Friday, October 15, 2010

The Year of the Mistress

By the time the fourth or fifth Chilean (you say Chee-LAY-un, I say CHILL-ay-un) miner emerged from the rescue tube looking none the worse for wear--seriously, I was expecting ZZ Top and got Javier Bardem--let's face it, the only drama left was whether the wife and mistress of Miner 21 (??) would both show up to greet their man. Spoiler alert (can you spoil something that already happened?): the wife stayed home. Cat fight averted. Damn. You know every news anchor was dying to see these women throw down.

I found this angle of the story surprising for two reasons: For starters, who knew miners had time for mistresses? I mean, whenever anyone complains about how hard their job is, you can bet someone will whip out this chestnut, "It's not like you work in a coal mine." (Can you say that to a gold miner? Is there added prestige to digging for precious metal?) Point being that mining is a pretty taxing gig. But apparently not so taxing that a dude can't juggle a senorita on the side.

What really struck me, though, was that for once, the media seems to have used the term "mistress" appropriately.

I'm not sure what 2010 is in China--the Year of the Dog or the Year of Lead-Poisoned Toys? But in the U.S., it's most definitely been the Year of the Mistress. Surely you all remember Tiger Woods' parade of paramours. Or the tattooed freak show Jesse James apparently preferred to Sandra Bullock. This past week alone gifted us with the Miner and his gal pal and David Arquette and Jasmine Something-or-Other.

The thing is, apart from the Miner's side dish, none of these women are, strictly and grammatically speaking, mistresses.

Mistress implies long-term. Mistress implies an actual relationship (read: more than sex). Mistress is Hepburn and Tracy, Charles and Camilla. Not Tiger and Jaimee With Two E's. (How much you wanna bet she also dots the "i" with a heart?)

In the case of Katharine Hepburn, mistress meant for all intents and purposes being married to a man who was unable to divorce his wife. In the case of Charles and Camilla, mistress meant choosing love over British law. (Taking a mistress is pretty much standard operating procedure for royals, who historically were forced into marriages of convenience. Well, not so much any more, after Chuck & Di's spectacular flame out.) Stability, semi-permanence and a dash of respectability--those are the calling cards of a true mistress. She's more than just a lover, more than a casual affair, more than a one-night or two-night (sorry Jasmine) stand.

I know that holding "Inside Edition" to Oxford English standards is kind of like expecting two-year-olds to recite Shakespeare, still I'm curious as to why "mistress" became the default choice in describing JamiEE, et al. Granted the alternatives--slut, tramp, strumpet, harlot, whore--sound a bit harsh and smack of moral judgment. But what's so wrong with that? Explain to me why we're so concerned with offending the sensibilities of women whose sole purpose in life seems to be having sex with other women's husbands.

"Mistress" soft pedals the reality of the situation. Why should it? Are we worried that "slut" or "tramp" will set back feminism? I'd say these women are doing a fairly good job of that themselves. Does "harlot" somehow not portray them as enough of a victim? Good, because they're not. Back in the Dark Ages, mistress was one of the few ways for a woman to get ahead. Today, we've got plenty of other options--like education and employment. Is it troublesome that these women get labeled "whore," while Tiger, Jesse & Co. face fewer verbal repercussions? I might have agreed if the word "douche" had not made such a spectacular comeback.

I know that in this post-Sex and the City world, women's sexuality is meant to be celebrated, not criticized. I'm not suggesting that we brand these women with a scarlet "H" for "Ho" or that we lock them up in chastity belts. What I am suggesting is that we stop making them sound better than they are.

Last week there was a lot of buzz on the Internet regarding "The Social Network" and the dearth of positive female role models to be found not just in the country's #1 movie, but in the origin story of Facebook itself. There were plenty of co-eds willing to sleep with and get drunk and high with Mark Zuckerberg and pals once they hit it big. To write complicated computer code? Not so much. Commentators pondered, Where were all the girl geeks? Almost as an answer, we got word of the Duke student who based her thesis paper on a rating system of the various attributes of the guys she had sex with. That's what young women are doing instead of founding Facebook.

And what of the next generation? I look at Miley Cyrus, alas a role model for a fair number of tweens, who seems to equate womanhood with stripper poles. Seriously, that's the message that we want sent to little girls, that this is how you prove you're all grown up? How about going to college and becoming the first female president?

What I'm seeing in this year of the mistress is a broader societal trend of a lot of women, young and not so young, equating power and maturity with sex. Or at least the women who bombard our TV sets and Internet websites, which is what passes for reality these days. So when the talk show circuit tags JaimEE and Jasmine with "mistress" instead of "self-esteem train wreck," they're doing a huge disservice to the rest of us. It sounds so glamourous and sophisticated, "mistress," like you're the lady of the mansion. Except that you're not. There's nothing powerful about having meaningless sex with the CEO of Google or the world's greatest golfer or the entire Duke lacrosse team. Especially if it's keeping you from becoming Google's CEO or a great golfer yourself.


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