Lisa Taddeo, cheating, power and sexy ladies!*

* – I mostly just threw in that last bit for the hysterical Google search terms that will show up in my stats. Maybe.

I have no idea who Lisa Taddeo is, first of all. The fact that I’m even blogging about her just shows you how derivative the Internet is. A friend sends a link of this Jezebel piece that’s skewering Taddeo’s Esquire piece – and I am right in that place where my stamina is too low for work and too high for just gazing out the window and muttering curses about the un-spring-like weather, so I read both. And while there’s plenty to make fun of in Taddeo’s piece (she writes sentences like “…her blond tresses cascading murderously across the tile like southern blood” – which is… No. Seriously, no. Though it might have worked without that last part about the blood, i.e., it might have worked if the editor were paying attention), there’s some to think about as well, because buried amongst Taddeo’s lulzy metaphors is kind of an important point:

Why is marriage still so important – particularly in urban, cosmopolitan America? Because a whole lot of people have fun destroying it as a concept. In fact, they have so much fun destroying it, that once it’s destroyed, they reanimate its corpse so they can quickly go to town on it again. And people who solve their own insecurity issues by challenging monogamous norms are doing it in such a way as to prop the entire institution up.

I don’t know if Taddeo is self-aware enough in her piece to understand that this is what she is effectively doing. She talks about sleeping with other people’s husbands and fiances because it places her “crudely, smilingly, on the side of the winners” – i.e., makes her feel powerful. She takes particular glee in zeroing in on the weaknesses of other people’s relationships – “every time I meet a married woman, I think about the things she does that likely annoy her husband” – because it places her in an advantageous position. It’s like engaging in long range combat from a comfortable hideout vs. going in for messy melee attacks, if I can be permitted my own lulzy metaphor for a second. It’s very, very easy to ridicule other people’s relationships, because it’s not as if you’re in them, taking damage.

Finally, Taddeo sets herself up as the hot chick who triumphs over the pathetic wives of the men she bangs – because she’s hotter and more profound and reads David Foster Wallace out loud by gleaming pools of water – which is important, because you have to examine how she gets her validation in this instance. A woman a guy risks his marriage for has to be hot by default – but only if marriage itself remains important, both as a general concept and to the guy in question. If you couldn’t give a crap about your wife finding out that you’re boning some other woman on the side – then you might as well just bone anyone! And Lisa Taddeo isn’t just anyone, dammit.

The entire premise of Taddeo’s article, the Truth about Why We Cheat, the sort of thing that Ordinary People probably Cannot Handle, has to do with a kind of languorous tug-o-war about different values we place on different things. Remove the conflict from it, and it ceases to be that interesting.

Having been the Other Woman who once upon a time wrote tedious essays about the drama and the hotness of it (I may still inflict some of them on the world if I ever write a memoir. But will make sure to get a better editor. My evil knows some bounds), I do wish that Taddeo has taken the time to self-examine a bit more, instead of merely going for a catchy turn of phrase. She talks about the death of her parents having possibly affected her, but doesn’t seem interested in the  how and why. Mostly she just revels in secret knowledge (i.e., I know I’m sleeping with your husband, bitch, and you don’t! Mwahaha!) and the fact that she is, at the very least, not the woman who’s in the kitchen alone, waiting for her husband to come back from God-knows-where, and imagining all sorts of unpleasant scenarios. It’s like being an assassin or a sorceress or something awesome like that.

If you’re afraid of losing the people you love – or loving anyone to begin with – you’re probably not going to want a relationship which is as simple and as scary as involving two people making some kind of commitment to one another, particularly if said commitment is public. If you’re afraid of growing older, grayer, saggier and increasingly sexually irrelevant – then you might, as Taddeo does, argue for “Wild Moments” in which you are the glamorous temptress, rather than a dowdy, trusting, familiar companion. If you already know, in your heart, that happiness ends – then it might as well end for everyone. You want to be the wrecking ball tearing through the house whose foundation is already rotted through. Wrecking balls don’t have feelings.

And in a nation where the media now presents images of people so flawless that they might as well be cyborgs, where mortality is rejected and acting your age, past a certain point, is seen as giving up – being a mistress or even the accidental “crumpet on the side” is probably a helluva lot more comforting than being in the thick of things. And because marriage is sacred, everyone, people all over the world, knows that you can’t just say, “I’m bored” or “I need a break” or “Something is seriously wrong here.” Well, not most of the time, anyway. Most people’s choices come down to suffering in silence or cheating on the sly.

Because I’ve been in Taddeo’s position, I can honestly say that nobody knowingly gets into such an arrangement, where you’re someone else’s secret, unless you have something to prove. I think a lot of pathologically nice people who seek approval actually crave this position from time to time – you can be the bad guy, without a whole lot of effort on your part. Knowing this, I’m actually pretty sympathetic to where Taddeo is coming from – or would be, if Taddeo took herself just a little less seriously in this piece. Once again, I get that her parents died – and I don’t know how much digging within herself a person in her position can handle. Maybe going before a national audience and laying out this stuff under the guise of “I’m going to tell you sheltered people the truth about infidelity” wasn’t such a good idea. Or maybe Taddeo just really couldn’t give a crap, dunno.

If you’re the neurotic writer sort – cheating is like living inside a novel! A bad one, maybe, but still. If you’re an Other Woman, for example, you might even run into the Man and his Official Woman in public – and then gleefully flirt with other men right then and there, only to raise your eyebrows imperiously when he confronts you about it later. “Darling,” you’ll say, imagining yourself to be Joan Crawford. “Don’t be so tediously hypocritical.” The plot will practically write itself! As someone who has lived through all that – and then ended up marrying one fine day, and having a baby on yet another fine day, I can safely say that yes, it’s the latter position that makes you more vulnerable. You have a lot more to lose. And you don’t have nearly as much time to write – let alone to condition your hair and stuff (Taddeo is all about the hair) – with a baby around.

But you make your choices in life – and you roll with them, for better or for worse. You take responsibility. You don’t blame everything on a Tom Waits song on the jukebox (for real?). Though there is comfort in knowing that someone with a reasonably crazy past has an easier time staying in and playing “Skyrim” with a baby sleeping and dreaming at their breast – or so I’ve discovered about myself, anyway. I’ve discovered I’m capable of more love than I thought I could handle – which. is. awesome.

And if you are going to go to that level of the game,  incidentally, you ought not cancel the crazy completely. I almost feel like that’s the real mistake so many couples make, and what Taddeo may essentially be writing about. I just wish she wasn’t so damn smug about it. If you’re writing about manhattans that “taste like the future,” you can’t afford to be smug.

Infidelity, Russian-style

Hell yeah. World Cup.

But anyway…

I read Julia Ioffe’s piece on infidelity in Russia with great interest, particular because it was for Slate’s DoubleX, and I never really know what the hell I am supposed to make of that particular outfit. A part of me despises it, a part of me is continually intrigued.

Not surprisingly, I guess, I would up having mixed feelings about Julia’s piece as well. I thought it was spot-on about the habits of married men, particularly upper-class married men – but I was disappointed that there was so little mention of women cheating. It’s true that a woman telling a potential lover “hey, I’m married” won’t stop him, and Julia was right to point that out – but once again, women were presented as passive, pursued by dudes with no morals.

This isn’t the view I have of life in Russia at all, and while the plural of anecdote is not data (neither when it comes to Julia’s piece, not when it comes to what the rest of us encounter), it seems to me that a whole lot of married Russian women cheat. Most of my mother’s middle-aged friends admit to past and/or ongoing affairs. And even when it comes to the wives of the sought-after wealthy men profiled in Julia’s piece – those wives do get bored. I don’t know a whole lot of rich Russian dudes, but all of the ones I’ve been in regular contact with have the same story to share, and it’s a variant of “we got married, and then I was away on business a lot, and suddenly, she was sleeping with someone else.”

One guy I know had to confront his wife over a pregnancy that obviously had nothing to do with him, the husband. She wound up raising the baby with someone else – a self-help guru. And that’s just how some people roll.

The main difference is – the wives of wealthy Russian men don’t tend to brag about their escapades. If you’re in it because you have a sugar-daddy, you don’t want to spoil the entire thing by blabbing about your “extracurricular activities.” The man who has the financial power, on the other hand, feels more comfortable with asserting his ability to do whatever the hell he wants, because he’s just that fly!… Or so he thinks, anyway. Also, the risk of a male spouse getting violent over revelations of cheating is greater than the other way around. And let’s face it, there’s also the fact that because we live in a patriarchy, male egos are inevitably constructed as more fragile. Women, who mostly have an inferior social status, learn to sublimate their own egos while buttering up the men’s. As one of my young married friends put it, “I don’t want him to find out that I cheat, because it will freak him out and humiliate him way more than such a scenario could possibly freak out or humiliate me.”

All of this makes female infidelity less visible, but no less real.

Meanwhile, this part of Julia’s article struck me as plain odd:

Tanya, for her part, couldn’t take the knowledge that her husband was cheating on her. She divorced him even though she is 30 and has a child, which makes a woman essentially unmarriageable in Russia.

Do I live in some parallel version of Russia? Off the top of my head, I can think of something like dozens of examples among friends, relatives and casual acquaintances that prove this statement to be an extreme exaggeration.

Most of my older friends, both male and female, are partnered up. However, the majority of them are on their second or third marriage already. Most of them also tend to have kids from previous relationships. Many felt pressured to marry young and have kids – and then realized that “oh crap, this isn’t going to work out.” It’s a common phenomenon in Russia and elsewhere.

And kids come first, too. Particularly if you’re a woman. When I went through a huge break-up last year, I once lamented to a friend about how I may never fall in love again. “But you can still have a kid,” he replied. “Kid’ll love you, and you’ll love the kid – and that’s the most important thing, no?” “But I don’t want to do it alone!” I wailed. “Well, nobody wants to do it alone, but for you it’s better to be a single parent than single and childless!” He retorted. “You’ll have plenty of love in your life, that way.”

Now that I am, indeed, pregnant, none of my Russian friends or relatives even bother to ask me if I’m getting married. To them, that’s not the important thing. Their reaction is – “Hell yes! Natalia’s finally decided to procreate! Let’s drink in her honour while she eyes our beers jealously!”

Many people don’t get married again after having kids and then getting divorced – but a lot of them also don’t want to. An older woman in particular may not necessarily want to adopt a traditionally feminine role anymore. After three kids and two divorces, my aunt is amused by the propositions her boyfriends make: “He wants me to move in with him! Is he out of his mind?!” She’s middle-aged, and not conventionally attractive, but she still gets enough play – a good example of how life extend far beyond the stereotypes of “subservient, attractive young Russian woman” and “scary, sexless Soviet baba with a mustache on her upper lip.”

For a lot of Russian men, a single woman with children signifies a kind of normalcy that, I would argue, many American men do not see. I think that for a lot of Americans, particularly those of us who hail from more conservative parts of the country, a single mom signifies that SOMETHING TERRIBLE HAS HAPPENED IN THIS WOMAN’S LIFE!!! I feel that a lot of Russians, in urban areas in particular, have a more casual approach. “Oh,” they’ll say, “Guess her previous relationship didn’t work out.”

If anything, I feel that it’s single and childless women in Russia who really get the short end of the stick. There’s not a whole lot wrong with you if your marriage didn’t work out. But you’re ZOMG A VICTIM if you don’t have kids. Or better yet, you’re ZOMG A SELFISH MONSTER. In an odd way, it’s certain Orthodox scholars who have attempted to change this attitude, some of them writing pamphlets such as “Female solitude: why does everyone treat it like it’s horrible?” Of course, in their view, a single, childless woman should be in a convent, or at least way, way devoted to religion – but their refusal to plainly demonize such women is already a step in the right direction.

I think that Julia’s observation that Russian hedonism was first preempted by Russian consumerism is a good one – but I also feel that it applies to a certain segment of the population, as opposed to Russia on the whole. Even under the Soviet regime, the Russian artistic community, for example, was fairly freewheeling when it comes to relationships (when a famous playwright died in Moscow recently, I wound up in a room full of people who were all eagerly reminiscing about his mistresses and his wife’s lovers). And for your average middle-class Russian, the ability to stock up on colourful pairs of Uggs for the winter (I have discovered, way behind everyone else, that Uggs are perfect for Russia) does not translate into applying the same mentality to lovers.

Overall, I feel that the reality of relationships in Russia is much more mundane than it is portrayed in Julia’s piece. I see a lot of truth in what she says – I mean, since coming to Russia, I myself have been the Other Woman. Twice. And it’s not as if I haven’t been cheated on as well. But I also feel that tales of Russian hedonism are so popular among Western publications precisely of how outlandish they ultimately are. I feel that there is a certain level of projection there. “Those Russians! So barbaric! And kind of badass! In a barbaric way! When they’re not cheating on their wives, they’re busy putting out horrible Belomorkanal cigarettes on tiny baby kittens!” I mean, back in the States, you see a whole lot of cheating and divorce as well – to the point that no one’s really surprised by it. Maybe the real difference is that Russian society deals with failed relationships in a more offhand way. I don’t know if this necessarily proves Julia’s point – that infidelity is accepted in Russia. I think a whole lot of people just view it as the devil they know.