It makes us feel better about ourselves to point the finger, but at what cost?
I watched a lot of talkshows as a teenager. The really garbage ones – Jerry Springer, Ricki Lake, Geraldo, you know the type.
They were all about showcasing the worst parts of humanity. Topics involved things like a woman who couldn’t tell which of the four men on the stage were her child’s father, and then a pregnancy test inevitably proving that it was none of them. Or bringing together members of the KKK and Black activists to see what kind of powder keg they could set off. Or, everyone’s fave, bringing on cheaters and letting their partners confront them violently in front of a live audience.
These types of shows have achieved great ratings throughout TV history for a reason: it makes us feel better about ourselves to point the finger at someone else. We like to look at other people and say to ourselves, “My life may be bad, but it isn’t that bad.” While pretty tasteless, a degree of this can be cathartic. But we often forget there are real people behind those screens. We’re watching real lives disintegrate. And we’re playing a part in a greater game that’s feeding the monster known as misogyny.
In shows like Jerry Springer, every time there was a man who cheated on his wife or girlfriend, the other girl was brought on stage. As soon as she stepped out, the partner who was cheated on would make a bee-line for her, either yelling at, or actually beating on, the woman. Security guards had to intervene in the ‘best’ episodes.
I didn’t think much about it as a teenager, but in my twenties I started to wonder why they always went after the women in these episodes. Often times the other women had absolutely no idea that the guy was seeing someone else to begin with. In effect, they were both cheated on. Why weren’t they attacking the man?
Even the easy answer is more complicated than we’d like it to be. As women, we’re taught by media, by pop culture, sometimes even by our peers and parents, that it’s our job to keep a man’s attention. If a man’s eye wanders, we’d best do something to win it back. We’re taught to see men as poor babies who just can’t help their wandering eye. Best flash something shiny to get their attention back.
So when men cheat, we often turn one of two places: the woman who was cheated on, or the woman he cheated on her with.
Marion Cotillard, a French actress most well-known to English speaking audiences from her role in Inception, has been vilified in countless journals for an affair there isn’t even actual proof of since the news of the Brangelina split broke the internet with a sea of reactionary memes. The actress and her long-time partner have since both denied the claims, but that hasn’t stopped the flurry of negative press she’s been getting for supposedly destroying Hollywood’s beloved couple.
There are countless reasons for any divorce – the factors behind a relationship breakdown are rarely simple, but wouldn’t we rather just blame it on the other woman?
We love the other woman as much as we hate her. We love to take all the blame and place it squarely on her because then we can feel superior. We may be bad people in our own way, but we’d never be her. Another thing we’re taught is that we need to constantly police ourselves against each other, and this fills that societal requirement quite neatly. After painting the scarlet letter A on the harlot, we get to feel better about ourselves, and about the fact that we’re one bad stroke of luck away from being her. All it takes is one dishonest partner who swears they’ll love you and only you, then suddenly you get a call from a woman in tears who turns out to be his wife of five years.
Maybe we should stop obsessing over the idea of the other woman and instead focus on placing the blame where it belongs. It’s so much easier to lash out at someone we didn’t love when we find ourselves in these situations, and when we watch other people go through similar scenarios, it’s hard not to side with the wronged party.
Empathy is great. But before attempting to express it, we should make sure it’s actually going to the right person. Not the person Jerry Springer wanted to humiliate on national television.
Comment: Do you think people should stop pointing fingers at ‘the other woman’ in divorces involving potential affairs?