Huma Abedin's Refreshingly Nuanced 'Weiner' Portrayal Smashes Our Politicians' Wives Expectations

If you know former congressman Anthony Weiner’s name, you probably know why he’s no longer in Congress. If not, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s compelling new documentary, Weiner, will refresh your memory. After over a decade in the House of Representatives, Weiner resigned in 2011 when a sexually explicit photo he’d sent of himself to a female admirer surfaced. Appealing to voters for a second chance, he ran what was initially a strong campaign for mayor of New York City in the spring of 2013. In July of that year, it was revealed that he had continued to send sexually explicit messages for at least a year after he resigned from Congress, a fact he’d obscured in interviews. Despite a press conference at which his well-known wife, Huma Abedin, a confidant of current Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton and vice chairwoman of Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, appeared by his side, Weiner’s approval ratings plummeted and he badly lost the mayoral race.

For some, Weiner’s rise and fall is a tragic tale of squandered political promise; for others, it’s the unremarkable story of yet another arrogant male politician brought low by his own libido. Whatever your feelings about Weiner, one of the most fascinating aspects of the documentary, which won Sundance's U.S. grand jury prize, is its portrayal of his wife. Why would a sophisticated, intelligent woman with a high-powered career of her own — one who, when the second scandal breaks, tells the filmmakers she is “living a nightmare” — refuse to wake up?

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It is natural to wonder. It’s also none of our business, which I imagine is part of why Abedin did not return my request for comment. Of course, refusing to comment can't stop the press from speculating, often in a way that's hostile, demeaning, and dripping with faux concern.

As Weiner's mayoral campaign combusted, the New York Post’s Maureen Callahan declared that “there is something very wrong with Abedin — whether it’s simply that she shares her husband’s vaulting ambition or that she has a pathological need to be publicly humiliated.” Slate’s Hanna Rosin backhandedly praised Abedin for managing to stay by her husband’s side “without taking on the stench of victim.” CNN’s Lisa Bloom wrote that Abedin’s participation in her husband’s press conference constituted “spousal abuse” and “a slap in the face to women.” The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus compared Abedin to “a prisoner in a hostage video” and questioned whether she was acting in the best interests of her child. Debra Saunders wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that from 2011 to 2013, Abedin went “from sympathetic victim to pathetic enabler.” It’s worth noting that many of Abedin’s harshest critics were women. Even iconic feminist Gloria Steinem, who told the New York Times she “strongly object[s] to holding one spouse responsible for the other’s acts,” also said, "I have no way of knowing whether Huma, for whom I have great respect, is responding out of new motherhood, the Stockholm syndrome or a mystery."

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When Abedin defended her husband, many judged her for being too passive. Others imputed her loyalty to darker motives: Critics suggested that, much like her mentor, Clinton, Abedin was allegedly too power-hungry to give up on her husband’s career, even if it meant sacrificing her own dignity. She was seen — and talked about — by many as either a pathetic doormat or a calculating, conniving powerbroker. Too cold or too forgiving. The most charitable assessment was that being newly pregnant in 2011 and a first-time mom in 2013 was physically and emotionally draining enough to make her want to stay married to a guy like Weiner (a handful of writers were kind enough to concede that she might even love him).

Like every woman thrust into public life by choice or by circumstance, Abedin was whoever the person telling the story wanted her to be: a ruthless, hyper-ambitious player; a pathetic victim; a bad mother; a bad role model — or Clinton’s effortlessly svelte and glamorous surrogate daughter.

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What makes Kriegman and Steinberg’s documentary so satisfying is that it supplies evidence to support almost any theory. Abedin speaks far fewer words than her husband in the documentary, but her face and body convey a world of emotions. She appears tense, frustrated, angry, wounded, worried, annoyed, and amused. She has enormous self-control, at least in front of the cameras — we have no idea what happens in the rare moments when the filmmakers are ordered out of the room (once when the second scandal breaks and once when Weiner tries, unsuccessfully, to convince his wife to accompany him to vote with him on Election Day). Does her suggestion to Weiner’s distraught director of communications to slap on a smile before leaving a meeting (“Just a quick optics thing”) reveal ruthlessness and cunning — or just media savvy and good sense? Does her oft-quoted reaction to her husband’s pants in one scene (“I’m not crazy about those pants”) reveal overall disgust for her spouse, or merely a negative opinion of a particular pair of pants? Weiner’s response, “We all have our cross to bear,” sounded playful and teasing to me, but others see the entire exchange as evidence of marital misery.

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Throughout the film, Abedin is portrayed as having a life and an identity apart from her husband. That doesn’t soften the blow when a frustrated Weiner tells her to “act like a normal campaign candidate’s wife,” (i.e., stay glued to his side and tell the press what a great job he’s doing). Abedin rejects this command: She refuses to appear in campaign ads filmed after the infamous press conference. As the documentary poignantly shows, she refuses to accompany her husband to vote on Election Day, opting instead to sit out the dying days of his mayoral campaign in relative seclusion.

Clearly, there is tenderness as well as tension between Weiner and Abedin, but the significance of Weiner’s directive cannot be ignored. The question we should be asking isn’t, “How could she possibly stay with him?” Unlike other scandal-plagued politicians, Weiner broke no laws, misused no public funds, abused no subordinates, and orchestrated no cover-up. Whether or not he violated the terms of his marriage is a question only Abedin can answer.

For me, the film raises a question much more relevant than why Abedin stayed: What does it mean to act like a "normal candidate’s wife" — and why on earth should Huma Abedin or any other woman be expected to do it?