The Fate of Today's TV Mistresses: Not Death, but Shame

Women who have affairs in Scandal and Mistresses face terible social consequences.


Have an affair with the president and lose the respect of some of your closest friends, forfeit a stable relationship with a decent person, and be hunted down by a secret sect of the CIA. Step out on your husband after a heated argument and toss the career you've built over a decade into the can, as well as your relationship with your work partner. Just for laughs, the son of your partner in crime will develop a creepy, oedipal fascination with you. These are just a few of the travails of cheats and mistresses on the hit show Scandal and its less-lauded placeholder Mistresses.

Across history and medium, female characters have been given the ultimate boot after engaging in, or simply being suspected of, interfering with monogamous institutions: death. Take Anna Karenina and Fatal Attraction's Alex, who were shunned and ignored before they were killed off. Even Toni Morrison's Sula, whose misdeeds give her depressed and repressed Ohio community an entity to rally against, is sent to the grave.

Television is moving away from punishing mistresses in such an extreme way. "Behave or die" is not a lesson that would go very far with today's audiences, especially on a serialized television show. For one thing, what moralistic or mundane viewer would want to see a new person struck down fatally, week after week, for being bad? And on the other hand, as Hope Reese writes, the "third golden age of television" is all about antiheroes, including women, whose terrible behavior captivates us. So, then, the most reasonable treatment a contemporary mistress can expect is ongoing humiliation of every variety. Though she can't simply just die, she cannot go unpunished; social devolution is the answer. The new mistress' intelligence will be questioned, her clout within an important community diminished, and her everyday life disrupted in remarkably convoluted plotlines. When that weird science of punishing female cheaters is successfully realized, you get Scandal's Olivia Pope; when the characters and plot are stock, you have nearly every woman on Mistresses.

At first, it seems to make sense that mistresses are punished harshly on television. After all, infidelity is considered wrong by the vast majority of Americans. According to a recent Gallup poll, 91 percent of Americans believe it is morally wrong for married people to have an affair; a mere 6 percent holds out that cheating is acceptable. And overall, while public acceptance of extramarital sex, divorce, and polygamy has increased significantly in the last ten years, the tendency to green light infidelity has declined 1 percent. But don't blame older, conservative Americans. A report from the National Opinion Research Survey at the University of Chicago reveals that disapprobation of extramarital sex is increasing across age spectra. In fact, "the absence of any generational differences on attitudes toward infidelity is one of the main reasons for there being no permissive shift over time on this issue," the report notes. Older generations tend to believe younger ones lack steadfastness and values (see almost every article written about a Millennial, ever), but marital constancy is a virtue on which people of all ages are uncompromising. As Hugo Schwyzer wrote, wider acceptance of alternative lifestyles, divorce (for women, in particular), and the ongoing campaign for universal marriage rights is not leading to a bacchanal of cheating, but to a disdain for vow breakers.

Despite this broad social disapproval of infidelity, however, married women are cheating more today than they once did. Earlier this month, NORC's General Social Survey revealed that the percentage of married women having affairs jumped to 14.7 percent in 2010--a nearly 40 percent increase in 20 years. As roughly one in five husbands cheat, the sexes are almost evenly matched. This isn't incredibly surprising. "Female infidelity is linked to cultural change," Ashley Madison CEO Noel Biderman told Bloomberg, noting the narrowing infidelity gap between men and women. Hanna Rosin echoed this sentiment at the Wall Street Journal, suggesting that it is simply a matter of time before women in positions of power catch up to male politicians in adultery scandals.

Scandal and Mistresses are replete with archetypical 21st-century successful women. Olivia Pope is a former campaign advisor to the president turned professional problem-solver. The cast of Mistresses includes an entrepreneur, a lawyer up for partner at her firm, and a respected psychiatrist. Only two of these women have married; just one has had a child. Despite the trailers for these ABC shows, which sell the sexy side of affairs (roses, high heels, great lighting) all of the women are embroiled in relationships that are so dissatisfying, uncomfortable, or outlandish that they feel more like cautionary tales than guilty pleasures. Scandal has been lauded for its "often outrageous, fast-paced plot twists," and knighted as a "delightfully batshit show", and Mistresses derided for twists that foist "absurd," high-concept problems upon low-concept characters. The more implausible their situations become, the more apparent it is that each dart in their unhappiness stems from some fear of being pinned with an unmovable red A.

That a growing percentage of women admit to cheating in the face of more than 90 percent disapproval from their peers suggests a desire to do what one wants has trumped fear of censure. An oft-cited quote from Gavin de Becker's book The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence says that one of women's greatest fears is death. With the threat of fictional death off the table, imaginative social torture is all that remains.