“What did I do wrong?” Beyoncé sings in one of the songs on her new album Lemonade, a concept album about a woman grappling with the many stages of grief upon learning her husband was unfaithful. “Tell me, what did I do wrong?” she repeats just a few chords later in desperation. “Oh, already asked that, my bad,” she apologizes.
Not only do Beyoncé's lyrics tell the story of a woman who experienced self-blame for her husband's infidelity, but the album's release also led to countless fans seeking who else they could blame. While the couple hasn't confirmed an extramarital affair, Lemonade is largely believed to be autobiographical, and fans responded very quickly to find a guilty party to blame. But rather than looking to the alleged unfaithful spouse, they sought out possible candidates for "the other woman"—or as Beyoncé called her in the album, "Becky with the good hair." Fans first targeted fashion designer Rachel Roy, then celebrity chef Rachel Ray (mistakenly taken for Roy), then Jay Z protege Rita Ora (after which Ora and Katy Perry wore "NOT BECKY" pins at the Met Gala after-party). All of which is to say, of the possible people to blame for the cheating, the ones getting the most attention were a variety of women; hardly anyone was looking at the man who allegedly broke his vows.
I found Lemonade to be very insightful on a sad but very common subject in our culture. I think it’s not only common of women who experience betrayal, but also it is relevant to people who behold it. Often in the face of a husband mistreating a wife, we have a tendency to look past the husband but toward the wife and ask, “What did you do wrong?” Even women do it to themselves. What did I do to drive my husband to log on to AshleyMadison.com, one might ask. Or many women think, If he looks at porn, perhaps it’s because you don’t give him enough—to rephrase Jennifer Lawrence’s words after the photo hacking scandal of 2014, “Either he’s looking at porn or you.”
However convincing these thoughts may be, they’re untrue. Clearly if we’re talking about a husband breaking his vows to his wife, he’s the one who’s done something wrong—and a grave thing at that. Still, how many times have we scrutinized women so quickly—Did she put her career first? Did she give him enough quality time? Did she “let herself go” and lose his interest? While in truth, there is no good excuse for breaking as important a promise as marriage, the subtle judgements we have on women can be powerful. We rationalize and manage to find loopholes for the words “in sickness and in health,” and so on—words previously intended to catch any such exceptions, for both sexes.
Now clearly if we’re talking about Beyoncé, she didn’t let herself go. Neither did Gwen Stefani, whose husband Gavin Rossdale was unfaithful. Nor Jennifer Garner, who Ben Affleck recently left. Nor the countless other names and beautiful faces we see in magazines whose husbands have done them wrong. Clearly a woman’s good looks aren’t enough to keep cheating men faithful to their wives. If it were, and Bey and Gwen and Jennifer, women for whom looking good is practically their job, are undervalued by their husbands, then women everywhere are screwed!
Nonetheless, the blame-the-woman mentality persists when husbands show indiscretions. Consider how Camille Cosby was claimed by some to be “complicit” in her husband Bill Cosby’s crimes last year when the world finally came to grips with his sexually predatory behavior. Rather than looking at her as the innocent wife of a skilled manipulator, some were quick to view her as guilty.
So why are we so likely to blame women? Could it be that we women are quicker to blame ourselves, which gets the ball rolling in the blame department? Research shows that women are more likely to admit they've made a mistake (our brains literally realize more quickly than men when we've made a mistake), and we've long heard about the prevalence of self-criticism and under-confidence for women in the workplace. As one business executive described the findings of a small group seeking to analyze gender imbalances for Harvard Business Review put it, "The men blamed the system; the women are blaming themselves!”
But even beyond women's greater sensitivity to making mistakes, this trend of self-blame is also apparent in research regarding harms done to women by other people—not by the women themselves. In a study of 129 college females who experienced sexual assault, 62 percent of women blamed themselves and more than half said their rapist was "not at all" to blame, preferring to put the blame on vague things like the "situation" or "society." It's also common practice for women experiencing domestic violence from a partner to blame themselves before holding the partner accountable for his actions.
Are women sometimes complicit in their husband's wrongful actions? Is there more they can do to steer their husbands in better directions? While there may be cases where the answers to these questions are yes, if we're asking them we must acknowledge that these questions themselves are deflecting the attention from where it primarily belongs. They're inherently pointing the finger at the women before asking the tough questions of the men. To which I reply, evoking the ever delightful Willy Wonka meme, "Please, tell me more about how sexist your views are."
Still, somehow when I bring up sympathy for these women in conversation, I often get appalled responses, and I'm surprised by that. Is it because I know someone whose husband was violently abusive that I know a little more close to home how wives are not responsible for their husband's problems? Is it because I happen to have done a lot of research on the realities of porn addiction, an increasingly cited reason for divorce, and know that it has a lot more to do with the actions of the addicted spouse than with anything the wives could possibly do alone? Is it because I'm aware of how traumatic experiences like sexual assault can affect peoples' minds and memory in ways that are hard to explain? It's probably a combination of these things. But however I came to this thinking, I'm glad I have. Because I think if we're being fair, whether we're talking about Beyoncé or Gwen or Camille, when we talk about the women these men have wronged, the first is their spouse. And when I think about someone who's been wronged, it's more fitting to feel compassion, not judgment.
Photo Credit: The Kitcheners