How Mean Girls Explains the Petraeus Scandal

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Mean Girls, that true classic of modern cinema, introduced America to a catty social undermining technique known as the “three-way calling attack”: A teen girl phones a friend to engage in some gossip, neglecting to mention that a third friend is listening silently on another line. It’s casual entrapment, a surefire way to gin up controversy in a small, closed social circle. But there are usually unforeseen consequences.

One week in, with more backstabbing details emerging every day, the Pentagon affair scandal has begun to seem like a giant three-way (or five-way) calling attack staged by a D.C.-military-elite version of the Plastics. The split-screen mayhem looks like this: General David Petraeus has a long-simmering affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, who gets jealous of Petraeus’s acquaintance Jill Kelley and sends her threatening, anonymous e-mails. Broadwell also dials in General John Allen, another acquaintance, sending him e-mails that describe Kelley “as a ‘seductress’ and warn[ing] the general about being entangled in a relationship with her,” according to The Wall Street Journal. Then Kelley gets an anonymous FBI agent on the line, intending that he only hear Broadwell’s attacks. But while he’s eavesdropping on that interaction, he overhears dirt that Kelley didn’t mean to expose — namely, that she was exchanging her own sexy e-mails with Allen. Oh, and that anonymous FBI agent was hot for Kelley and had sent her shirtless pics of himself. As the Plastics would say, “OMG.”

It’s all so very high school. In Queen Bees and Wannabes, the best-selling book about girl-on-girl bullying that Tina Fey adapted into Mean Girls, Rosalind Wiseman describes Girl World as a place “where people won’t tell you why they’re mad at you, friends tease you and then dismiss your feelings with ‘Just kidding!,’ and everyone texts and instant messages every rumor and embarrassing photograph about you.” Or, as Lindsay Lohan’s character in Mean Girls explains, “In Girl World, all the fighting had to be sneaky.” Sounds an awful lot like D.C. these days. But given the paucity of women in positions of political and military power, Washington is the opposite of Girl World. And that’s all the more reason to feel depressed as we watch women in these powerful circles tearing each other down.

On the surface, it’s all compliments. A reporter for the Atlantic quoted a personal e-mail Broadwell sent her after a party in June: “GREAT to see you, pretty lady, and hope to reconnect during a less hectic time! :)” This is far from the most scandalous e-mail Broadwell has written that’s been shared beyond its intended recipient, but something about the friendly nature of it, the you-go-girl networking tone, drives home the Mean Girls nature of this scandal. This is how women — even powerful, accomplished women — talk to each other, even when we are actively undermining each other.

In every sex scandal, there are some classic “types.” There’s a betrayed wife, standing by her cheating husband’s side as he delivers a weak contrition speech. She’s educated, of a certain age, the mother of his children, often sporting a practical gray pageboy or maybe some pearls. Holly Petraeus, the “furious” wife of David and herself respected public servant, fits the role to a T. There’s the other woman: young, conventionally gorgeous, and probably portrayed as not-so-bright — perhaps an intern or a call girl, someone in a subordinate position. This role is an uncomfortable fit for Paula Broadwell; though (as far too many outlets have pointed out) she has a hot bod and her mentor-protégé relationship with Petraeus had a clear power dynamic, a West Point– and Harvard-educated biographer is a far cry from Ashley Dupré.

And then, at the far end of the scandal casting couch, sometimes sits a third woman: the mistress’s faux-confidante, who plays a key role in making the affair public. In this case, the third woman was Broadwell’s enemy (or, given their social proximity, were they frenemies?), Jill Kelley.

The third women’s motives often differ. Fame, a professional leg up, sexual competitiveness: There are many reasons for women to dial in an outside listener and tear each other down. The third woman offers a post-high-school lesson in what happens when you take the perceived safety of “girl code” and use it against a woman who thinks you’re her friend. The classic example is Linda Tripp, who allowed the entire nation to listen in on hours of girl talk with Monica Lewinsky. Even as the recorder is rolling, she tells Lewinsky, “I know you want to protect him, I just don't want you to be savaged in the process.” Tripp, as we all know now, did much of the savaging.

It’s often the smartest, highest-achieving women who play this game the hardest — with the harshest consequences. On a website for her book, which has since been taken down, Broadwell is quoted as saying, “I was driven when I was younger. Driven at West Point where it was much more competitive in that women were competing with men on many levels, and I was driven in the military and at Harvard, both competitive environments.” It’s a depressing paradox: Even though high-achieving women have the most to gain from forming alliances with other women, they’re often the worst toward each other. In the male-dominated national-security world, Broadwell and Kelley could have been powerful allies if they’d kept their high-school jealousies and rivalries in check. At the very least, they wouldn’t be at the center of a very public scandal.

But instead they chose to emulate the Plastics, and now the paparazzi have caught up with them. Broadwell and Kelley have been photographed staring forlornly out of their respective bay windows, wearing matching pink sweaters. (The photos hit the tabloids on Wednesday. Coincidence?) The dual visual is striking, a reminder that any social capital or career aspirations they both had are now over. Just look at the fate of other women caught in political affairs. These days, “Monica Lewinsky” is a shorthand for “sex scandal.” Linda Tripp isn’t exactly a power broker anymore, either: She runs a craft store in Middleburg, Virginia. The ultimate lesson of Mean Girls is that backstabbing takes you both down. It’s impossible to destroy someone else without hobbling yourself.