Sirens, Jezebels and Temptresses

14 Nov 2012

written by Carolyn


In Greek mythology, the Sirens were creatures who lured men to their deaths with their beauty and their irresistible, haunting songs. Of the many bizarre facts that have been revealed about the inboxes full of women in the General David Petraeus sex scandal, we have not yet learned that either Petraeus’ former mistress, Paula Broadwell, or the next Real Housewife of Tampa, Jill Kelley, snared their respective generals with song. Still, the media have painted Broadwell and Kelley as sexy sirens against whose charms these poor hapless top military officers were powerless.

Here are the key facts. For about a year, Broadwell and Petraeus, both married, carried on an affair.

Broadwell also co-authored a biography of Petraus called “All In” (ahem), which she promoted on The Daily Show, where she showed off her “biceps that could crush walnuts” — arms that apparently enabled her nefarious, diabolical scheme to force the head of the CIA to have sex with her.

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After a year of Broadwell repeatedly forcing Petraeus to have sex with her — including, apparently, under a desk — the CIA director found the strength to resist Broadwell’s siren song. Broadwell started going after women she suspected of having an interest in Petraeus, telling them:


In my dreams, Jill Kelley responded like this (but there’s no evidence — so far — of an affair between Kelley and Petraeus):

Petraeus ended the relationship with Broadwell and told Broadwell to stop emailing his friend Kelley, but I guess Broadwell was all

As it turns out, Kelley had the better milkshake – one that brought both the generals and the FBI agents to her yard:

A still-unnamed FBI agent – known only as Shirtless FBI Agent – tried to lure Kelley with shirtless pictures of himself. Little did he know that Kelley was already receiving plenty of flirtatious emails from General John Allen, the man who took over as the top commander in Afghanistan when Petraeus was appointed to the CIA.

Kelley didn’t share her milkshake with Shirtless FBI Agent, but complained to him about Broadwell’s emails. Having a friend in the FBI who wants to f*ck you and the President in an election year seems to be all it takes for a civilian to launch a “cybercrime” investigation — an investigation that continued well past the point where it was clear no crime had been committed. Perhaps Kelley was more like Helen of Troy than a siren, with a face that launched a thousand FBI agents, causing collateral damage to Petraeus’ career and the marriages of everyone involved.

This case is a fun one to follow. But it is also disturbing  beneath the titillating salaciousness.

First, as Glenn Greenwald and Joan Walsh both point out, online privacy, like 911, has been revealed to be a complete joke. If some “I saw you touching my man’s thigh under the table” emails is enough to allow the FBI to go digging through the “private” emails of the head of the CIA, all of us should use technology as if anybody can see anything whenever they damn well want to.

Second, the sirens/Jezebels/temptresses motif throughout this case proves that we are nowhere near post-feminist. The Washington Post focused on Broadwell’s tight body and tighter pants, which somehow made Petraeus “let down his guard.” An article in The Daily Beast claimed “Broadwell may be able to run a six-minute mile with Petraeus, but Kelley looks like a woman who lets the guys do all the running—and in her direction.”

Journalists on this case seem to be reporting from Rush Limbaugh’s America, an America where women are sluts and men aren’t responsible for all the places their penises would go. Pat Robertson – that fount of reason – said Petraeus had to be excused because “he’s a man.”


Petraeus was not just a man. He was the nation’s top intelligence officer. And Allen is the top military officer in Afghanistan. If we can’t expect the men to whom we’ve entrusted America’s safety and American lives to exercise some basic level of control over their dicks, then we have a serious problem.

There’s a third way sexism has played out in this case: the treatment of Petraeus’ wife, Holly. Her looks have been scrutinized, criticized, and used to justify her husband’s affair. Moreover, much has been made of the effect this scandal has had on the career of General Petraeus, but little, if any, scrutiny has been given to the myriad ways this scandal may harm the career of Mrs. Petraeus.

If what Rebecca Traister referred to on Twitter as “weapons grade stupidity” ruins General Petraeus’ political career, at least it was of his own doing. The same cannot be said of Mrs. Petraeus. Although she has been relegated to the role of scorned wife, this is not just a situation that will embarrass her with the girls at the club. Mrs. Petraeus has a high-powered career of her own. She is the assistant director of service-member affairs at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a post to which she was appointed by Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren. No professional wants their private anguish subject to such public examination.

It seems to have occurred to no one that stepping down as CIA director was a wise move by David Petraeus. As the press unearths more dirt, Petraeus is starting to look like the most rational actor in this entire affair.

And so, perhaps Petraeus resigned for a reason usually attributed to wives, but rarely to husbands, especially cheating husbands. It is possible — just possible — that Petraeus resigned to spare his wife and family further humiliation. If so, even if his conduct with Broadwell was unbecoming an officer, sacrificing his job for the sake of his family was the act of a gentleman.


3 Comments on Sirens, Jezebels and Temptresses

  1. Amy Gutman

    WHAT a mess, right? Yet fascinating on so many levels. To me, one of the reasons is that it seems to hold within it two *different* femme fatale stories — one pre and one post Title IX. (Never mind when Jill Kelley was born; in this narrative, she’s squarely “pre”). Okay, I admit to being totally sucked in — but then what do you expect of the girl who regularly bought *two* tabloids on the way to 1L Contracts to follow the Pamela Smart case.

  2. Hakikah Shamsiden

    Thank you. For the playlist as well as the rational, insightful commentary. I have been appalled at some of the reporting. Next time someone brings this case up to me, I’ll link them to this piece.

  3. CaliGirlED

    Well said as always! Love the musical references! I’m getting so tired of the whole sidepiece song and dance.

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