Snow White Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Laughter, pleasure, malice, and the pursuit of adult fun

Broadwell + Petraeus: Younger Woman + Older Man

Nothing inspires you like the desire for recognition from an authority figure.

I’m interested in the larger issues raised when a young woman attaches herself romantically to an older man in a position of power. 

True, Broadwell—who is almost 40—isn’t so young that she flies half-fare or orders Happy Meals on a regular basis. Yet her youth captures our collective imagination because she represents the quintessential girl-who-goes-after-the-boss.

What is she (this quintessential character) going after when she goes after the idolized older man? I want to claim it is pride, rather than lust, motivating her. The boss—genuinely, sincerely, absolutely—appeals to the young woman. The kid sighs, pouts, swoons over the idea of him.

Why?

I feel confident about discussing the allure of the boss because I’ve been that kid. I’m not a kid anymore, however, and these days for me to develop a crush on a much older man would involve learning  advanced CPR in preparation. But in my day I’ve had crushes on pretty much every guy I looked up to, worked for, or whose class I attended—even the he ones who looked like extras from Ironweed. 

There was no common denominator between them except for the fact that they all ran the show.

So it’s not that I don’t like older and powerful men. Some are sort of cute. Even the ones who aren’t cute often exude an intriguing mix of power, charm, and savior faire  (French for “lots o’ money”), all of which makes them attractive to the typical young woman. Such guys might especially appeal to a significantly younger woman within their circle of influence even when their allure is starting to fade among those ladies who have known them longer, better, or before they joined The Hair Club For Men.

The young woman in their thrall, however, swears that from a certain angle the boss looks like Robert Downey Jr. or George Clooney or any other alpha male who can act the chin-clenching-but-secretly-vulnerable role to perfection. The wives or long-time partners of these fellows, in contrast, might think their guys bear a closer resemblance to Gilbert Gottfried or Bea Arthur.

What happened to Ms. Broadwell has happened to almost every woman (although to a lesser degree, thank goodness) at some point in her life: she falls for an inappropriate man. She makes him the center of her attention and desires, and she becomes oblivious to whatever the reality of his situation—and her own—actually is.  Nothing inspires you like the desire for recognition from an authority figure who rarely pays attention to anyone. It provides a rush of excitement, of validation and, most importantly, a sense of power. "He knows who I am!" you hooray in your head. "He knows my name even though he doesn't know anyone else! This means I'm really special."

A woman is encouraged by our culture to look for a man who will provide her with an identity. The more prominent and elevated a man, the more difficult it is to secure his recognition, the more valuable his attention becomes. This sort gives women, especially insecure women, a sense that they are somebody if the powerful man knows their name, their tastes, or wears their ties. It's as if they are invisible until a powerful man looks in their direction, and then they have achieved what they’ve always wanted: recognition.

To be known as the lover of such a man is considered sufficient, just as long as the information about the relationship is public—or at least public enough to keep other women away.

That is part of the catch: somebody has to know that the woman has been picked in this game of sexual duck-duck-goose. And this is where pride steps in: the connection has to be underwritten—even or especially when it is illicit—by at least a few other people who will attest to fact that the powerful man has indeed made himself vulnerable to the woman, thereby giving her power over him and justifying her existence. (“Calling Dr. Freud, calling Dr. Freud: Emergency...”) Because if our culture encourages young women to go after powerful men, it equally suggests that powerful men have every right to go after young women—and that he, too, must be willing to pay a price.

The price, as we see, is sometimes higher than anyone expected.

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Gina Barreca, Ph.D., is Professor of English at UConn, and author of It's Not That I'm Bitter: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Visible Panty Lines and Conquered the World.

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