It's a common narrative in celebrity tabloid culture: He partied while She watched the kids. He cheated, went to rehab, made amends. She forgave him. He screwed up again. She, after so many attempts at protecting the Family, did what was "best for the Kids."
The plot is always the same; it's the players who rotate. Last week Ben Affleck assumed the role of lout husband, this week Scott Disick lorded his way to disgrace. And though we delight in watching the Good Girl banish the Bad Boy (forgive the aggressive capitalisation here, I'm trying to make a capital-P point), the truth of the matter isn't always so cut and dry.
Now, before you get all excited: No, I don't have juicy insider intel on what finally drove a wedge between Kourtney Kardashian and Disick. Nor am I defending the guy about whom we have read countless sordid tales of infidelity, days-long benders, and blatant disregard for his longtime girlfriend and the mother of his three children—that guy sucks. What I am whitsleblowing on, however, is the gendered tilt of these stories at large and our refusal to acknowledge that women, too, can A) set flame to a good thing and B) play a part other than Evil Villain or Enabling Victim.
Frothy features on the Affleck-Garner breakup labour over rumours that the Suicide Squad star, who was also plagued with extramarital headlines while filming The Town, strayed with his costars (or famous exes) and fell victim to his well-reported addictions. Meanwhile, Garner, a talented actress in her own right, is reduced to the protective matriarch, the attentive helicopter parent, the fun police. Like Garner, Kardashian gets the same treatment. In the wake of breaking up with Disick, she is trumpeted as a woman with endless patience, sensibility, and get-out-of-jail-free cards.
Earlier this year I wrote a piece, "Why Are We Afraid to Love Kristen Stewart?", that incited a contentious debate in its comments section. Among scathing assessments that Stewart, an unmarried woman who engaged in consensual sex with a married man, is a "slut" and a "homewrecker," is this comment: "I believe her true crime was that she did not do an interview to say 'why she did it' or to offer up some psychological defence for having an affair with her director. Celebrity news," the reader rationalises, "has not been satisfied."
If that's true, and celebrity news and its devotees demand motives from mistake makers, why don't we expect it from both genders? And why, in the event of a cheating or ill-behaving man, do we think the only salve to a woman's wound is temporary sainthood? (A reminder: When not being compared to Disick or Lamar Odom, a Kardashian is rarely, if ever, painted as pious.) Though their stories are a lot less glamorised (hello, Don Draper!), women struggling to abide by social mores, and adhere to its dated marital constructs, are everywhere. So why, in a culture that collectively and emphatically nods its head along with news of racial equality, love, and gender fluidity, are we so wed to the idea that men are the only ones capable of fucking everything up?
The good news is that tides are changing—a little. In Trainwreck, out Friday, Amy Schumer, purposefully digs into the gender-agnostic loose ends of adult relationships. And, come October, audiences will be wowed by Sarah Silverman's honest, unflinching portrayal of a philandering woman battling, among other things, depression and addiction in I Smile Back. But while both of these fictional examples of complicated women skew away from the Madonna-Whore binary, there remains a dearth of nuance in both Hollywood products and the way we talk about the people who make them. It's ironic, then, that Caitlyn Jenner may finally see herself represented in the the pages of Us Weekly, but real women as a whole—those who realise that neither person exits a decade-long relationship the "winner"—are disappointingly, confoundingly at large.