual misconduct then they’re jumping the gun to respond too quickly or betraying their partner’s trust or are too selfish to ride out the storm. If they do stay, they’re complicit in his crimes and have betrayed all women everywhere. Women who leave addicts are blamed for driving them to ruin but are also the enablers of the problem at hand. Any time a famous man struggles for any reason, it won’t take you long to find people blaming his wife or girlfriend. She doesn’t need to do or say anything to be the source of the world’s ills. After all, it’s her job to suffer.
We see this narrative frequently with the spouses of famous men but the same mentality applies to everyone else: There is a deified assumption that the wives, girlfriends or partners of ‘geniuses’ must stand by him through thick and thin because that is merely the price one pays for such majesty. Geniuses, at least white male ones given that label, are expected to be ‘dark’ on some level, be it through struggles with addiction, mental illness, stress, anxiety, or just being a good old-fashioned douchebag. The ways such things are treated as beautiful side-effects of talent is its own horrid issue, but what is especially insidious is how the ‘stand by your man’ mentality forced upon women in these relationships makes them pseudo-mothers and carers. Suddenly, it’s their job to keep troubled men on the straight and narrow, but don’t do too much because then you’re just enabling the problem and driving them to their graves.
We do not talk enough about the emotional labour that primarily weighs heavily upon the shoulders of women. These expectations demand toxic versions of loyalty, security and support from those of us who cannot ever live up to these lofty fantasies, especially as they pertain to men. They want women to have nothing for themselves, nor do they want women to live for themselves: We are all seen as substitute mothers, nothing more.
I have the utmost respect for women who love, live with and support their spouses during times of mental health issues, addictions and medical stress. It is an oft-unspoken kind of work that does not get its due, and one that deserves more financial and emotional backing than it gets. However, we cannot expect this of all women, and even less so when the wives, partners and girlfriends of abusive men choose to get out. We cannot romanticise that dynamic, especially when our society offers nothing in the way of real structural support for those dealing with the grind. Besides, there’s a huge difference between supporting men with troubles and being the public cheerleader for an accused sexual predator. Julie Chen Moonves is not brave, and for the record, if your partner is accused of preying on young women for sex, you’re free to get the fuck out of there.
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