At first blush, it feels appropriate to cheer. In these times, when the culture seems to be flirting with a change in the balance of power between the sexes - Courteney Cox gleefully sleeping with younger men on Cougar Town, The 40-something Vera Farmiga having a businees-like fling with Clooney in Up In The Air and Tina Fey seducing her young star on the advice of Alec Baldwin that she take the "reward" that comes with being the boss on 30 Rock - the Northern Irish MP seems to be acting, well, just like a man.
Like Bill Clinton, Robinson dallied with someone who looked up to her as a mentor. As with the Appalachian Trail-walker Mark Sanford, her lover was a "family friend." As with John Edwards and Tiger Woods, there was money involved, and advisers were trusted to serve as intermediaries. Like Larry Craig, who voted consistently against gay rights before being accused of soliciting sex in an airport men's room, Robinson described homosexuality as even worse than "sexually abusing innocent children," even while she was sleeping with a teenager.
Yet any attempt to paint these similarities as a perverse sort of victory - women are every bit as unfaithful and hypocritical as men! - quickly runs up against the more important differences. What happened after the Robinson news broke tells us much about the stricter standards, more rigid labels and stereotyped judgments we apply to women.
Why do it?
In all the millions of words written about dozens of cheating male leaders, for instance, very few were devoted to puzzling over what might seem a relevant question: why would a young woman want to sleep with a much older man? Yet it's this age difference that is seen as most titillating about the Robinson scandal. Whether you find the idea of a woman with a man 40 years her junior unnatural or empowering, that thinking is based on the assumption that men remain attractive as they gain in clout and in years while women do not. Monica Lewinsky was 22 when she began her affair with the president (only a few years older than Robinson's barista, Kirk McCambley), but the age difference was well down on the list of facts that kept critics and comedians so busy. Can you imagine the reaction if Hillary had been sleeping with a man that same age? Or Nancy Pelosi?
The aftermath of the Robinson affair is also distinguished for its depth of self-flagellation. There was no pro forma press conference, with its boilerplate mea culpas and its winking undercurrent of a man strutting his stuff. While Robinson's husband has said he supports her, there were certainly no visuals of him standing demurely, in the cuckolded-husband equivalent of sweater set and pearls, by her side. There was a written statement instead, filled with anguish and self-loathing. True, Sanford got all mushy about his "soul mate," and Edwards admitted to an outsize ego, but only Robinson went on about her aberrant behaviour, revealing "severe bouts of depression which altered my mood and personality" and which caused her "to see plots where none existed." Then she described attempting suicide when her husband found out. It's hard to watch the Robinson fallout and not get the message: men who cheat are weak, while women who cheat are out of their minds.
Wives and politicians
It is a familiar tendency, reducing women to archetypes with little room for gray. Harlot or heroine. Pushover or pushy. We take a binary view of most stories of sex and power, whether the woman is the villain or the victim. Elizabeth Edwards, of all people, is learning this old truth anew. We had her pegged as our heroine - stoic, supportive, warm, and a cancer survivor, no less. But new tell-all books paint her as sharp, cranky and condescending, and since our joyful embrace of Manichaean division does not leave room for contradictions, the latest labels are catching on. Wronged political wives, it seems, are either saints or shrews, and the latter comes with the top note of "she drove him to it."
We accept complexity in male leaders far more readily than we accept it in women - perhaps because we have fewer examples to draw from. So here's to you, Mrs Robinson - for being just as flawed and complicated as any man.