It’s a story that has been played out many times throughout history – but it’s only a relatively contemporary notion that the female is ‘wronged’ when her husband cheats on her.
Superfast history catch-up time: European rulers were once actively encouraged to play the field. The French king had a ‘maitress-en-titre’ (an official mistress), while British monarchs across the channel were equally notorious for their own liaisons. From Madame de Pompadour (the mistress of Louis XV) to Nell Gwyn (the mistress of Charles II) to Camilla Parker Bowles (the illegitimate-cum-legitimate partner of Charles Princes of Wales), the affairs of powerful men have often shed the limelight onto the women they choose to share a bed, and often, a life with.
Thus we move to the present day and the Francois Hollande–Valerie Trierweiler–Julie Gayet love triangle. What’s changed, now that we’ve swanned our way into 2014? The answer seems to be: not very much at all.
Julie Gayet, in most headlines in the UK media, is referred to as Hollande’s ‘alleged mistress’ – but what does it mean to be a ‘mistress’ in this day an age where such a title no longer means access to the corridors of power and especially not protection from critics? Terms like ‘mistress’ and – shudder – ‘The Other Woman’ have been historically criminalised in a way that the male equivalents ‘lover’ or ‘paramour’ are not. One suggests an element of deviance and unsisterly wrongdoing; the other a sense of mystery and allure. ‘The Other Man’, of course, is not a regularly employed term. Examples like D H Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ typify the way that the male gets termed with more exotic terms in such dalliances. Boys, after all, will be boys.
One of the many problems with being termed a ‘mistress’ is that it is a part which often eclipses all other achievements and only those women who are Cleopatra avoid being solely defined by their sexual infidelity. Take Nell Gwyn, widely agreed to be one of the most talented actresses of the Restoration era, and yet significantly known for sleeping with Charles II. Marilyn Monroe, a number of centuries, later was likewise a talented actress – but her supposed relationship with JFK is easily her most famous role.
So that brings the story back around to Gayet in 2014, 400+ years after Nell and fifty years after Marilyn. While many speculate and even congratulate Hollande on such an affair, it’s the women around him who are in many ways most affected: the partner, and the ‘mistress’. One has been hospitalised (and now discharged) and the other is ‘in hiding’. Hollande publically insists that these are private matters to be dealt with privately – which is all fine and well, apart from the fact that his ‘alleged mistress’ has now very publicly been ousted from positions of power that she has earned a place on in her own right. It emerged in the past week that Julie Gayet has been apparently blocked from a spot on a cultural jury which selects scholarships for the Villa Medici, a French academy in Rome, by an unnamed official in the culture ministry.
Thus Gayet – a successful actress before this affair – has been defined by her sexual choices (which are still as yet, unconfirmed.) People in the public eye do not necessarily enjoy the separation of personal and professional life, but it is nonetheless worrying that now Gayet has publicly been given the title ‘mistress’, she has professionally been compromised. If Gayet’s professional judgment is to be questioned and her career undermined because of a ‘private matter’, then shouldn’t accordingly Hollande’s be as well? The biggest judgment call he’s been pulled up on recently is the decision to wear the same pair of shoes two days in a row.
Gayet’s credentials speak for themselves. She has, according to her IMDB page, been credited with 90 roles since the start of her career in the entertainment industry. She has won accolades such as the 1997 Brussels International Film Festival award for best actress for her role in the French language film ‘Select Hotel’ and the 2009 Tokyo International Film Festival best actress award for her role in ‘8 Fois Debut’. She has co-founded her own production company ‘Rouge International’ and last year co-directed a documentary ‘Cinéast’ featuring 20 French female directors.
In other words, Gayet is much more than ‘a mistress’. And, unfortunately, there’s not much room to make ‘being a mistress’ a barrel of laughs for yourself once you’ve been branded that way – the ‘mistress’ or ‘other woman’ is rarely the femme fatale or smouldering seductress breathlessly singing happy birthday to important men. She’s more often than not left to bear the brunt of intramarital relations, and expected to slink off with her tail between her legs, career in tatters. Men ‘make mistakes’ and can reform; women are shady temptresses who can never be trusted again.
Once upon a time, the position of being a mistress of a powerful man was a significant (and often the only) way for a woman to obtain power and protection. They were often memorialised in paintings by the most illustrious artists of the time. Unfortunately, however, the only portrait that Gayet can look forward to is splashed across the pages of ‘Closer’.
Maybe Gayet had an affair with Hollande; maybe she didn’t. The point is that that there must be room for women beyond their sexual identities. A fetishised ‘mistress’ position is not much better than a destructive one. All roads, eventually, lead us back to something resembling the Madonna/whore dichotomy.
There’s space for us all to be more than sluts, prudes and mistresses here, kids. Literally hundreds and hundreds of square miles of it. So could people in the media please, for the love of God, consider using it?