Has The Way We Think About Infidelity Changed?

by Abby Rosmarin

Last week's surprise release of Beyoncé's new audio-visual album, Lemonade, had us all talking, as we do every time Queen Bey drops an album. However, while her previous surprise release led mostly to discussion about her music and videos, this time around, people were preoccupied with one thing that had nothing to do with Beyoncé's artistry: They were desperate to uncover the identity of "Becky with the good hair."

Some of the album's lyrical content seems to focus on the emotional experience of dealing with a partner's infidelity, which many fans have assumed means that Beyoncé's husband, Jay Z, strayed during the course of their relationship. And on the track "Sorry," Beyoncé sort of names names, singing, "He only want me when I'm not there / He better call Becky with the good hair."

Since the album release, people — including many folks who don't seem to have listened to the album — have been clamoring to figure out who this woman is. Fans have already gone after Rachel Roy, accusing her of being the other woman after Roy made an Instagram post where some thought she seemed to allude to the lyric. Roy denied any involvement with Jay Z, but fans have been and continue to be vicious to her on social media, whether through nasty replies on Twitter or flooding the comments sections of her Instagram posts with bee and lemon emojis.

Beyoncé fans also went after Rita Ora for wearing a lemon bra and a necklace that kinda-sorta looks like a letter J (but is actually a fancy letter R in reverse). For angry fans, it did not matter that Ora, like Roy, denied any involvement with Jay Z, or that she is publicly known to have suffered from panic attacks; fans have not let up.

People have been so desperate for a "villain" to blame that some have even gone after celebrity chef Rachel Ray, who has no connection to the Knowles-Carters whatsoever. However, speculation isn't just running rampant because people are gossipy; fans are desperate to figure out who “Becky” is, and equally desperate to bring her to some sort of “justice.”

But what about the man they are also accusing of infidelity? The reaction towards Beyoncé’s husband's alleged adultery is downright casual, especially in comparison to the behavior towards suspected other women — women who, it must be noted, were both accused of being the other woman over some vague “evidence” on Instagram. People have joked, “How could somebody possibly cheat on Beyoncé?” Other people have bemoaned that, if Jay Z can cheat on Beyoncé, then there’s no hope for the rest of us. The closest any of these Internet super sleuths have come to attempting to unearth Jay's alleged role in this affair has been trying to forge some connection between the alleged affair and the infamous 2014 "elevator incident," in which security cameras caught Solange Knowles, Beyoncé's sister, seeming to physically assault Jay Z. But aside from that, the collective response seems to be, “Yeah, that was uncool, Jay Z. Not cool at all…now WHO IS BECKY SO WE CAN EXACT OUR REVENGE?”

And this right here tells us a lot about where society still is when it comes to infidelity.

1. Cheating Is Common, But We Still View It As One Of The Worst Things A Person Can Do

Let’s be real here: Cheating is bad. Going against the parameters set up in your relationship — whatever those parameters may be — is, in the simplest of simple terms, wrong. And that’s not exactly an unpopular opinion: A Gallop poll from a few years back showed that, to the majority of Americans, extramarital affairs are actually viewed as more morally wrong than polygamy and suicide. Likewise, it’s in incredibly poor taste to get with someone you know is involved with someone else. In an ideal world, no one would be doing either of these things, ever.

But these are two things that happen, and happen often — studies estimate that 15 to 18 percent of married people have cheated. Unfortunately, while the details change, the overall reaction to those two situations remains the same: particularly, the venom slung towards the other woman and the almost blasé attitude extended towards the man.

2. Men Are Typically Able To Hold On To Their Careers After A "Cheating Scandal"

It’s a pattern we’ve seen with almost every sex scandal — be it in D.C. or Hollywood — involving a married man and another woman.The woman is put through the ringer — doubly so if she’s married herself — while the guy might get a gentle ribbing (no pun intended). If he’s in politics, he might look sorry, with an official apology in front of him and his angry spouse to the side of him. But the dust is quick to settle and, for a good portion of the men, life goes back to normal — see, for example, former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, who in 2010 was the center of a high-profile sex scandal when he utilized state money to cheat on his wife. Sanford currently serves as a Congressional representative.

But the mudslinging and humiliation typically continues for the other woman long after everything is said and done.

One of the most prominent examples, of course, would be Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. While the story of then-President Clinton's affair with a White House intern sent shockwaves throughout America in 1998, it’s important to note that Clinton’s position as president was only put in jeopardy because of allegations that he lied about the affair while under oath (he was impeached in 1998, but served out his term in office). His approval ratings remained through the roof throughout the scandal, with many quick to defend Clinton. After a public apology, the dust quickly settled, and — aside from a few periodic jokes about Bill Clinton being a hound dog — everything went back to normal.

Lewinsky, on the other hand, was dragged through the mud in ways that affected her for years to come. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Lewinsky noted how tough it was to continue life after the sex scandal; she said that she considered herself the most humiliated person in the world. While it was back to business for Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky would spend the next 10 years attempting to reclaim her life. Even in the present day, a Rasmussen poll reports that 57 percent of people still hold an unfavorable opinion of Lewinsky.

3. We Often Believe That Cheating Makes Women Unlikeable

And even when women don't receive direct damage to their careers, many people believe their characters are damaged. A recent example is Kristen Stewart and Rupert Sanders. Sanders was a married man with two children; Stewart was unmarried, but in a relationship with her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson. Sanders and Stewart allegedly had an affair while filming Snow White and the Huntsman in 2012; after the pair got caught by photographers while kissing, the pop culture world seemed to blow up — at Kristen. The venom thrown Stewart’s way was intense; one fan even told her, “Every woman in the world hates you right now.”

The contexts will always vary; the rationale for why the woman was dealt with more harshly than the man regularly changes. But one fact remains the same: Infidelity scandals almost always have a worse outcome for the other woman than the man. There’s a reason why the term “homewrecker” is suspiciously used to label only the woman in the affair, as if she were some wrecking ball barging in on innocent territory.

Now, let me take a step back here and say that this is in no way me advocating going after Jay Z, or any married man in that situation, or saying that I believe that Jay Z or anyone else cheated in the first place. Personally, I feel playing vigilante in people’s personal affairs is a recipe for trouble and pain. But this public response highlights an incredibly flawed perception of relationships and infidelity. The overall response to Lemonade demonstrates that, on some level, we still hold the idea that “boys will be boys” and that women are supposed to “keep” a man — or that a woman is capable of “stealing” one.

So when we’re presented a situation like the one alleged to have occurred between Beyoncé and Jay Z, we naturally let each player involved fall into a certain category. In this narrative, Jay Z proves that “boys will be boys.” The other woman, whoever she may be, has demonstrated her nasty “man-stealing” ways. And Beyoncé’s sadness becomes proof that even the most powerful woman is powerless to “keep” a man.

And absolutely none of those mindsets are healthy or useful. None of them.

Beyoncé is an artistic genius. Jay Z is an artistic genius. And, who knows: Perhaps this whole thing is an artistic metaphor or a clever ruse to generate sales. Or perhaps this is another time when an artist takes their personal pain and creates something glorious with it. Either way, the public reaction reminds me exactly where we are as a society when it comes to women, sexuality, and blame — and it is not a good place at all.

Images: Giphy