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Rachel Arons: Broadwell, Kelley, and the Cinematic Catfight

November 21, 2012

The fantasy of girl-on-girl violence underlying the Petraeus scandal.

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From Flickr via Konabish ~ Greg Bishop

By Rachel Arons

One of the most famous scenes in From Russia With Love (1963)—the second and, arguably, the best film in the James Bond franchise—takes place when Bond’s Turkish ally, Ali Kerim Bey, brings him to visit a remote gypsy settlement outside of Istanbul, where Bond has traveled on a mission to recover a Russian decoding device. In the settlement, the men witness a ritualized brawl between two gypsy women over who will marry the chief’s son in a sequence that, today, is considered an iconic example of the cinematic catfight—those girl-on-girl fight sequences exalted by cinephiles, men’s magazines, and Cosmo Kramer alike.

Movie catfights, which date at least as far back as the 1940s but were popularized by B-movies of the 60s like Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, walk a fine line between making fun of their own eroticized violence and glorifying it: at their best, they are high camp; at worst, violently pornographic. Bond approaches all his romantic dabblings with an ironical indifference that skews towards the former, but the “From Russia” scene, with its “primitive” women and gaping men, is played a bit too straight for my taste. Watching the half-naked gypsy women tear at each other’s throats, one suspects Bond might be panting a bit too hard to keep his tongue planted inside his cheek.

Whereas most political sex scandals tend to trade in the seductive mistress/sexless wife dichotomy, the Petraeus affair, with its tale of dueling paramours, pivots on the same titillating possibility underlying the movie catfight.

In the hype surrounding the release of Skyfall earlier this month, I rewatched From Russia, so it was with this image fresh in mind that I noticed the term “catfight” surface in media reports of the relationship between Paula Broadwell and Jill Kelley, the two women caught up in the real-life sex-and-spies scandal that led to the resignation of C.I.A. director David Petraeus on November ninth. The term came into play not long after news of Broadwell’s emails to Kelley came to light— “Catfight Crossfire Topples CIA Chief,” read a headline in the Sunday Times; #catfight appeared at the end of tweets related to the scandal—and seemed to gain traction after a report last Monday in the Daily Beast quoted an anonymous source calling the emails “kind of cat-fight stuff.”

It’s hardly surprising that this term would be used to describe the Broadwell-Kelley drama—it is, after all, a phrase that is quickly applied to any inter-female spat (see, for example, this recent take on Nicki Minaj cursing out Mariah Carey on the set of “American Idol”). But the Broadwell-Kelley conflict has more in common with the cinematic catfight than your average high-profile verbal dispute between women. Whereas most political sex scandals tend to trade in the seductive mistress/sexless wife dichotomy, the Petraeus affair, with its tale of dueling paramours, pivots on the titillating possibility underlying the movie catfight. It is the first political sex scandal to hint at the two-girls-one-guy fantasy embodied in the erotically-charged spectacle of girl-on-girl violence in the movies.

…Paparazzi photos have captured both women through the windows of their respective homes wearing similar pink sweaters, the symmetry of their uniforms underscoring their involuntary new roles as twin opponents in a national wrestling ring.

Perhaps it’s this aspect of the Petraeus affair, as much as its intricate web of personal and professional liaisons or its highly-classified central figure, that makes it feel more like a lowbrow TV show or movie than a real-life event. Indeed, the scandal’s parallels to pop culture have been highlighted frequently in media coverage thus far: Ann Friedman, in New York magazine, drew a comparison between the Broadwell-Kelley saga and the movie Mean Girls; the Daily Beast ran a slideshow juxtaposing Kelley’s outfits with those of “Real Housewives” cast members; Stephen Colbert enlisted soap star Susan Lucci to make fun of the scandal’s melodrama; Slate created a fake trailer for a “Real Housewives of the Pentagon” reality TV show; and The New Yorker challenged readers to invent a title for the “inevitable” Petraeus movie (a sample submission: “Single White Gmail”). Has a political sex scandal, overexposed as they all inevitably are, ever seemed so effortlessly at home in the realm of campy mass entertainment?

Broadwell and Kelley are each holed up indoors and not speaking to the press, but paparazzi photos have captured both women through the windows of their respective homes wearing similar pink sweaters, the symmetry of their uniforms underscoring their involuntary new roles as twin opponents in a national wrestling ring. A similar mirror-image quality marks the gypsy women in From Russia, with their matching long brown locks and midriff-baring tops. As they roll around in the sand and claw at each other’s throats, they become virtually indistinguishable—a single mass of hair and groping hands and conveniently exposed flesh. At the peak of the fight, the camera cuts to Bond looking on from the sidelines and, as suspected, his characteristic smirk has given way to a look of rapt attention. No one, it seems, not even a world-class spy, can resist a down and dirty catfight.

Rachel Arons is a New York-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and newyorker.com.

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