October 15, 2018

The Impossible Position of MeToo’s Wives

“What’s in a name? For Julie Chen, the CBS personality, who is married to Leslie Moonves, it is a code of fealty. Earlier this month, four days after Moonves resigned from his position as the chairman of CBS, following multiple allegations of workplace sexual abuse, Chen made known, in no uncertain terms, the degree of her marital commitment: “I’m Julie Chen-Moonves. Good night,” she said at the end of the September 14th episode of “Big Brother,” the reality-TV competition that she has hosted for CBS since 2000.

The sign-off, which Chen repeated on Wednesday, her second day back on the show, gave her return to television duties a defiant edge. Chen and Moonves first became involved in the early two-thousands, when Moonves was still married to his first wife. They wed in 2004, but Chen used only her maiden name at work, and casual viewers of her shows would not necessarily have known of her connection to the network’s head. Her persona on “Big Brother,” and on CBS’s “The Talk,” the women’s daytime panel show that she anchored from 2010 until her departure this month, has depended on an assertive froideur. Quasi-journalistic, Chen plays the glamorous moderator, analyzing cultural flash points but rarely entering the fray. Her new flare of passion suggests that she has now found a cause. A source close to her told CNN that Chen “has decided that her main focus needs to be clearing her husband’s name.” (In a statement announcing his resignation from CBS, Moonves called the allegations “untrue” and “not consistent with who I am.”)

The humiliations of a wife who “stands by” her husband are well known to Americans, but the momentum of #MeToo has made the role particularly vexed. A wife whose husband has behaved badly is presumed to be a conscious or unconscious accomplice, a delusional victim, or, most injuriously, a fool. How did she not know? The sexism of our culture still makes it beyond comprehension that we could hold a man accountable for his misdeeds without also doling out some blame to the caretakers around him, who we believe should be responsible for his moral maintenance. “It feels very unjust,” Rebecca Traister wrote in her excellent 2016 essay “Why Should Wives Have to Answer for Their Husbands’ Behavior?” “But for wives, answering for a husband’s misdeeds has long been part of the bargain.” Yet it also seems too simple, in this moment, to unilaterally blame male influence for the maneuvers of women who choose to use their voices to invalidate those of other women. The public-facing loyalty of the abuser’s wife destabilizes the #MeToo movement’s core vision—that women should be able to speak and be believed.”

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